I don’t like to waste food. For whatever repressed childhood reason, a wave of guilt washes over me when uneaten food goes into the trash. This can have its benefits — like when I make banana bread from overripe bananas — but it also has drawbacks. Which is why I can sometimes be found eating cold dinosaur chicken nuggets after my daughter becomes full after a single stegosaurus.
Things were no different during this past school year. When my daughter was learning virtually, her school district sent home what would have been her school lunches. There was good stuff in there — like little boxes of cereal and fresh fruit — but there were also less appetizing things, like frozen mystery meat and off-brand Hot Pockets, the latter of which is where this journey begins.
See, out of general childhood pickiness — or, perhaps, extremely wise judgement — my daughter refused to eat the school Hot Pockets, so it was my job to have them for lunch a couple of times a week. They weren’t terrible, but they lacked the savory, salty richness of real Hot Pockets. This got me hankering for the real thing, but when I went to my local grocery store, I was sorely disappointed. There were a handful of flavors — like, a dozen — but some of my favorites from my childhood and bachelor days were missing. Where was the sausage pizza flavor? Where was the rectangular dough sack stuffed with a chili cheese dog? Almost all the classics were gone, so I decided to try to make them myself.
I did a little research and pinpointed five discontinued Hot Pocket flavors to try my hand at. For guidance, I turned to Mythical Kitchen’s Josh Scherer, who’s a bit of a Hot Pocket expert and is well versed in recreating discontinued foods. My goal wasn’t to try to make phony, gourmet Hot Pockets — people have done that before and that didn’t interest me. Instead, I wanted to get as close as possible to recreating actual Hot Pockets, and that meant getting cheap, generic ingredients from Walmart and subjecting the pockets to two rounds of cooking (once in the oven, and once in the microwave). The results were mixed, but there were some surprises — both pleasant and otherwise — along the way.
Preparing the Hot Pockets
Hot Pocket #1: Chicken and Cheddar
Most of the Hot Pockets I tried to recreate were ones I’d had before, but I also wanted to make some I’d never had, which is why chicken and cheddar was on the list. During my research, I’d found a 1990s commercial from my youth that made mention of the chicken and cheddar Hot Pocket, but a commercial from the next year no longer promoted the flavor. That would seem to indicate it was removed from the market rather quickly.
I also failed to find any pictures of the chicken and cheddar Hot Pockets online, so I was forced to guess at its appearance. Most chicken Hot Pockets feature little cubes of chicken, which Scherer said could be best recreated by very thick deli meat chicken, or chicken of the canned variety. The latter suggestion repulsed me, but I figured it was probably on the money as to the quality of Hot Pocket chicken, so I bought two cans of Great Value brand canned chicken.
As soon as I opened the can, I could not stand the stench. It smelled like straight-up cat food, and it looked even worse. Scherer didn’t tell me to do this, but I strained and rinsed the chicken just to cut down on the odor. It helped — a little.
For cheese, I went with Cheez Wiz to recreate that gooey, delicious fake cheese flavor from the ham and cheese Hot Pockets. Some of you might scoff at Cheez Wiz, but I stand by this product. It was a staple of my childhood, and it’s the proper way to eat a Philly cheesesteak. Go fuck yourself if you think you’re too good for it.
For the dough, I’d originally had the idea of surgically opening thawed Hot Pockets and scooping out the contents, then replacing them with other ingredients. Scherer cautioned me against that, saying that it might disrupt the delicate balance of a Hot Pocket, and that the new ingredients may seep out of the unsealed hole. Instead, he recommended using Pillsbury French bread dough — or the generic equivalent — but my Walmart was out of it, so I went for biscuit dough instead. For each Hot Pocket, I used two biscuits worth of dough and flattened them out. I then heaped on the cheese and chicken, folded it up and tossed it on a baking sheet.
Hot Pocket #2: Barbecue Chicken
I remembered this flavor from the 1990s, and I was excited to recreate it. That said, when I found an image of the old-school box online, I couldn’t help but be offended by it. Seriously, just look at how gross this is:
For the meat stuffing, Scherer said to mix the chicken with barbecue sauce and some cornstarch, allowing it to congeal into a semi-gelatinous state. I failed to ask him how much cornstarch to use, so I just eyeballed it. After that, I folded up Hot Pocket number two, tossed it on the cookie sheet and put both food tubes in the oven at 350 degrees for 10 minutes.
Unfortunately, I didn’t fold the barbecue one well enough and it opened in the oven. I didn’t want to make it again, so I squeezed it shut, wrapped them both in aluminum foil and tossed them in the freezer. Part of me was tempted to just cook them in the oven and eat them right then and there, but the real test would come 24 hours later with a second round in the microwave.
Hot Pocket #3: Sloppy Joe
Hot Pockets debuted in 1983 with a handful of flavors, and among them was sloppy joe. Curiously, I couldn’t find any mention of sloppy joe Hot Pockets after their debut year, which might mean it was also their first discontinued flavor. They did have other sloppy-joe-esque products in the ensuing years, but it seems that straight-up sloppy joe Hot Pockets may only have been available for that first year.
Part of me thought I should go with generic ingredients to make my sloppy joe Hot Pockets, but I already had about a dozen cans of Manwich in my cabinet, so I decided to just use that. All I did for this one was make a pound of sloppy joe and plop some in the middle of the dough and fold it up. Seriously — that’s it.
Hot Pocket #4: Chili Cheese Dog
For my most ambitious undertaking, I attempted to recreate the limited edition chili cheese dog Hot Pockets from about a decade ago. The box for these boasted that the product contained “chili sauce with pork franks, beef and chicken pattie crumbles and cheese in a bun.” I couldn’t figure out why chicken was included, but Scherer explained that chicken is far cheaper than beef — thus, beef and chicken chili would be cheaper than just having beef chili.
