Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Molly's Moon Pie Mug Cake

Happy 92nd birthday, Eugene Sledge!

Two months ago, I told you all about John Basilone, Medal of Honor recipient and one of my favorite historical figures from World War II. Today, I'm going to introduce you all to my favorite historical figure from the 40's... who also happens to be a central character in HBO's The Pacific. Which I swear was a coincidence! Sledge and I actually go back to before I'd watched the miniseries, in the early days of the avalanche of enthusiasm for all things 1940's I've been caught up in over the last few years.

Obviously this is not a wholly authentic recipe from World War II, or even Sledge's childhood, but it is inspired by something that's a staple of Southern food culture: Moon Pies! They're harder to find up here, but this mug cake means we can all get a taste of one of Sledge's favorite snacks regardless of where you live.

Eugene Sledge was born on November 4th, 1923 in Mobile, Alabama, making today what would have been his 92nd birthday. Having just turned 18 a month before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Sledge wanted to enlist as soon as war was declared, but between a heart murmur and the disapproval of his parents, he had to wait to get in on the action. He spent the first part of the war attending college and eventually enrolled in the V-12 program, which is sort of similar to ROTC, but was specifically to cultivate Naval Officers during the war. Eager to see combat and get out of the classroom, and worried he would miss out on the war, Sledge and a bunch of his classmates flunked out of the program to deliberately get placed in a combat role. After going through boot camp and training as a mortarman with a 60mm mortar, Sledge was assigned to Company K, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.

The 1st Marines had already seen action on Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester, and by the time Sledge was formally assigned, the division was recovering on a miserable island called Pavuvu. It just so happened that Sidney Phillips, Sledge's best friend from home, was also a member of the 1st Marine Division, but in a different outfit, and the two got to spend some time together before Phillips was rotated home.

Shortly thereafter, Sledge and the rest of K/3/5 were packed off to go assault Peleliu, a tiny island in the mass that makes up Palau. Peleliu is one of the most brutal, bloodiest battles of the Pacific War, but it's also one that doesn't always even get a passing mention in general histories of the conflict. This is primarily because of two factors: many reporters and photographers assumed the battle would be short and not especially significant and thus decided to skip it, meaning there wasn't much by way of contemporary coverage of it the way there was for Tarawa, and because Peleliu was ultimately not an especially significant island to take strategically. The logic was for the Marines to take the island so that it could be used to help support General MacArthur's liberation of the Philippines, but by the time the island was taken - almost a month after they first landed on it! - the recapture of the Philippines was already well underway and almost complete.

Part of the reason it has gotten more attention from both scholars and casual historians is because in 1981, a certain book was published...

With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa is Sledge's combat memoir, partially written from notes he took while actually on the front lines. Keeping diaries or other records of combat experiences while actually on the battlefield was strongly discouraged in all theaters of the war, as it was rightly assumed that if your diary fell into the wrong hands and you didn't self censor, the enemy could find out important information about troop movements and plans. Many soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen got around this, and Sledge did by writing notes on scraps of paper he tucked in his pocket sized Bible. After the war, haunted by all he'd seen, done and experienced, he wrote the book as a way to explain what had happened to him and give a voice and recognition to the other members of his unit.

The book was an almost instant success, and is often considered - and in my totally, completely, why would I lie to you unbiased opinion - the best combat memoir of the Second World War. It's become a critical piece in many other works, both literary and otherwise. Ken Burns used it as a major reference in his documentary series The War (and Sid Phillips and his sister are interviewed quite often), and, of course, it's the basis for a large part of The Pacific. Actually, when they were looking for a source to make a Pacific version of Band of Brothers, With the Old Breed was the first thing they turned to, and the rest of the series was essentially built around it!

I first was introduced to Sledge's story through the book, which was required reading in no fewer than three of my undergraduate courses, and it's quite honestly one of my favorite books. Sledge is honest. There's no self congratulation, no extreme patriotism, no massive pessimism about the cause or the nature of man, just honest reflection on how people act under horrible circumstances. He tells the reader about his experiences in a very human way, without sugar coating anything. It's powerful, moving, and just genuinely very well written. If you've got any interest at all in the topic, I'd really recommend picking up a copy.

