Little Debbie-Style Christmas Tree Cakes Recipe

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Photographs: Sarah Jane Sanders

Why It Works

  • Add spiced rum to the yellow cake for an aroma and flavor similar to that of the boxed snack.
  • Using a glaze instead of ganache for the cake coating recreates the unmeltable texture of the store-bought version.
  • Dipping the cake in the glaze twice builds up a thick chocolatey coating for a picture-perfect dessert.

What I can't give you: the sound. The crisp, glassine crinkle of Little Debbie's cello wrap crumpling between your fingers. The miniature explosion of noise it makes when you finally pop the bag open. The delicate, mournful song the wadded-up wrapper sings as it slowly unfurls in the trash bin, discarded after faithfully protecting your snack for so long.

What I can give you: fluffy yellow cake, silky whipped filling, and a coating of chocolate resilient enough to let you carry the whole thing around in the palm of your hand.

I first encountered Little Debbie snack cakes in the 4th grade.

At the tiny little elementary school I attended, we had a weekly ritual called simply, "Hot Lunch." Monday through Thursday, we made do with our peanut butter sandwiches and Lunchables. But Friday? Oh, holy crap, somebody's mom would make lunch for us!!!! From first through third grade, I remember Fridays as a parade of awesome as each classmate's mom had a crack at Hot Lunch. Lasagna one week, cheesy meatloaf the next.

What started as a simple event meant to get parents involved and to celebrate home cooking eventually devolved into a brutal game of one-upMomship. I can still remember one Friday morning before school, my mom laboring to make individual chicken pot pies for everyone, punching out holes in the crust with a leaf cutter, and cupcakes cooling on the counter. Somewhere in the fourth grade, one mom took a look long hard look at the situation and thought, "Why on earth should I turn my week upside down to serve a bunch of kids Beef Wellington when they'd just as soon have pizza?!"

That revolutionary mom sent word to Little Caesar to have a fleet of pizzas delivered by noon, and smuggled Little Debbie to the front lines in her son's book bag. No group of children had ever loved someone else's mom more, and no group of mothers had ever felt so duped for not thinking of it first.

And that marked the end of Haute Lunches, but Hot Lunches soldiered on. From then on, Fridays meant pizza and Little Debbies. The first sure sign of the holidays would come some Friday in November when the season's inaugural Christmas Tree Cakes would herald the news. From there, every Friday until Christmas break we'd kick off the weekend with pizza and edible Christmas trees.

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The white version (I hesitate to say vanilla) didn't do much for me. Sometimes I smooshed it up, careful not to burst the bag, just for the perverse pleasure of it. Filling squishing out the sides and red swags of icing bleeding into pulverized cake...Of course I'd never dream of doing such a thing to the chocolate kind, though I would often try to see if I could peel off the cloak of chocolate in a single piece.

That coating had an undeniably waxy mouthfeel, which I can't recreate for you without industrial equipment or an unhealthy amount of Gulf Wax (which is not to say it can't be done, only that I don't wish to be held responsible for the Olestra-like results should you try such a thing at home).

But, I can bring you as close as this: chocolate glaze that will set up perfectly dry, no tempering necessary. You can hold the little cake in your hands, without a smidge melting onto your fingers. Inside, legitimately yellow cake replete with that factory-fresh taste and aroma, sandwiching a filling as slippery with fat as the original.

You can make yours chocolate or um, white, with just a simple ingredient swap. You may want to set a few out on Christmas Eve. You never know who's going to drop in.

This recipe calls for spiced rum, which goes a long way to mimic the chemical cocktail of mystery that flavors the Little Debbie originals. Frangelico works well, too. If you don't consume alcohol, just omit the booze, increase the milk to 8 ounces and add 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice. It'll bring you mighty close.

For those not as obsessed as I am with recreating things down to the last detail, feel free to skip making the glaze and just dip the cakes in chocolate ganache. They'll be a little less fussy to make and extra delicious, but will taste more like a fancy eat-with-a-fork dessert than a lunchbox snack. The recipe for the glaze given here, however, will give you a touchable glaze that you can eat out of hand. If you're a stickler for details, make a double batch of the chocolate glaze and dip the cakes twice for a thick chocolatey coating. Once will get the job done, though the cake may show through in patches.

Making this cake isn't hard at all, but describing the entire process makes it seem more daunting. Put simply: bake a cake. Make buttercream. Sandwich them together. Cut into shapes. Glaze. Put more obnoxiously, well, read on.

Recipe Facts

Active: 3 hrs
Total: 12 hrs
Makes: 14 mini-cakes

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Ingredients

  • For the Yellow Cake:
  • 6 ounces sugar
  • 1 ounce brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 3 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 4 1/2 ounces egg yolks (from about 6 eggs)
  • 8 ounces flour
  • 6 ounces milk
  • 2 ounces spiced rum, like Captain Morgan's
  • For the Chocolate or Vanilla Filling:
  • 4 ounces milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1 1/4 ounces sugar
  • 1/8 ounce cornstarch
  • 1/8 ounce cocoa powder (omit for vanilla version)
  • 1 ounce milk chocolate (omit for vanilla version)
  • Pinch salt
  • 8 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract (increase to 2 tablespoons for vanilla version)
  • For the Hard Glaze:
  • 18 ounces powdered sugar (use 20 ounces for vanilla version)
  • 6 ounces water, divided
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 ounce vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 ounces cocoa powder (omit for vanilla version)
  • Sprinkles to garnish

Directions

  1. To Make and Bake the Cake Layers:

    Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C) and line 2 jelly-roll style sheet pans with parchment.

