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Originally published Saturday, April 2, 2011 at 7:07 PM

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Taste

Crisco is still a good thing, sometimes

In some dishes, nothing but Crisco will do. And Amy Treadwell and Sarah Billingsley call for a butter-vegetable shortening mixture for their soft little chocolate cakes and warn readers of their book "Whoopie Pies" not to try substituting an all-butter dough. They add another cup and a quarter of shortening for the pie's creamy filling.

AMONG THE choirs praising fresh farmstand butter, rendered lard from organic pigs and cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil, we'd like to add an unlikely note: Could we hear a few good words for Crisco?

Yes, Crisco, the hydrogenated vegetable shortening that one pie-baking friend calls "the stuff in the blue can that shall not be named."

I admit that Crisco has its issues compared to those other fats that have found modern redemption. The solid mix of soybean and palm oil is neither local nor organic nor all-natural nor unprocessed. It does advertise itself as being high in omega-3 fatty acids . . . But with a shelf life of two years and ingredients like TBHQ (tertiary butylhydroquinone, a preservative), we're hardly in Michael Pollan territory.

Here's the thing, though: In some dishes, nothing but Crisco will do.

That's what Amy Treadwell and Sarah Billingsley found developing recipes for their book, "Whoopie Pies," where they call for a butter-vegetable shortening mixture for their soft little chocolate cakes and warn readers not to try substituting an all-butter dough. The authors then add another cup and a quarter of shortening for the creamy filling sandwiched between the pies.

The shortening's relatively high melting point was the key for Treadwell. "The Whoopie Pies didn't spread out so much when we used the Crisco," she explains, instead yielding a puffy cake of just the right texture and size. The final product tastes something like Ho Hos or Ding Dongs, but fresh and homemade.

"I think, everything in moderation," Treadwell says. "If that's how your recipe works best, and you're not going to be eating thousands of it, a little Crisco is not going to kill you."

To some degree, whether you love Crisco or hate it is a generational divide. It was considered a technological wonder in the decades following its 1911 invention — an economical fat that didn't melt or spoil in the summer heat. As a vegetable product, it was favored as a healthier option than animal fats (a view that went downhill when transfats became viewed with Voldemortian horror, then flipped again when Crisco got a nearly transfat-free new formula.)

But even some younger people, and some professionals, can see its merits.

The shortening's neutral flavor can be useful, says Eddie Lakin, a culinary-institute graduate and owner of Edzo's, a super-popular Chicago burger joint. He uses a mix of butter and Crisco for biscuits because their different melting points lend more flakiness to the finished product.

Using similar logic, Cook's Illustrated, known for its painstaking recipe tests, rallied in favor of a Crisco-butter pie crust (using a 2:3 ratio) in its "Baking Illustrated" guidebook. The shortening is about 10 percent gas, according to the book's precise monologue, which lightens and tenderizes dough.

Food and travel writer Karen Merzenich says it makes the best fried chicken as well. "I love Crisco. I know you're not supposed to in this day and age, but I don't care," she said on Twitter when I played a word-association game asking people what Crisco brought to mind.

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She had company. While it struck chords like "Eeewwww" or "Why?" or even "nasty stuff!" with some, it also drew hymns like "Daddy's snickerdoodles" and "Mrs. Wellington's chocolate chip cookies," or, in a response that might have summed it up most succinctly, "America."

Rebekah Denn is a Seattle freelance food writer and blogger.

Classic Chocolate Whoopie Pie

Makes about 48 two-inch cakes

1-2/3 cups all-purpose flour

2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 ½ teaspoons baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

4 tablespoons vegetable shortening

1 cup (packed) dark brown sugar

1 large egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup milk, divided

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt onto a sheet of waxed paper. In the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the butter, shortening and brown sugar on low speed until just combined. Increase the speed to medium and beat until fluffy and smooth, about 3 minutes. Add the egg and vanilla and beat for another 2 minutes.

Add half of the flour mixture and half of the milk to the batter and beat on low until just incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the remaining flour mixture and other half cup of milk and beat until completely combined.

3. Using a spoon, drop about 1 tablespoon of batter onto one of the prepared baking sheets and repeat, spacing them at least 2 inches apart. Bake one sheet at a time for about 10 minutes each, or until the pies spring back when pressed gently. Remove from the oven and let the cakes cool in the pan for about 5 minutes before transferring them to a rack to cool completely.

Classic Marshmallow Filling

1 ½ cups Marshmallow Fluff (or other prepared marshmallow cream)

1 ¼ cups vegetable shortening

1 cup confectioners sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1. In the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the Marshmallow Fluff and the vegetable shortening, starting on low and increasing to medium speed until the mixture is smooth and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Reduce the mixer speed to low, add the confectioners sugar and the vanilla, and beat until incorporated. Increase the mixer speed to medium and beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes more.

2. Spread pies with a dollop of filling, then sandwich together.

— "Whoopie Pies" by Sarah Billingsley and Amy Treadwell

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