Saturday, April 21, 2012

Meringue Mania!

It's raining today, so I decided to show you the wonderful world of meringue.  Which is probably a really dumb idea, since you're not supposed to do meringues on a humid day. But I'm just a little crazy like that. Livin' on the edge, that's me.

I honestly don't think meringues get enough play. I don't know why, since they're fairly simple to make and you pretty much always have the ingredients on hand, plus they're low-fat.  A nearly guilt-free treat that is a satisfying party in your mouth. My mom used to make individual meringue cups and we would fill them with ice cream and sometimes even put chocolate sauce on top (again, I grew up livin' on the edge, people).  The ice cream would melt a little into the crispy meringue shell, which would then get this kind of gooey, chewy, marshmallow-y texture that is so wonderful! Ironically, I really don't like lemon meringue pie. The texture of that kind of meringue (just sugar-y air with no texture) is just off-putting for me.  Just wanted to share that with you all.

 I'm also giving due respect to the pavlova, a super simple dessert that is as easy to make as it is impressive. It's a little retro, having been created in honor of dancer Anna Pavlova in the 1920's, but I'm on a mission to bring it back into vogue, because it's just that awesome. If you're not familiar with this dessert, it's a meringue shell (made in individual sizes or in one huge, magnificent disk of sugary lightness), filled with mounds of whipped cream and topped with fruit.  It's a heavenly combination of creamy, sweet, tart, and chewy. My go-to recipe is from Nigella Lawson's How to Be a Domestic Goddess cooking and baking book.  If you don't have it, and like baking, you need to go out and get it, pronto.

But the latest bee that got stuck in my meringue bonnet was this wonderful meringue I ate while I was in London recently.  It was this enormous, crunchy, chewy chocolately confection that was indescribably delicious.  I saw different versions of them in various pastry shops around the city, but finally succumbed to their sweet siren song when I was wandering around Selfridge's food hall (between that and my time at Fortnum and Mason earlier that day, I was in foodie heaven!).

Here's me, with my Selfridge's meringue:

Wouldn't you want to know how to make something like that??!!  I would, or die trying.  Well, not really. It's just an expression.

I think some might be intimidated by meringues because of the whipping of the egg whites. Or maybe the fussiness of separating the whites from the yolks. But neither is really that hard with a little practice. I kind of go between two techniques for separating eggs. I'll give you both and you can figure out which one works best for you. A couple of things to remember: make sure your hands are clean and free of oils, as well as the bowls and utensils you use.  Oil will make it difficult, if not impossible, to whip your whites up light and airy.

Separating the whites from the yolks (there are lots of videos on-line if these directions are confusing):

First: Make sure you have a bowl for your whites and a bowl for the yolks (you can use these for lots of other things like scrambled eggs, cake, french toast, custard, curd, etc.).  Also, I find that it's easier to separate eggs when they're cold, versus room temp (it seems that the yolk isn't as fragile). Lightly crack the shell, but don't break it open, yet. Holding the egg over the bowl you want the whites in, turn the egg on one end (you want the yolk to be resting inside one end of the egg. Then, pull the top half of the shell off from the bottom half (the yolk should be resting in the bottom half of the shell). A lot of the white should come out and fall into your bowl. Then cradle the yolk back and forth between the two shell halves, letting the rest of the white fall into the bowl. If there is white hanging that doesn't fall, you can separate it off by scraping the other half of the egg shell against the hanging white.  Once you've got as much of the white separated as you can, dump the yolk into the second bowl.  An alternate technique to the cradling between the egg shell halves is to dump the yolk and white into your gently cupped hand, then spread you fingers slightly and jiggle the yolk back and forth in your hand until the white falls through your fingers. The second method is messier, but easier for me (less opportunity for the edge of the shell to break the yolk), but try it and see what works for you.

Now that you've got your egg whites, we're ready to whip it!  Whip it good!  (Ha ha! Devo reference. Apologies to any of my younger followers...)