Hot dogs are precooked and I knew I was going to cook it again later in the microwave, so I decided to just put hot dog slices straight out of the package on this one. I sliced them into coins and mixed them with a pre-made Hormel chili I bought, as well as a bit of the canned chicken. I then topped it with the Cheez Wiz. It didn’t look like much, but I was hopeful about this one.
I tossed both the sloppy joe and chili dog Hot Pockets in the oven together, but only cooked them for about six minutes this time, as I felt the previous two may have been a little too well-done. Once they were ready, I wrapped them in foil and tossed them in the freezer with the others.
Hot Pocket #5: Sausage Pizza
Neither Scherer nor myself could think of a cheap, crappy way to get sausage, so I was forced to cook a fresh Italian sausage for my final creation. While this may have been a bit too good for a true Hot Pocket representation, I used to love the sausage pizza Hot Pockets, and I really wanted to include this one.
Scherer recommended that I make my own pizza sauce, fearing any other brand might be too flavorful. “Usually, in products like this, pizza sauce is just tomato paste, water and one spice. I’m pretty sure that’s what’s on Bagel Bites,” he explained. I followed his instructions using watered down tomato paste with a hint of oregano. I mixed that with the sausage and added a bunch of mozzarella cheese. I then folded it, cooked it and stashed it in the freezer.
Eating the Hot Pockets
It sincerely never occurred to me to label these things, so I couldn’t eat them in any particular order. Instead, I was forced to guess which Hot Pocket was which. Honestly, it was a little intimidating since I was looking forward to some Hot Pockets and dreading others.
Anyway, the first one I took out of the freezer the next day was nicely frozen solid. I stole a crisping sleeve from a box of real Hot Pockets I bought and tossed it in the microwave for two minutes, which is the same cook time for most Hot Pockets. Unfortunately, I didn’t account for the fact that my Hot Pockets were measurably bigger, and when I took my first bite — after getting through some dough — I had a mouth full of frozen Hot Pocket innards. It was awful, so I threw it right back in the microwave for another minute.
On my second attempt, I figured out that I was eating the sloppy joe Hot Pocket, and I was rather pleased with the results. It tasted pretty much like a sloppy joe sandwich but without all the mess. I ate nearly the entire thing save for the doughy ends, and during a follow up call with Scherer, he applauded me on figuring out a superior delivery method for sloppy joes. This filled me full of pride.
I’ve always been a bit skeptical about what the hell a crisping sleeve does, so for my second go-around I decided not to use one. Also, since I still had some ice chips in the sloppy joe Hot Pocket after three minutes of cooking, I decided to cook the sausage pizza version for four minutes. But when I went to eat it, I immediately regretted both of those decisions.
The dough was so hard and chewy that it was nearly impossible to get through. In fact, I gave up after a couple of bites. In fairness, the filling seemed fine; if anything, the sausage was a bit too good for it. “You probably should have used dog food,” Scherer told me later. Needless to say, I quickly became a true believer in the crisping sleeve.
Chili Cheese Dog
Not to seem immodest, but I did a killer fucking job with this one. I’d originally thought that the plainer Hot Pockets might be better, but when I bit into the chili cheese dog flavor, I was thoroughly impressed. The hot dog coins, the chili and the Cheez Wiz perfectly recreated the experience of a 7-Eleven-style chili cheese dog. It was absolutely fantastic, and it immediately made me wish that Hot Pockets would bring back their version from 2012.
When I spoke to Scherer about this, he speculated, “It might have tasted so good because there were so many flavors in there. It creates a flavor vortex in your mouth that prevents your brain from focusing for too long on any one flavor. It’s kind of like the Hot Pocket equivalent of an impressionist painting where your eyes keep moving along the canvas, never staying too long on any one thing.”
This was the only Hot Pocket I made that actually fit in a crisping sleeve. For the rest, I had to cut one side of the sleeve and fold it over. While that was a minor victory, I had to spit this Hot Pocket right out the moment I tried it. It tasted like a mouthful of fucking cornstarch, and the consistency of the insides was almost the same as the chewy dough. Scherer explained later that I should have used about a half a teaspoon for cornstarch, but with my “eyeballing it” method, I used about one heaping tablespoon. It was fucking gross and I threw out the rest.
Chicken and Cheddar
It would have been nice to go out on a high note with this experiment, but I guess that wasn’t in the cards. The first couple of bites of the chicken and cheddar just tasted like Cheez Wiz and flavorless dough, and as much as I’m a Cheez Wiz stan, this kind of had the effect of scooping Cheez Wiz out of the jar with a spoon. I’m happy to report that I’m just not at that point in my life yet.
Things got far worse though when I got to the chicken. While I feel like the word “literally” is overused, I will say without any hint of hyperbole that this literally tasted like cat food. It had a gag-inducing sour taste that I had to spit out immediately. I then threw away that disgusting Hot Pocket and went to brush my teeth. Oh my god it was gross. Seriously, canned chicken is fucking poison.
Honestly, I think two out of five is pretty good odds when it comes to making homemade Hot Pockets for the first — and definitely last — time. The barbecue chicken, sausage pizza and chicken and cheddar Hot Pockets were basically inedible, but I did impress myself with the sloppy joe and chili dog ones. Overall, I’d say I probably gained a greater appreciation for the folks over at Hot Pocket, because I see that their work isn’t so easy after all. On the other hand, if I ever see any microwaved food in a “pocket” again, I may just vomit.