1. Cooking

I made a Little Debbie Christmas Tree Cake from scratch. Here's how it turned out.

SCOTT KEELER  |   TimesHomemade Christmas Tree Cakes.
SCOTT KEELER | TimesHomemade Christmas Tree Cakes.
Published Dec. 5, 2018

It started with a challenge — a dare, really.

Jay Cridlin, our pop music/culture critic, slid a Little Debbie Christmas Tree Cake across the table at our weekly staff meeting, the little white tree iced and sprinkled and sealed in its plastic wrapper.

"I want you to make one of these from scratch."

A collective "oooh" went around the room. My head filled with visions of fluffy white icing and spongy yellow cake.

The snack cakes have been around since 1985, a seasonal item from the baking brand that also makes Honey Buns and Nutty Buddy. For some, Christmas Tree Cakes, which come in vanilla and chocolate and "holiday spice" flavors, mark the arrival of the holiday season just as much as the smell of homemade cookies. My boss Stephanie Hayes wrote about her undying love for the cakes back in 2012 (read it here).

In this era of Pinterest and nostalgia, recreating classic foods from scratch is popular among food bloggers and millennials jonesing for the novelty items of their youth. Blogger-turned-Food Network chef Molly Yeh first gained traction with a homemade version of Pillsbury's Funfetti cake; that copycat recipe for Chick-Fil-A chicken nuggets remains one of the Internet's most useful contributions.

And now, it was time to recreate the magic of Little Debbie. I got to work.

First, I had to taste one of the cakes. It had been a while since I'd perused the snack cake aisle, so I needed a fresh reminder of the delicate flavors that go into conjuring such holiday cheer.

They are wrapped individually, thank the snack gods, so you don't have to eat multiples in one sitting. Unwrap the crinkly plastic and there's the smell, waxy and potent and puckeringly sweet. One Christmas Tree Cake contains just 190 calories, so it's basically a diet food.

MORE RECIPES: To help you through holiday baking season.

I took a bite through all the layers: sort of hard outer white shell, very soft yellowy cake, fluffy white frosting, more cake, more outer shell. Sugar! Flour! Some sort of shortening or palm oil! Probably vanilla extract!

I figured the cake part would need to come first, and that seemed like a standard vanilla cake. But how would I make it so thin? The outer shell reminded me of Almond Bark, which I use every Christmas to make coated pretzels. It's vegetable oil and sugar and flavoring, and it melts then hardens again when it cools back to room temperature.

I Googled a bit to see if anyone had come before me in the Homemade Christmas Tree Cake space, and found just one prominent recipe on a website called Southern Fatty. That's where this cake idea came from: Bake two very thin cakes on baking sheets, then frost one, stack them and cut out the Christmas trees. That way, you're assembling the sandwich before cutting out the trees, which proved much cleaner than my original test of cutting out cake trees, icing them, then sandwiching.

Southern Fatty also had the idea to use marshmallow cream in the center frosting, which gives it that fluffy, light texture Little Debbie perfected.

For the coating, I mixed a little bit of shortening in with melted almond bark, which was definitely the way to go. Use a bowl that's big enough to entirely dunk a Christmas Tree Cake into, and plan to add any sprinkles or other doodads right when the cakes come out of the white goo, before the almond bark hardens.

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I brought the cakes to work the next day, placing a Little Debbie one and my homemade version on Stephanie's desk, to see if it passed her rigorous holiday snack cake standards.

"Oh wow, that's really good!" she said, her wide eyes making an hour of meticulous Christmas Tree Cake dunking worth it.

This is one of my proudest kitchen creations. The cakes are adorable, and festive, and delicious. Making them had all the charms of making Christmas cookies; they're even more fun to decorate. No shots at Little Debbie, but I think they're even tastier than the storebought ones, plus you will get a kick out of watching people's faces when you tell them you made them yourself.

That's the true spirit of the holiday baking season right there.

Christmas Tree Cakes

For the cake:

2 cups all-purpose flour

1½ cups granulated sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

½ cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature

1 cup milk

1 teaspoon imitation vanilla extract (use vanilla extract if you don't have this)

2 eggs

For the filling:

1 cup powdered sugar

¼ cup marshmallow cream (like Marshmallow Fluff)

2 tablespoons heavy cream

1 teaspoon imitation vanilla extract (use vanilla extract if you don't have this)

For the icing:

8 ounces vanilla candy coating (like Almond Bark)

2 tablespoons shortening

Storebought tube of icing, for decorating

Sprinkles, for decorating

Make the cake: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. In the bowl of a stand mixer or another large bowl, mix butter, milk and vanilla until smooth. Add one egg at a time and mix until combined. Add in the dry ingredients, and stir well.

Line two sheet pans (with edges) with parchment paper. Split the batter between the pans and smooth out. You want it to be thin, about 1/4 inch. Lift the pans about 2 inches off the counter then drop, to help remove bubbles in the batter.

Bake for 10 minutes. Remove and cool completely. You can even do this the day before, and refrigerate before assembling.

Make the filling: Combine all ingredients in mixer until smooth. Mix for another couple minutes to make it more fluffy. Spread filling onto one of the cakes, spreading it out to create a thin layer over the entire thing. Carefully work a spatula under the other cake to loosen it from parchment on pan, then very carefully flip the cake onto the one with the filling. Press down gently on top cake. At this point, you should have a cake/icing/cake sandwich.

Use a thick cookie cutter to cut through all three layers, creating a Christmas tree sandwich. Place trees in refrigerator while you make icing.

Make the icing: Add candy coating to a wide, deep glass bowl and microwave in 30-second intervals. Stir well after each. Do this until it's melted. It won't take long. Remove bowl from microwave and stir in shortening while candy coating is hot. Stir until shortening is melted. You want a thick liquid, almost the consistency of dish soap. Let icing cool just a bit, until it's no longer hot to the touch but still liquidy.

Working with one tree at a time, use a large fork to submerge tree in icing. Flip it over, lightly coating the entire tree in icing. Lift gently using the fork, tap the fork handle on the edge of the bowl a few times to release excess icing, then place tree onto a clean parchment-lined surface.

At this point, decorate with desired sprinkles, so they stick to the wet icing. Repeat with remaining trees.

Decorate with desired icing, then let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes so icing can harden. Refrigerate until ready to eat.

Makes 10 to 12.

Source: Adapted from