Category Archives: desserts

SICILIAN CASSATA

Cassata

One of my occasional readers recently asked if I knew of a place in Los Angeles where it was possible to eat original Sicilian cassata. Aside from the fact that “original” should be used loosely as there are probably as many cassata recipes as there are Sicilian grandmothers, the answer would probably be no. At least, not that I found.

Cassata is an old-fashioned and extremely ancient and fairly elaborate cake that, for centuries, was synonymous with the Easter festivities. Its simplest incarnation is made of sponge cake filled with ricotta (possibly sheep’s), covered in fondant and candied fruit. Its presentation can veer towards the extremely fancy and the fondant replaced by almond paste. Some recipes will also call for nuts, maraschino cherries or liqueur. Intensely sweet, it is not surprising to know it’s an offspring of the Arab pastry tradition. The Arabs ruled over Sicily between the IX and XI century and, culinary speaking, they introduced cinnamon, bitter oranges, mandarins, citron and almonds.

Originally, cassata was just a roll of pastry dough, filled with sweet sheep’s ricotta (a cheese that Sicilians had been making for centuries) and baked. Under the French domination a few centuries later, Sicilian nuns started producing an almond dough that went on to replace the simple flour one. Fast forward in time and the Spaniards brought sponge cake (in Italian still called Spanish bread) and we arrive to the contemporary version. The Baroque period contributed the elaborate candied fruit decorations.

Cassata is pretty heavy and not for the faint of heart or those watching their weight. These are only a couple of reasons why it’s seldom found on restaurant menus or in pastry shops – it takes time to make and the candied fruit required is not the round of the mill that is easily available but the chunky, sweet, soft and colorful one that might need to be imported (read: expensive). After pouring over a myriad recipes plucked from  some of my books and Italian websites, I have come to the conclusion that making a traditional cassata here in the States is ridiculously hard. One would have to source sheep’s ricotta, find an importer that carries Sicilian candied fruit and buy fondant – or else make fondant. There are shortcuts one can take or creative solutions but the “traditional” part of the recipe would be tossed aside.  I have come across some iterations for American magazines that are not really worth the bother.

Maybe some dishes are best confined to our memory or to occasional trips or, in this case, the luck of meeting a Sicilian grandmother willing to make a cassata for you. But for those determined souls, I did find a great recipe I am in the process of adapting and translating. More tomorrow…..In the meantime, should you know any secret place in Los Angeles that serves a mean cassata, please enlighten us.

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BEST HOME-MADE BANANA ICE-CREAM

Pleading bananas

The mottled bananas were pleading from the counter “Use us!” Ever mindful of not throwing food away, I picked them up with a mind to freeze them when, instead  of condemning them to a few weeks at the back of the freezer, waiting to fill in for fresh ones in my morning smoothie, I opted for making banana ice-cream.

Banana is not a flavour I willingly order at the ice-cream parlour but it’s so delicious when made at home, so creamy and it goes so well with many bits and bobs I might have around the kitchen (chocolate chips, walnuts, pineapple, peanuts etc) that I love having it around. Plus, it gave me an excuse to get my ice-cream maker out of the closet, and make its twice yearly appearance.

My secret ingredient, you might have guessed, it’s alcohol. A touch of rum gives complexity to the taste without dimming it. This is probably a good time to mention, contrary to what might have transpired from these pages, that I don’t actually drink, because of a mild allergy to alcohol. I will enjoy a cocktail now and then but  I will pay the price with a stuffy nose or, worse, instant sneezing. Watch me have a beer to be  believed… I am just saying…

RECIPE

2 C Heavy Cream

1 C Milk

1 Vanilla bean

3/4 C Sugar

3 Very, very ripe bananas

3 Egg yolks

1 T Rum

 

  1. Combine the milk, cream and sugar in a pot. Split the vanilla bean and add both seeds and pod to the mixture. Bring to scalding point.