After Peleliu, Sledge and his company moved back to Pavuvu to recover, and then landed on Okinawa to participate in the final battle of World War II. Although in my experience the Peleliu parts of Sledge's story tend to get the most attention, he actually admits that some of the things that happened on Okinawa haunted him longer and more often than what happened on Peleliu. By the end of the war, Sledge was one of only a handful of guys in his company who got through the war in one piece, without being injured or sick enough to need evacuation. Because he didn't have enough points to return home immediately, he spent another several months in China with the Marines, something he credits with helping him recover what humanity he'd lost while in combat and started him on the road to recovery. After his death in 2001, his wife published another memoir called China Marine about this time from notes that were originally to be included in With the Old Breed, but were ultimately cut from the final draft of the book. Although not as well known, it's also definitely worth a read and has the same honest voice that makes the first book so memorable.

When Sledge returned home, he continued to struggle with post traumatic stress and finding what direction he wanted to take his life in. He originally considered becoming a doctor, but flunking out of the V-12 program came back to haunt him and kept him from enrolling in any pre-med programs. He ultimately found both peace and a purpose in bird watching and ornithology, and became a professor of biology at the University of Montavello. While he could never forget what had happened, it's still encouraging to know that he was able to build a happy life for himself in the post war world with a loving family, friends and enthusiastic students.

Picking what I wanted to feature for John Basilone Day was easy, and so was deciding what I wanted to do in honor of Sledge's birthday... but I didn't really want to just try my hand at making my own Moon Pie. Why improve on something that the company already gets so right, and has been for almost a century?

Moon Pies were first made in 1917 as an affordable and portable dessert for people working in coal mines in Kentucky. Somewhere along the line, they became known as a "working man's lunch" when paired with an RC Cola, another product we don't see much of up north. Not a very healthy sounding lunch if you ask me!

But we do have plenty of evidence that this sugary treat was something Sledge enjoyed growing up. In an interview featured on The Pacific's DVD release, Sid Phillips recollects that before the war, he and Sledge would often buy Moon Pies and Cokes before driving off in Sledge's beat up truck to go cause mischief and explore local Civil War battlefields. Auburn University even has a photo of Sledge eating one with Phillips and another unidentified friend before the war as part of their archives:

I had never had a Moon Pie before I got it in my head to do this post, and I knew I couldn't make a dish referencing a Moon Pie without knowing what to compare it to, so I ordered some on Amazon. You can order them directly from the Moon Pie company website, too, but the shipping worked out to be cheaper from Amazon. There are a variety of flavors and sizes to choose from, but the classic is the single decker, chocolate covered Moon Pie.

Basically, a Moon Pie is marshmallow squished between two graham crackers and dipped in chocolate. Since this is basically a s'more, I was pretty sure I was going to like it, and I definitely did! It was a lot cakier than I expected, though, and it actually wasn't as sugary sweet as I thought it would be, either. I guess I thought it would be more like eating a Peep that's been squished between crackers and chocolate? Also, the crackers are more like soft, thin graham cakes. There's definitely no crunch here!

I found my recipe for this Moon Pie mug cake from Mug Cakes by Leslie Bilderback, which I have thumbed through and thumbed through and stared at and fantasized about since last Christmas... and haven't actually made anything from. Until now! The book is full of a lot of really interesting mug cakes, and a couple mug pies (some of which sound delicious, especially the cheddar cheese and apple mug pie one!), and I do really want to try out a couple more. Maybe I actually will!

Now, as much as I love the lava mug cake I made last year, I am definitely a little bit dubious of other mug cake recipes. Some of them can be rubbery and just not that great, and having never actually made anything from this cookbook, I wasn't sure if this was going to be a disaster or an amazing discovery. I'm happy to report that this actually went really well! The pictures just didn't come out as well as I would have liked them to. Oh well.

