Monday, October 6, 2008

Meringues - Fluff n' Stuff

It's been meringue season around here. Given that I try to limit my gluten intake - makes my belly happier - I'm always looking for good dessert options. When Ira and I were in Stowe together back in February - ah, the memories, the snow, the margaritas, the time alone - we found these great meringue cookies in the local store. They had a great crunch and taste, punctuated by sweet, chewy raisins, nuts, and tart cranberries. And they were basically a meringue base although they had a nice cookie-like feeling. After much meringue baking these past few months - and let's not forget Pesach baking (okay, not for some time thankfully), it's become clear to me that's it's all about the baking time and what you fold into your cookies that will determine their texture and crunch. If you want a drier meringue, bake them in a low, slow oven and wait for them to dry out. If you like the bit of 'marshmallow' inside to your meringue, bake them less time and make them bigger so there's more of a gooey pocket inside.

I can add a new note to the baking process. We have a new oven - I am deeply thankful about this, in particular to our friends Robert and Mona, who in arriving in Israel with their worldly goods in tow, shlepped in said oven. Our last batch baked up...perfectly. They baked properly and with only a hint of brown to their white exteriors. They were, in a word, glorious. An airy pocket of sweetness with just a hint of softness inside. It's amazing what a well-calibrated oven will do for you. Thank you American Range.

As for the biggest problem with meringues, the leftover yolks, I no longer obsess about it. I often combine them with a few whole eggs for a dinner frittata or accept the loss or make these nut cookies (read the article and look all the way at the bottom to the last paragraph for these simple cookies) with them.

Recipe (adapted from Viana La Place's Dessert and Sweet Snacks):
3 egg whites
1 tbsp white vinegar
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2lb coarsely ground or chopped toasted almonds
1/2lb coarsely ground or chopped bittersweet chocolate

We always double or even triple this recipe. We usually use chocolate chips because they are lighter and easier to combine in chip form but chopped chocolate is always lovely.
I usually combine 1 cup of ground toasted nuts along with 1/2-1 cup sliced toasted almonds. I also like toasting a cup of flaked, unsweetened coconut and grinding that along with the toasted almonds and/or hazelnuts. (To toast nuts, lay them on a baking pan and roast at 350 for 5-8 minutes, tossing them around every 2-3 minutes and sniffing in order to avoid burning them. Coconut will go quickly.)
1/2-1 cup cranberries are great along with the nuts and chocolate. Swapping in raisins or chopped apricots in part or whole for the cranberries also works just fine.

Preheat the oven to 250.
Beat the egg whites with the vinegar and salt until stiff but not dry. Meaning, they'll look fluffy like snow and have soft drifts in the bowl but not stand up at attention. Very gradually, add in the sugar and continue to beat until meringue forms stiff peaks. It will look like a craggy pile of marshmallow in the bowl - shiny and irresistible but you wouldn't really want to eat it. Gently fold in vanilla, nuts, chocolate, etc.

Line baking sheets with parchment paper and drop mixture by teaspoonfuls about 1" apart on the prepared pans. Bake until firm, without browning significantly, about 45 min. Cool and remove to cooling rack. Store in an airtight tin - don't put them away until they're really cool and if the day is humid, don't cover tightly as they'll get stickyish. Not that you can't eat them this way, but I like them dry.