    Scald the milk

  2. Place the egg yolks in a small bowl and, once the milk mixture is about to boil, ladle some of it in the bowl and whisk vigorously. Pour the egg mixture back into the pot and whisk.Temper the eggs
  3. Mash the bananas with a potato masher and add them to the hot milk mixture. Add rum and whisk to break as much of the banana puree into the milk mixture.

    Mash the bananas into submission

  4. Strain through a tight mesh colander or a cheesecloth, pressing with the back of a ladle (you can keep the discarded banana puree and add it to your cereal).
  5. Refrigerate the liquid making sure to place plastic right on its surface, to prevent a skin from forming.
  6. Once cool, pour into your ice-cream maker and freeze according to instructions. Because of the alcohol, this ice-cream will always be very creamy and slightly soft.

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ADVENTURES IN GLUTEN FREE

Pity the poor person allergic to gluten. In the last few years, an improbable segment of the population has become intolerant to gluten, if not allergic. It used to be that only those suffering from Celiac disease had to stay away from gluten, and their food choices were pretty grim. As only people of Mediterranean descent can be susceptible to Celiac and those who suffer from it amount to only 3% of the US population, gluten allergy and the sprouting of gluten-free bakeries and products is somewhat of a mystery. Gluten free baked goods are the new cupcakes.

The craze might be explained with more and more doctors telling patients that gluten is indeed harder to digest than other foods and that staying away from yeast and wheat does alleviate some minor allergies, as I found out years ago when I abstained from wheat for a few weeks for unrelated reasons and my nose cleared up completely. Which is why I have gotten into the habit of buying some gluten-free products.

A few weeks ago, I found myself discussing the merits of different brands of gluten-free bread with a customer. My personal favourite is made by Rudi’s Organic Bakery, out of Colorado (all gluten-free bread is kept frozen so same day baking or consumption is not an issue). Glutino, an Israeli company whose products for North America are made in Canada, is responsible for some kick-ass pretzels and chocolate covered wafers but they also make bread, bagels, cereals etc. The customer I was talking to suggested I visit The Sensitive Baker in Culver City – their bread is just the best, he assured me. So, on it went on my list of things to do on the week I dedicated to dabbling in gluten-free.

The Sensitive Baker ( thesensitivebaker.com) is a modest storefront operation that makes an impressive array of breads and cakes, cookies and treats. Most of them will not be available when you walk in but they are listed on their online menu and can be made upon request. On the particular Monday I visited it, a very pregnant and very unhelpful lady with whom I tried to engage in conversation about their products was manning the store. She made me sample their bagels which were indeed fluffy and moist but I ended up buying a loaf of millet bread which set me back $8.00. It tasted ok but not as close to the real thing as Rudi’s “Original” which, once toasted, really could pass for Wonderbread.

Gluten free baking is a process of trial and error and bread is usually made with rice flour  or grains like millet or corn. They all incorporate starch in the form of potato or corn starch and some sugar such as honey or molasses. At The Sensitive Baker they had boxes of pretty cupcakes but, being $8.00 poorer, I passed.  Their website also lists some other mouth-watering concoctions.

Instead, I embarked on making my own gluten free treats, having come across a recipe for Gluten Free Sugar Cake Doughnuts by Erin McKenna of famed Babycakes in NY. Unexpectedly, I had most of the extravagant ingredients at home, compliments of a friend who really wanted me to try gluten-free baking and gave me some rice flour and garbanzo and fava bean flour together with some xanthan gum (more about that later).  Coconut oil I had bought to experiment with not long ago  so all I needed was applesauce and other staples.

Baking sweets with no gluten is even harder than making bread. Replicating fluffiness and moistness with flour made from pulses or rice is hard. Xantham gum, more commonly used in the food industry than you might think, is a polysaccharide derived from the bacterial coat of Xanthomonos and it’s used as a thickener and a stabilizer. In the case of gluten free, a small amount of the powder helps aggregate and keep together the ingredients, in the absence of eggs.  Unrefined coconut oil is a good substitute for butter but, as it turns out, its taste doesn’t really match everything.