You start with one large egg and 3 1/2 tablespoons of vegetable oil. This gets whisked together with a fork until they're well combined. Next comes 3 1/2 tablespoons of milk, 1/4 of a cup of sugar, 1/4 of a teaspoon of vanilla extract, and 2 tablespoons of cocoa powder, which all get mixed together.

That done, you add in 1/4 of a cup of self rising flour and a pinch of salt. This mixes together to get a really nice, smooth cake batter. This is a lot runnier than the lava mug cake batter I'm used to using, and I was really interested (and a little nervous!) to see what kind of cake it would actually wind up making.

For added flavor, texture, and making this really a Moon Pie mug cake, you fold in two broken graham cracker cookies, 1/4 of a cup of mini marshmallows or marshmallow fluff, and 2 tablespoons of chocolate chips.

You're supposed to be able to split this between two mugs, but I think my Captain America mug is a little on the big side, and probably could have held the whole mixture. I chickened out and poured some into a second mug so it wouldn't overflow and cause a mess in my microwave.

Mug cakes are kind of difficult when you've never made the recipe before. Each one is a little different, and each batch kind of has a mind of its own. Even though I've made my lava mug cake probably dozens of times, I still need to watch it like a hawk and test it a bit before I take it out and start eating. That's part of why I did break down and split up the batter instead of putting it all in one mug. There was no way to know if it was going to overflow until I'd actually put it in the microwave!

This mug cake needed to be cooked for about two minutes in the microwave to get fully risen and cooked through.

Unfortunately, it didn't really photograph well, but it did taste delicious! 

This recipe created a mug cake that was light, chocolately, and utterly delicious! It really did taste like having a cake mix cake in a mug, which is definitely a good thing in my book. The moisture inside the cake helped make the graham crackers cakey and soft, just like the crackers in the Moon Pie! That was actually what kind of sealed the deal for me in terms of this feeling like eating a Moon Pie. There's something just memorable about that soft bite of graham cracker that has come to represent Moon Pies to me (in my admittedly limited experience), and this cake really did recreate that well.

The one thing I would caution against is that if you leave this in for too long, your marshmallows can and will melt a bit, making it a little hard to find those pockets of chewy goodness. It also will make it a little less photogenic - before I let the marshmallows melt by accident, it looked a lot more visually interesting! I really should have left all the batter in one mug to get it peeking out over the edge for you all to see it, though. Guess I know what to do for next time.

So, happy birthday, Dr. Sledge! This might not be a Moon Pie, but I hope this fun interpretation of a favorite childhood snack would be up his alley, and I hope you all enjoyed learning a little bit about one of my favorite authors.

I would go on about it for hours if you let me!


  1. AHAHA. I love this! Being a Southerner, as I am, I can tell you that the "RC Cola & a Moon Pie" thing is still VERY popular, though not so much as a lunch just as a snack. There's even a t-shirt that they put out at the Moon Pie Festival in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. And there's a country song, "Gimme an RC Cola and a Moon Pie" by Big Bill Lister!

    Also, let me be educational! If y'all Yanks go out and buy a moon pie somewhere or order some online? Some advice. Before you chomp in... pop 'em in the microwave for about 10 or 15 seconds to soften 'em up. Then they're PERFECT.

    1. Ooh, microwaving sounds good! I've got a couple more left, definitely will give this a try. c:

  2. *From Julie's doll mom:*

    I grew up in NY, and there these things are called Scooter Pies. Scooter Pies are a version of Moon Pies named after NY Yankees shortstop Phil " Scooter" Rizzuto. I used to like them as a kid, but not so much now.

    1. My mom and her brother used to eat them growing up, too! We don't see them often in stores anymore though, and I've never gotten to eat one before. Now I'm kind of curious, haha.

  3. 1917! I had no idea that Moon Pies had such a long history. I guess I always assumed that all convenience foods were born out of the mid-century.

    Interesting to know!

    1. I feel like most of them actually turn out to be way older than you'd think! I never would have guessed Samantha would have had access to tortilla chips, but apparently those were a popular food all over the country at the turn of the century? Who knew!