    Using a hand or stand mixer, cream sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, almond extract, vanilla extract, and butter for about 6 minutes on medium speed or until light and fluffy. Stop about halfway through to scrape bowl with a rubber spatula.

    While mixture is creaming, sift flour through a sieve and set aside.

    While still mixing at medium speed, begin adding yolks to mixture, one at a time. Mix thoroughly after each addition.

    Turn mixer to low speed and, with it still running, add half of the flour. Drizzle in half of the milk. Repeat with remaining flour, milk, and rum. Continue mixing until homogenous.

    Shut off mixer and scrape bowl with a spatula and stir, if necessary, to incorporate any lumps of batter around sides of bowl.

    Divide batter evenly between 2 sheet pans and use an offset spatula to spread batter into an even layer. Tap pans against the counter a few times to dislodge any air bubbles.

    Bake for 5 minutes. You'll notice at this time some uneven bubbling in the cakes. Remove cakes from oven and shake gently or tap against the counter to deflate the bubbles. Rotate cake pans and continue baking for another 5 minutes or until uniformly pale-golden and spongy to the touch.

    Set aside to cool until needed.

  2. To Make the Filling:

    In a small pot, bring milk to a simmer over medium heat.

    In a medium bowl, whisk egg, sugar, cornstarch, and cocoa. While whisking, drizzle in hot milk. Return milk/egg mixture to pot and cook over medium-low heat, whisking constantly until mixture begins to bubble. Continue mixing 1 minute more to thoroughly cook out cornstarch.

    Using a spatula, transfer cooked custard to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Add chocolate and salt, and beat on low speed for 10 minutes or until mixture and bowl become cool to the touch.

    Once cool, turn speed up to medium. With mixer still running, add butter one tablespoon at a time, then drizzle in vanilla. Shut off mixer and let stand until needed.

  3. To Assemble and Cut the Cakes:

    Run a knife around edges of cake pans to loosen cakes. Place a sheet of parchment over both cakes. Next, invert both cakes, remove parchment paper from bottoms, then re-invert them right-side up.

    More detailed explanation: invert one of the cakes onto a cutting board, set sheet pan aside and very gently peel away bottom layer of parchment. Invert second cake onto the bottom of the now-empty sheet pan from the first cake (it's easier to handle cake when it's on the bottom of the sheet pan, rather than nestled down into the sheet pan). Likewise, peel away parchment paper. Now re-invert this second cake to the bottom of its original sheet pan. You now have both cakes right side up, one on cutting board, one on upside-down sheet pan.

    Using a rubber spatula, transfer chocolate buttercream from bowl to the cake resting on cutting board. With an offset spatula, spread buttercream out as evenly as possible, from corner to corner. Hold sheet pan with second cake over buttercreamed cake; gently slide cake off sheet pan and onto buttercream. Press cake down gently with your fingers to ensure the layers are even.

    Wrap cutting board in plastic and freeze for one hour. Freezing the cake solidifies buttercream and makes cutting it into tidy shapes much easier.

    To cut into Christmas trees, remove cake from freezer and cut lengthwise into 2 long strips, 4 inches wide. There will be a 2-inch strip leftover for snacking.

    Cut each strip with a chef's knife in a zig-zag pattern to create a series of isosceles triangles, 3 inches wide at the base.

    Arrange all triangles with their narrowest endpoints away from you. This is the basic shape of the tree. Trim a small notch on either side of the base of the triangle to leave a 1-inch wide trunk shape.

    Cover trees loosely in plastic and freeze or refrigerate until needed.

  4. To Prepare the Glaze:

    In the smallest pot you have that will accommodate the ingredients, combine powdered sugar, half the water, salt and vanilla extract. Whisk to combine. Set the pot over medium-low heat and cook, whisking constantly until powdered sugar has dissolved and mixture just begins to bubble. Remove from heat. Set aside 1/2 cup of vanilla glaze.

    Now add remaining water and cocoa powder (if using) and whisk until combined. Cool to room temperature.

  5. To Glaze and Decorate the Cakes:

    Line a sheet pan with parchment.

    Remove cakes from freezer and drop one straight into the center of the glaze. Use a fork to splash some glaze over top of cake. Next, lift cake up and out of the glaze. Let any excess glaze drip back into pot. Lightly drag the bottom of the cake/fork against edge of pot to minimize dripping and excess glaze. Gently place cake onto prepared sheet pan.

    Repeat with remaining cakes. For a thick, dark coating, let cakes dry for about an hour, then make a second batch of glaze (reserving none of the vanilla) and dip cakes again. If given only one glaze, the cake will show through the glaze in patches. Whether you dip a second round is entirely up to your sense of perfectionism; one glaze is all it takes for a delicious cake.

    Once all of the cakes have been glazed, drizzle remaining vanilla glaze (tint the glaze red, if making the vanilla version). If the glaze has become too firm to drizzle, add a teaspoon of water and stir to thin. Drizzle with a spoon, or with a pastry bag fitted with a small, plain tip. Finally, scatter sprinkles all over.

    Place tray of cakes in a well-ventilated and safe location where they dry, undisturbed by pets or children. Let cakes stand, uncovered, for about 6 hours or until the glaze has set. Exactly how long this takes will depend on the airflow and humidity in your home.

    Once glaze has set, cakes are ready for snacking! (Use a spatula to lift cakes from parchment, once free, you can handle them easily.)

Notes

All measurements are in weights, as volume measures can be very imprecise. I strongly recommend using a scale for all pastry projects.

Special Equipment

Stand mixer, offset spatula, sheet pan

Make-Ahead and Storage

The cakes will store, covered, at room temperature for about two days, or up to a week in the fridge.