Here's what you need for the meringues (I used the Nigella Lawson recipe, but halved it):

Clearly, I forgot the sugar for the picture (I'm new at this, so bear with me), but I made sure to list it under the ingredients, since it's pretty key to the recipe.  Frankly, I'm not used to gathering my ingredients before I start a recipe, but I'm trying to be better about that.


4 egg whites
pinch of salt
3/4 cup sugar
2 tsp cornstarch
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 tsp white wine vinegar (I used cider vinegar because I didn't have the white wine vinegar).

Make sure your egg whites are at room temperature. If you separated the eggs while they were cold or cool, let the whites sit out for another 30-45 minutes or so. Add the salt to the egg whites, then whip with an electric mixer (I have a Kitchen Aid stand mixer that I love, but any electric mixer will do. You could also use a whisk, but takes a lot of energy and arm strength/endurance.  Since I don't have either of those, I can't recommend that method). The whites will start to stiffen, looking kind of like this:

Then you can start adding the sugar, a couple of tablespoons at a time, to the whites.  Keep beating until stiff, thick and glossy.  About like this:

See the difference? The final product should be glossy and marshmallow-y looking, and very thick.  Total time for beating will only be about 10 minutes or so. Then, sprinkle the vinegar, vanilla and cornstarch over the whites and fold in to incorporate. TIP: to make sure the cornstarch doesn't clump, hold a small strainer over the bowl, sprinkle the cornstarch into the strainer, then shake until the cornstarch has fallen through.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees (F, not C).  While the oven heats, line baking sheets with parchment paper. For the pavlova, spread the meringue into a 10-inch circle (you can make individual shells as well, just adjust the baking time accordingly), creating a little bowl (sides higher than middle), like this:

When the oven is pre-heated, put the meringue in, then turn down the oven to 300 and bake for 30 minutes, then turn off the oven for another 30 minutes.  Take the meringue out of the oven to cool completely.

To finish the pavlova, whip 1 cup of heavy cream with 2 Tbsp of powdered sugar (chilling the bowl and beaters help this process go faster). Mound it in the center of the meringue, then top with 1 1/2 of berries of your choice (I've also topped with pomegranate seeds, which is really delicious, too).  This dessert can not be made ahead of time, but the different components can, and then easily assembled just before serving.

Sorry for the out-of-focus second picture.  I should always check the photo quality before I eat up the product.  But I'm hoping you can see the lovely layers made by the meringue crust, billowy whipped cream and sweet strawberries.

For the Selfridge's meringue recreation, I had to do some experimentation.  What worked best was dry ingredients: grated chocolate or cocoa powder mixed with a little powdered sugar, or hot chocolate mix. That kind of thing.  I did try to do a berry one, but those meringues turned out much more "wet" and chewier. Not entirely a failure, but definitely a different texture.  The best result in terms of fruit was using dried fruit (cherries) pureed with a little bit of strawberry syrup (like the syrup you use to make strawberry milk).  Using the fresh fruit was way too watery. When I try again, I might experiment with either Nutella or melted chocolate to see if I can get that streak-y deeper chocolate-y effect that was in the Selfridge's one I had. For the chocolate chip, I grated dark chocolate into some of the meringue mixture and folded it in to incorporate, then mounded it on the parchment-lined baking sheet. Before I baked them, they looked like this:

Once you put them in the pre-heated oven, turn the temperature down to 275, then bake for 45 minutes.  Turn off the heat, but let the meringues sit in the oven for another 30 to 60 minutes.  You want the outside of the meringue to be stiff and dry, but not brown. If you try the fruit-flavored one, I had to keep those in the oven at 200 for another hour, then turned off the oven and let them sit in there to dry out even longer (until the oven was completely cool).

Here's the inside of the meringue I added the cocoa powder to:

And here's the one with the cherries in strawberry syrup. Again, sorry for the lack of focus...

The flavors were great, even if the textures were really different. You can tell that the one with cocoa has a nice crisp crust that shatters when you bite into it, but the cherry one, while it still holds its shape, has a softer, marshmallow-y texture. Of course, you can make these just normal cookie sized (bake for less time, of course), but I love how over-the-top and indulgent the big ones look!

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