May 16, 2008
My freezer is not exactly in its prime, and it suffers from ice buildup syndrome.
I put stuff in there, all wrapped up and all, and a few weeks later everything's covered in frost like the beard of a North Pole explorer. And after a while, there's so much ice covering the shelves that I half expect to see penguins skating around.
Part of my job, as this freezer's caregiver, is to defrost it regularly -- i.e. use up everything that's inside, turn it off, let the temperature rise, detach entire ice caps (that's the fun part, not unlike loosening one's milk teeth), clean the whole thing, and start afresh.
The use up everything that's inside step is, of course, the one that takes the longest. It can take weeks, especially since I'm a bit of a squirrel (I've always thought squirrels must have freezers in their tree trunk caches, but I may be wrong).
My latest empty-the-freezer campaign turned up a small tub containing two egg whites, leftover from recent batches of squeeze cookies, for which only the yolks are needed.
Leftover egg whites usually mean rochers à la noix de coco, langues de chat, or tuiles in my kitchen, but this time, a violent desire to make meringues took hold of me. This was to be my first time*. I was excited.
At the risk of sounding completely irrational, I must note that I've never been much of a meringue fan. When my sister and I were young girls and we dropped by the bakery to buy ourselves a goûter (an afternoon snack), she sometimes chose one of those big, pale pink, swirly meringues; I could never understand what was so appealing about a large, dry lump of sugar styrofoam that left dandruff down the front of your shirt. (Me, I was partial to the CD-sized, chocolate-coated sablés.)
So, what caused my change of heart on that particular day? Well, I had just read an excellent how-to article in the copy of Delicious. I'd brought back from Australia, and it had convinced me that, contrary to my prior belief, French meringue** was totally within my reach.
Two things remain from my old thoughts on meringue, however: 1-, I am only interested it if it has a mallowy heart -- that little lump of chewy, sticky, your-dentist-is-going-to-love-this cooked sugar. And 2-, I want flavor. The first concern is adressed by well-timed baking and proper cooling; the second, by the use of a quality flavoring agent or, in my case, a good unrefined cane sugar***, whose toffee flavors have been enhanced by the empty vanilla pod I placed in it weeks ago.
So, with that in mind, if you're a meringue virgin -- or a long-time abstinent --, I encourage you to give this recipe a try: summer is just around the corner, and you're going to need meringues to garnish your cups of berries and ice cream, no? I myself am plotting all manner of flavor variations (using cocoa powder, flower syrups, or ground nuts) and sandwiching opportunities (think ganache or fruit preserves).
* I have a long history of shying away from any recipe that requires the whipping of egg whites. My beloved stand mixer is helping me on the path to recovery.
** Technically speaking, this style of baked meringue is refered to as French meringue, as opposed to Italian meringue (used in marshmallows in particular; it is made with cooked sugar and isn't baked) or Swiss meringue (the egg whites and sugar are whisked over a pan of warm water then whisked until cool).
*** The sugar was light brown; this colored the batter and made the meringues lightly tan, too.
As a side note, if you have access to French magazines, perhaps you'll be interested in purchasing the May/June issue of ELLE à table, which came out yesterday. The layout and structure of the magazine have been spruced up, and I have a new column in there now!
- 3 large egg whites, at room temperature (see note 1)
- 175 grams (3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons) sugar (see note 2)
- 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (or other flavoring)
Preheat the oven to 140°C (285°F) and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Place the egg whites in a large, clean bowl (i.e. dry and with absolutely no trace of fat). Using an electric whisk or the whisk attachment of your stand mixer, whisk until soft peaks form (see note 3).
Keep whisking continuously as you add in the sugar, one tablespoon at a time: wait until each tablespoon is fully incorporated before you add the next. Once all the sugar is incorporated and the mixture is smooth and firm and glossy gorgeous, whisk in the vanilla until incorporated.
Using two tablespoons, form pingpong- to golf-ball-sized blobs of meringue and drop them on the prepared baking sheet, giving them some space (roughly their own width) to expand. (You can use a piping bag, but I prefer free-form meringues. At this point, you could also sprinkle the meringues with sliced almonds.)
Place the baking sheet in the oven and bake for 45 minutes for soft centers, 1 hour for fully baked centers. If you prefer soft (as I do), remove the baking sheet from the oven, let cool for 5 minutes, then transfer the meringues delicately to a rack to cool. If you prefer fully baked, turn the oven off, open the oven door just a crack, and let the meringues cool inside for a couple of hours.
The same recipe can be used for larger meringues or even a single large disk for a pavlova; adjust the baking time accordingly.
Note 1: I had only 2 egg whites, so I scaled the recipe by two thirds. Frozen and thawed egg whites work fine. It's best if the eggs are more than just a few days old.
Note 2: I used unrefined light brown cane sugar, in which an empty vanilla pod had been steeping for months, so I skipped the vanilla extract.
Note 3: Start on low speed until you can see bubbles at the surface, then switch to medium speed for a minute, and then whisk at full speed until the soft peak stage. "Soft peaks" mean that when you lift the whisk from the egg whites, they form a fluffy peak that doesn't collapse.
Adapted from an article that appeared in the February '08 issue of Delicious..
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