I mixed all the ingredients, scooped the batter in savarin molds and lovingly put them in the oven – they did make the kitchen smell delicious. When I unmolded the little cakes and sprinkled them with cinnamon sugar,they looked really pretty and appetizing. The texture was perfect – fluffy and moist. The drawback? I am not sure whether it’s because of my extra sensitive palate but, after the first one, I just couldn’t get rid of a bizarre aftertaste of chickpea mixed with coconut oil, not one of my favourite combinations, it turns out. I waited an hour and tried again with not much improvement on my taste buds. Which is why the rest went in the trash and I blessed my lucky star who didn’t endow me with big boobs but lets me eat proper doughnuts whenever I feel like it.

 

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RHUBARB AND STRAWBERRY COMPOTE

Crazy on rhubarb

Get it while you can. In two to three weeks, rhubarb will have disappeared from the markets and you will be left with the frozen variety, if you are lucky. At the Farmer’s Market, the crimson stalks are a harbinger of Spring – they arrive before the bounty of stone fruit and berries, giving the poor Pastry Chef a respite from citrus while waiting for Summer.

Rhubarb looks very much like celery but denser and with leaves that remind me of kale. It’s unlikely you have seen the leaves unless you have come across a plant itself as the stalks are all cleaned up by the time the reach the consumers, the reason being they are highly toxic. Clearly a vegetable, the US deemed it a fruit for commercial purposes in 1947 so that a lower tax would be imposed.

Indigenous of China and Russia, where it grows on the banks of the River Volga, the Chinese were aware of its medicinal properties as long as 5,000 years ago (it’s a strong laxative). It was my compatriot Marco Polo who introduced rhubarb to Europe, where it remained extremely expensive all through the Middle Ages, more prized than cinnamon and saffron. When sugar became  widely available in the 18th century, rhubarb found its place in the kitchen – it was the English who came up with the combination of mixing rhubarb and strawberries in pies (see, we have uncovered another culinary discovery hailing from Albion!). In the US, it made its appearance around the 1820’s.

On my way to Vancouver, shortly after moving to the States, my boss at the time joined me from Seattle, laden with boxes of rhubarb  pie, my first encounter with the sweet possibilities this vegetable offers. Until then, rhubarb, to me, was synonymous with bitterness as Italian monks, for centuries, had been making digestive bitter drinks with it. I never looked back from that first pie,  going on to using rhubarb in cakes, turnovers, compote. I like to roast it with sugar and eat it even just by itself.

Last week, at the market, the kind man working the produce aisles dove in the back and returned with a couple of pounds upon my asking. I bought some organic strawberries and planned to mix it inside a cake batter and use the rest for a compote. Here is how.

Rinse and cut 4 stalks in 1/2 inch pieces. Place them on a baking sheet with 1/4 cup of sugar and roast at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes or until very soft. Let cool.

While the rhubarb is roasting, the strawberries go in the pot

Hull and rinse a pint of strawberries and halve them. Put them in a pan with 1/3 to 1/2 cup of sugar (depending on your palate and the strawberries’ sweetness) and 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract. Cook on low heat until the strawberries start to break down. Add the rhubarb and mix.

 

It took less than 30 minutes

Use the compote to embellish your oatmeal or eat it warm with vanilla ice-cream and, if you are adventurous, pour a reduction of balsamic vinegar on top.

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OF RICE PUDDING, TRUNKS AND OLD LOVES

Seeing the light of day for the first time in a decade

The last time the bundle of yellowing letters had been sighted was years ago. But I knew they were somewhere, in some trunk, just not sure which trunk. Believe it or not, I have more than one scattered around the house as I have a weakness for used trunks spotted at flea markets, spurring fantasies of previous owners. At the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, I haggled with a sweet man who was moving to Peru and was trying to sell all of his wares, amongst which a 1930’s beauty case in mint condition, perfume bottles and hair brushes et al, with the engraving “Lola Ford”. In my imagination, Lola Ford hailed to Los Angeles from Wisconsin, real name Shelly, with big screen ambitions who eventually settled for a moderately wealthy businessman, after a few roles as an extra on the Warner Lot. Be as it may, Lola Ford’s beauty set now lives forevermore in my bedroom.

