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In the southern United States, Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies are an institution. Growing up overseas, they were one of the foods I craved most during our return visits to Nashville. There was no one happier than little 10-year-old me, smooshed in the back seat of a wood-grain station wagon between suitcases and my little sister, with an Oatmeal Creme Pie in one hand and a glass bottle of Orange Crush in the other.

But when I developed severe preservative allergies in 2007, all things Little Debbie were instantly off-limits. The ingredients in Oatmeal Creme Pies and their other baked goods have sadly grown less natural in the years since the Tennessee bakery started selling desserts out of the back of a car in the midst of the Depression. Turns out they have to spell the filling “creme” because it doesn’t actually contain any real dairy products.

Anyone who knows me knows I don’t give up easily, and I resolved to re-create my childhood treat in a homemade, all-natural, sulfite-free form. This recipe is the result: moist, chewy oatmeal cookies with a hint of cinnamon and the subtle toffee flavor of molasses and turbinado sugar, sandwiched around lightly sweetened, gooey cream cheese filling that makes you want to check whether there’s any left in the bowl. And in a satisfying bit of traveling full-circle, these have turned out to be one of my kids’ very favorite desserts, so much so that my daughter asked for them instead of birthday cake this year. :)

Mini Oatmeal Cream Pies
makes 24 sweet little food memories

For cookies:
1 3/4 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp. kosher or coarse sea salt
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 c. unsalted butter, softened (2 sticks)
3/4 c. turbinado sugar (see these Recipe Notes for more info)
1/2 c. granulated sugar
2 Tbsp. unsulphured molasses
1 tsp. vanilla bean paste or real vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 1/4 c. rolled oats (not instant)
1/4 c. shredded, unsweetened coconut (preferably unsulphured)

For filling:
8 oz. cream cheese (preferably all-natural)
1/2 c. confectioner’s sugar, sifted
3 Tbsp. golden syrup (see these Recipe Notes for more info, can substitute light corn syrup or marshmallow fluff)
1/4 tsp. salt (not coarse)

Oven 350F. In medium mixing bowl, whisk together flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and cinnamon. In another large mixing bowl, use electric mixer to cream together butter, both types of sugar, molasses, and vanilla until light and fluffy, 4-5 minutes. Beat in eggs one at a time until well-mixed. Stir in flour mixture with a silicone spatula, then stir in oats and coconut. Mix thoroughly until dough is uniform and slightly sticky.

Scoop tablespoons of dough on to lightly greased or parchment-lined baking sheets. Bake about 12 minutes, until edges are set and lightly golden but centers are still a little soft, being careful not to over-bake. Let cookies cool on sheets five minutes, then transfer to racks to cool completely.

For filling, mix all ingredients with electric mixer until creamy and smooth, at least five minutes. Spread a heaping teaspoon of filling on the flat side of one cookie, and then sandwich another on top. (Be generous, there’s plenty.) Refrigerate cookie sandwiches until filling is set before serving, then store in air-tight container in refrigerator for up to five days. They’re even better the second day.

This recipe doubles easily, but you may want to refrigerate the dough between putting batches in the oven because it takes a little while. If you’re feeling extra industrious or are making these for a special occasion, they are especially charming individually wrapped in cellophane.