Twinkies, cheese puffs, corn nuts, potato chips -- these popular snacks aren't necessarily what we would think of as homemade or healthy. But in her book Real Snacks: Make Your Favorite Childhood Treats Without All the Junk, Lara Ferroni presents recipes for sweet and salty goodies without artificial colorings and flavorings, refined sugars, and preservatives. She also offers vegan and gluten-free versions of everything from MoonPies to mini-doughnuts and corn chips to crescent rolls.
Rebecca Sheir: What was your inspiration for writing this book?
Lara Ferroni: I have some sort of fascination with things that we think as a culture we can't make at home anymore -- the crackers, cookies and snack cakes that we all grew up with. I got interested in figuring out how to do that so that we didn't have to have all of the processed stuff in our food.
RS: Just to clarify, the recipes in the book aren't necessarily low-fat or low-calorie?
LF: No, they're really not. They are intended to be treats. They're not low-calorie, but they do have higher nutrients and less of the artificial color and things like that.
RS: How did you go about creating and testing these recipes?
LF: I started playing with different flours that you might not normally use, things like millet flour or sorghum flour, just to create some different textures and flavors. But it was really just taking a look at all of the ingredients that were in the processed food and figuring out what is that actual processed ingredient doing in the recipe? If it's lecithin, which is an emulsifier, do you have some way of replicating that with things you already have in your pantry?
RS: What are some of the snacks where you think that the junk-free version will really surprise people, either in terms of how easy it is to make or how much it bears an uncanny resemblance, taste-wise, to its original processed version?
LF: Probably the easiest to make that tastes the most like the store-bought version are Fritos. There's really not too much to them other than getting a good corn flour to begin with. You want to use a good masa. If you look up the ingredients on Fritos, it's actually not that crazy. They're pretty much just corn, corn flour, salts and some oil, so making that at home is quite simple.
The one that I think is the most surprising when I give them to people are the Doritos. Particularly when I make the vegan version -- nobody knows that they're vegan. You don't really miss the cheese because you have all the other really great spices. When people try those, their eyes light up like "That's a Dorito!" There's not even any cheese in it.
RS: What about the Cheetos, or as you call them, crunchy cheese puffs? They seem to be especially involved: You make the dough, you steam the dough, you dry the dough, then you fry the dough?
LF: Yes, they are definitely involved. I started making Cheetos with a much less arduous process. The way to get those to puff and actually resemble the real thing is really challenging. I started with a dough that was a corn base and cheese dough that you fry, but they just didn't have the right puff to be Cheetos.
Recipe: Crunchy Cheese Puffs
Then I was snacking on some shrimp chips that are the Asian equivalent and realized, “Hey, this is more of the texture that I was looking for.” So then I started researching recipes to make your own shrimp chips and applied that same process to Cheetos. Using the tapioca flour, which really changes in texture when you steam it, then drying it and then frying it, it actually gets that puff that otherwise is really hard to do without roomfuls of industrial equipment.
RS: I'm curious if there's one snack, either sweet or salty, that you tried making and you just couldn't? I don't want to call it a failure, but you just couldn't do it.
LF: There were a few that I just didn't feel were quite good enough. The main one would be Pringles. I did come up with a recipe that tasted a lot like the Pringle, but I could never get the fun duckbill shape, and it was a lot of work for a very small number of chips. It just ended up not quite making the grade. The Cheetos certainly were a lot of work, but you at least end up with a lot of Cheetos at the end. The Pringles were a lot of work, and then you end up with six Pringles.
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Rebecca Sheir is the host of Metro Connection on WAMU 88.5 in Washington, D.C. She previously served as host of AK on Alaska Public Radio Network and reported for NPR member station KTOO in Juneau. Her stories have won numerous awards, airing on public radio programs such as All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, Latino USA, Only a Game, Here & Now, Interfaith Voices and Voice of America.