But that is not where the stash of letters was. The frantic search was prompted by thoughts of rice pudding on an unusually rainy day. I can’t quite remember the last time it rained in Los Angeles in May but it did this year, filling me with yearning for rice pudding,  one of the ultimate comfort foods.
I was a late comer to rice pudding, which I made for the first time in my late 20’s upon receiving a recipe from a former lover. Hence, the need to find the letters with the original recipe.
Maybe I should backtrack a little. Of course, I have made rice pudding countless times at this point and, more recently, I experimented with a baked variety, an in-breeding between rice pudding and flan which turned out disappointing and a far cry from my first rice pudding. Usually I don’t refer to a recipe for something that simple but, as with so many first food memories, M’s rice pudding stood above all others, even the sticky rice ones with mango I so love. And I had to find out whether the reality matched my memory.
When I first received the recipe, I started making it obsessively, probably fuelled by love, lust and a frantic life-style that didn’t allow for much home cooking. It was easy to make in large batches and call it dinner for days in a row. Then, when the love story was all over, so was my fling with the pudding.
I am glad e-mail was not in existence then because I would  have deleted it in anger while today, at trunk number 3, I finally located the bundle of letters, buried under old journals and there, amid sweet words and dated photographs, was the recipe. These days, I would probably fancy it up with nuts, exotic fruit and savory combinations but I restrained myself and made it as I did the first time, all those years ago.
The verdict? Good enough to be the ultimate comfort food. Eaten while watching a British love drama on a stormy night, it  might induce this girl to finish the whole pot. Which would be a disaster on the waistline…Better put letter and recipe away for another 20 years.
RECIPE – as originally sent to me
1 1/2 C     partially cooked rice (short grain works better – that is my addition)
2 C            whole milk (skim or low-fat is not rich enough, the author said)
1/4 C        sugar (or 1/3 if you want it sweeter)
1/4 ts       salt
1               egg (beaten)
2/3 C       raisins, preferably golden
1 T            butter
1/2 ts       vanilla extract
                  cinnamon to taste
1. Mix 1 1/2 cup of the milk with the rice as it finishes cooking (I think he meant to add hot milk to the rice to finish cooking it). Add sugar and salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently – Don’t scorch the milk – 20/25 minutes or until thick and creamy.
2. Mix remaining 1/2 cup of milk with the egg, add to the rice, keep stirring. Add raisins.
3. Cook another 5 minutes, stirring constantly now. Add butter and vanilla.
4. Spoon into serving dishes and sprinkle with cinnamon
(Best cold)
Options: serve with whipped cream or half and half or fresh grated lemon/orange zest

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MARSHMALLOWS

The conversation went something like this.

Me: “I think I’ll make marshmallows”

Family member, doubt written all over his face: “Don’t you buy them?”

Sardonic me: “Well, you can buy cookies too, it doesn’t mean…”

Doubt was not erased from his face so, to prove him that yes, marshmallows can indeed be made at home (thus avoiding that chemical after taste the store-bought ones have) I went digging for some history and, to my surprise, I discovered that marshmallows used to be the by-product of the marshmallow plant which was known to the ancient Egyptians for its medicinal properties, easing sore throats being the most popular.

The Egyptians made a candy by mixing the sap of the plant with honey and nuts. French patissiers in the 19th century whipped the sap to make what was known as “pate de guimauve”, a very labor intensive forebear of marshmallows as we know them. To speed up the process, they figured out that by whipping egg whites and adding gelatin and/or cornstarch they could bypass the marshmallow plant altogether and produce a very pleasing candy. It was then an American who invented an industrialized process that would make the candy in long, soft tubes, thereby introducing the shape we are all familiar with. The name “marshmallows” stuck although the plant is no longer used.

If you would like to  make your own, here is a simple recipe. All you need is a candy thermometer. Once the marshmallows are set, cut them with a knife or a cookie cutter. They will keep for a long while.

RECIPE – Yield 13” x 9 1/2” pan

1/2 C Corn Syrup

1 1/2 C Sugar

1/2 C Water

4 Egg Whites

8 Sheets of Gelatin

1/2 Vanilla Bean, scraped

1/2 ts Vanilla Extract

  1. Combine corn syrup, water and sugar in a saucepan. Bring to boil until the thermometer reaches 235F (soft ball stage, in candy-making terms)

    Put sugar, cornstarch and water on the stove with a thermometer

  2. In a mixer, whip the egg whites to soft peaks.
  3. In the meantime, place the gelatin sheets in a small amount of water until softened. Squeeze it with your hands and add it to the sugar mixture. Stir until dissolved.
  4. With mixer running on medium, pour the warm syrup into the egg whites in a steady stream.

    Whip until quadrupled in volume

  5. Add the vanilla extract and pods and whip on high for about 10 minutes, until the marshmallows cool down completely and quadruples in volume.

    Dust pan with powder sugar and cornstarch

  6. Dust your pan with powder sugar and cornstarch and pull the marshmallows over it. Dust with more powder sugar and cornstarch on top and chill overnight.

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ITALIAN CHOCOLATE BUDINO

Chocolate Budino

I like to call it my Italian chocolate budino but it’s more like a very lush chocolate pudding. Budinos have more of a jello consistency while this recipe delivers one of the most delicious stove top puddings I ever encountered. I came across this recipe years ago, in the LA Times,  courtesy of Vincenti’s Restaurant in Brentwood and it caught my eye for the counter intuitiveness of its preparation.

Essentially a custard, the milk gets added cold and the eggs are tempered as the very last step. After making it, I realized that the odd sequencing is what contributes to the silkiness of the pudding – as it doesn’t sit on the heat for too long, the chances of overcooking it or making it grainy while waiting for it to thicken are eliminated. Be as it may, I made some minor adjustments and I still use this recipe for a variety of purposes: a cake or cookie filling as well as served on its own.

RECIPE – Serves 6

7 oz semi-sweet chocolate (I use Valrhona Pur Caraibe 66%), cut in small chunks

4 T cornstarch

6 T + 1 ts sugar

2 1/3 C whole milk

3 1/2 T butter

2 egg yolks

  1. In a small saucepan, over low heat, melt the chocolate with 2 T of water. Stir constantly to avoid scorching. Set aside.
  2. In another saucepan, whisk together cornstarch and sugar. Whisk in the cold milk and melted chocolate. If it looks like a clumpy mess, don’t worry – it will come together as you cook it. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until creamy – about 2/3 minutes. Bring to a boil and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly, until you feel it thickening.

    The boring part - whisking

  3. Remove the pan from heat and whisk in the butter. Temper the yolks in a separate bowl by whisking a bit of the chocolate mixture into the egg bowl and then add the egg mixture back to the pan and whisk vigorously.

    In goes the butter

  4. Should the pudding look a bit grainy, strain it through a chinois or a sieve but I bet you will not need to.Eggs are standing by
  5. Pour or spoon quickly into ramekins and cover each one with plastic, making sure the plastic touches the budino to prevent a layer of “skin” from forming.

    Finally found a use for all those yogurt jars

  6. Refrigerate for a few hours or overnight. It won’t be terribly sweet so you might want to serve it with sweetened whipped cream.

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HAMANTASHEN OR HAMAN’S POCKETS

Tomorrow night marks the beginning of the Jewish Festival of Purim which commemorates the Jews living in Persia uncovering a plot on the part of Haman to kill them all. The story is recounted in the Book of Esther, otherwise known as the Megillah. It’s a joyous occasion, sort of a Jewish Carnival during which each adult has the nice obligation to give two different kinds of food to a person in need. It’s the Italian Jews that should  probably be thanked for the carnivalesque aspect of the holiday when, in the 15th century, they introduced masks and costumes to mark the occasion.

At this time, kosher bakeries display trays of hamantashen, or Haman’s pockets (or, in France Haman’s ears). Triangle shaped cookies with an opening that leaves some of the filling to be admired, they are normally filled with a paste of nuts, dried fruit and spices although contemporary versions have become progressively more experimental.

My take on Haman’s pockets is reminiscent of the “ravioli” cookies my aunt used to make and it calls for pate sucree,  slightly sweeter and more buttery than the original dough, and for a filling of chocolate pastry cream. But anything on hand will do: jam, chocolate chips, honey and nuts.

Pate Sucree

2 Yolks

3/4 C Sugar

8 oz Butter, cut into small cubes and softened

2 C AP Flour

Pinch of Salt

Zest of one lemon

 

  1. Mix the sugar and yolks in a mixer fitted with the blade attachment. Add the lemon zest and salt. Add the flour and mix on slow until a fairly sticky dough forms. Adjust the flour as needed. Wrap and chill for a few hours.
  2. When ready to bake the cookies, roll the dough to about 1/4” thickness and use a 2 to 3” round cookie cutter to cut circles. You can re-roll the scraps.
  3. Place about a teaspoon of the filling (see below) in the center of the rounds and lift the sides of the dough to form a triangle, but without pressing the edges together so that the filling can be seen.
  4. Beat a whole egg with a fork and brush the glaze on the cookie dough.
  5. Bake at 350F until golden, about 15/20 minutes.

 

Chocolate Pastry Cream

2 C Whole Milk

1 Vanilla Beans

5 Egg Yolks

1/4 C Sugar

3 T Cornstarch

1/2 oz Unsalted Butter

3 T Unsweetened Cocoa

3 oz Bittersweet Chocolate, cut in small chunks

 

 

  1. Cut butter into small cubes, place in mixing bowl and set aside
  2. Scald the milk with the vanilla bean in it and remove from heat. Remove the pod but scrape the seeds in the milk.
  3. Combine sugar, cocoa powder and starch; whisk into yolks
  4. Slowly pout the hot milk into yolk mixture, whisking constantly.   Strain and return to the stove top.
  5. Cook over medium high heat, stirring constantly to a slow boil.
  6. Pour into a bowl where you will have placed the butter, add the chocolate chunks and whisk to incorporate.  Cover with plastic wrap directly on the surface
  7. Chill completely prior to using.

 

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CHOCOLATE CHEESECAKE

A friend recently asked me for a chocolate cheesecake recipe for her grandfather. Cheesecake seems to be the quintessentially American dessert but, in history, it was one of the first sweets ever made, specifically by the Greeks and then copied by the Romans.It makes sense as cheese was abundant at the time and most of it was of the fresh variety. Honey was the sweetener of choice (well, it was the only one available) and the cake was often topped with cooked fruit. Not so dissimilar to what we serve today.

Nearly every culture can claim a cheesecake: the British and American bake it with cream cheese, Italians make it with ricotta and a little bit of flour, resulting in a thinner and more “cakey” variety and Latin Americans typically make it as a flour cake to which cheese is added.

NY style cheesecake is dense, nearly dry and is made using heavy cream while most other American cheesecakes feature sour cream which not only does add a slightly sour tang but makes it ideal for freezing. Most cheesecakes come with a crust (graham crumbs or a cookie sheet) for ease of transferring, cutting and serving but I tend to like my cheesecake crustless, which reminds me more of a pudding. Once baked, it needs to be left on the bottom of the pan rather than slid on its own plate.

Here is the Chocolate Cheesecake recipe. At work, I would use small amounts of milk and unsweetened chocolate in addition to the bulk of the bittersweet for a complexity of flavors but if you are making just the one 10″ round it makes more sense to use just a bittersweet chocolate.

If you are using a standing mixer, a few tips are:

1. Make sure the cream cheese is really soft to ensure smoothness

2. Never beat at a high-speed – cheesecake is one of those cakes that does not need to have too much air incorporated.

Other than that, it’s pretty forgiving.

 

RECIPE

9 oz      Cream cheese, softened

3/4 C     Sugar

4 1/2 oz Bittersweet Chocolate

2           Eggs

1 ts       Vanilla Extract

1/4 ts    Salt

12 oz     Sour Cream

 

1. Beat the cream cheese , sugar and salt in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until smooth and light.

2. In the meantime, melt the chocolate in a small bowl set over boiling water. Add to cream cheese and mix until blended

3. Add the eggs and mix, frequently scraping the sides of the bow with a spatula

4. Mix in the sour cream and beat until smooth

5. Prepare a 10″ round with removable bottom and line it with a round of parchment paper. Pour in the mixture and wrap foil around the pan to prevent leakage.

6. Place the pan in a large roasting pan and pour hot water to reach 1/3 up the sides of the cheesecake round

7 . Bake at 350F for about 1 hour or until cheesecake is set (it will move as a solid mass when lightly shaken).

8. Let cool and then refrigerate for at least 6 to 8 hours before serving.

9. Decorate with whipped cream or berry compote

 

 

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HEAVENLY MERINGUE

It occurred to me that, for over a year, the photo header on my blog has been a group of airy and fat meringues, one of my favourite sugar concoctions, but I never talked about them in these pages. So here is my meringue history and culinary lesson.

Meringue was most likely first made in France around the late 1600’s. The first recorded recipe can be traced to Francois Massialot’s cookbook of 1692. In English, the word made its entrance in the early 1700’s, sometimes called “white biskit bread” or “pets”. “Pets”, which lovingly translates to “fart” in French, is still the name of choice for slow baked meringues in the Loire Valley.

In the Pastry kitchen, there are 3 different kinds of meringues:

French, the most common one, made of 1 part egg whites to 2 parts of sugar. It gets baked until completely dried up;

Italian, made by adding hot syrup to the egg whites and typically not baked all the way through and used for desserts such as Baked Alaska;

Swiss, whereby egg whites and sugar are heated on a bain marie before being whipped.

I always find it miraculous that only two ingredients can produce so many variations and so delicious at that. Making meringue is extremely easy although more things than a cook can think of can go wrong. If the egg whites are not beaten to perfection (over or under beaten) you might find sticky puddles of sugar forming in or around it. If the sugar is not completely dissolved it will create pockets of sugar inside the meringue, making it unpleasant to the palate. Or, worse, it will make the meringue feel like sand under your teeth. Baking meringues in an oven that is too hot will leave you with yellowish meringues.

There are a few tricks to a perfect meringue:

 

  1. Make sure the bowl you are using to whip the egg whites and sugar in is perfectly clean as any fat residue will prevent the expansion of the albumen
  2. Ditto for the sugar. No foreign bits and pieces in it
  3. Using room temperature egg whites is not strictly necessary but it helps and, above all,
  4. the eggs need to be very fresh. You can tell an older egg when the white is very clear and thin.

To make just plain meringues start with half a cup of egg whites and 1 cup of fine white sugar. Place the egg whites in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and start whipping on medium speed. In a steady stream add the sugar. Add a 1/4 ts of cream of tartar and keep on whipping on high until the meringue reaches stiff peak. And what the hell does that mean? Recipes always talk about glossy, soft peaks, stiff ones…Well, in this case, if you were to take the whisk out of the bowl and shook it vigorously, the meringue will not detach easily. It should look glossy and compact – if it is dull or has holes in it, you overwhipped.

Next, placethe meringue  in a pastry bag fitted with a star tip or simply use a spoon for a more free form cookie. Pipe it on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper (or silpat) and immediately put in a 210 to 250F oven. If your oven is electric, leave the door slightly ajar during the baking process. Bake for approx 90 minutes. You will know they are done when, sliding a spatula or a knife underneath the meringues, they will detach easily.

Switch the oven off and leave them to further dry, with the oven door slightly open. In an air tight container, they will keep for a couple of weeks, provided they are not exposed to any humidity. The applications are endless. Dip the tops in dark chocolate for a fat-free cookie. Use them for a Pavlova, an Eton Mess, as a base for any fruit concoction, sprinkled on puddings….

PS. The photo, incidentally, was taken in Venice. Two of those giant meringues subsequently dissolved in my tummy.

 

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