We are three sisters united in our search for the divine - in food, libation, literature, art, and nature. This blog will capture the true, sometimes decadent, at times humorous, and every so often transcendent adventures of the Salvation Sisters.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Triple Chocolate Meringue Cookies—Third Time's the Charm

by Michelle

"Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
                                                                                            ~Albert Einstein

   I have an ongoing fantasy in my life. It's the one in which I dream of being the proprietress of a gourmet specialty foods shop. The type of place that serves seasonal, fresh fare: gorgeous salads with homemade dressings, tantalizing soups served with tartine, savory egg quiches formed in individual tart pans, single serving pizzas (for breakfast and lunch) made on artisinal wild yeast sourdough crust, and of course, perfect desserts that dazzle the eye in the pastry case. The bistro would be open for breakfast and lunch and perhaps afternoon tea (or for me, Café au lait instead of tea). Since I am dreaming, I can also add in a specialty cheese case and house-made charcuterie. I might as well make my own pickles and fermented items, too. Would you like homemade sauerkraut on your pastrami sandwich? Yes, please.
  Then filtering through the sunlit daydream is the reality: food spoilage, employee turnover, vendors, plugged plumbing, a broken oven, fickle customers, payroll, bills, debt, theft, marketing plans, and balance sheets. The list goes on. Plus, after a long day in the kitchen, I am reminded by my aching feet (from standing constantly), and dry hands (from washing continuously) that cooking and/or baking for a living is no joke. It's really hard work. Much harder physically than my chosen profession selling technology services to industrial companies. And, yes, I am aware that if I should choose to go down this path one day, I should work on the business, and not in the business.

My first attempt at making over-sized chocolate meringue cookies.
The cocoa weighed down the whipped egg whites and produced a runny mixture.
  Every once in awhile, while brushing the troubling realities of a food business aside, I pick-up the thread of the dream once more, especially when I browse through the pages of cookbooks written by Rose Carrarini of Rose Bakery in Paris, and Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi of the multiple Ottolenghi establishments located throughout London, or watch a movie such at It's Complicated where Meryl Streep is the sophisticated owner of a beautiful bakery located in Santa Barbara, one of my favorite places on earth. Meryl and Steve Martin make some pretty amazing croissants during a scene in the movie. The film was released in 2009 and I am still coveting the pastry press used to make the chocolate stuffed croissants.
   If you will, picture me tucked into bed one night, reading light on, trying to make myself drowsy by slowly turning the pages of the Otollenghi cookbook while metaphorically devouring the beautiful photographs and using my right-brain to imagine how the delicious sounding recipes might taste. (Try saying Otollenghi five times fast... that'll make you want to snuff the light and go to sleep.) I finally crossed into the dessert section towards the end of the book and instantly became fully alert (now that's counter productive to the sleepy-time routine) when I saw a photo of the absolutely gorgeous Pistachio and Rose Water Meringues and then on the following page the dramatic billowing fluffs called Cinnamon and Hazelnut Meringues.
   When I say meringues, let me confide in you that these particular globes of sugar and egg white awesomeness are like no other meringue cookies I have seen before. These cookies are paving their own way to stardom; all they need is an agent. In his best-selling book, Yotam writes, "If you ask someone if they've heard of Ottolenghi, the answer is often, "Yes, I know, it's the place with the meringues."" All it took was two photos to convince me that what Yotam wrote was true.

The sugar is spread on a parchment lined baking sheet 
before being transferred to the oven.
The hot sugar is ready to be added to the frothy egg whites.
   Ottolenghi's method is based upon adding hot sugar to the egg whites and then beating the heck out of the mixture. I can't imagine doing this by hand and I don't recommend it. You'll definitely need a stand mixer to succeed with this recipe. Being an unabashed chocolate lover, I desperately wanted a chocolate meringue cookie recipe. But, unfortunately, there wasn't one to be found in the book, nor any of the other Ottolenghi authored books, nor on-line. I checked the internet when I discovered Ottolenghi writes a column for The Guardian, a newspaper distributed in the U.K. (I can be absolutely relentless when it comes to research.)
   Similar to my experience with uncovering how to bake a Cathy's Rum Cake, it was once again up to me to figure out by trial and error how to produce a chocolate meringue cookie using Ottolenghi's method as a springboard. As the saying goes, third time's the charm. That's how many attempts it took to get this recipe right. I should be thankful. Three is not so many times at bat in the big "baking picture", especially if one reads Cook's Illustrated and contemplates what their recipe testers endure to get recipes to a publishable state.

The best way to measure the egg whites is to use a scale.
Cold eggs are easier to separate and room temperature whites whip up fluffier.

   I was so excited to prepare my chocolate recipe for the first time. I was confident it was going to be a success. I could tell that the egg and sugar mixture was runnier than it should be, but I thought maybe the meringues might puff significantly while baking. Wishful thinking. The cookies were flat, but still surprisingly good. But, I couldn't get over the fact that I had not produced fluffy, cloud-like pillows of meringue. I debated over whether to throw the finished meringues in the trash but in the end I relented to my daughter who asked if she could take the meringues to school and share with her friends. Color me surprised when the next day I received the following text from my daughter:

  So, bake more cookies I did. The only change I made was to beat the egg whites at a higher speed. I foolishly repeated adding the cocoa powder in the last two minutes of beating. Because I didn't really change anything, I should not have been surprised to get the same result as before. After further contemplation, it finally hit me that the fat in the cocoa powder was deflating the beautiful whipped egg whites. It seems silly really—I was scrupulously cleaning my mixer bowl and whisk with a juicy lemon slice to remove any invisible specs of fat from the bowl and yet I was introducing fat into the mix via the unsweetened cocoa. One tablespoon of cocoa (5 grams) contains a half gram of fat. In other words, enough fat to completely change the final consistency of the mixture from stiff and fluffy to soft and runny. Once the egg whites and sugar have finished whipping, you can add the flavorings or your choice. At Ottolenghi, the meringues are often dipped in pulverized praline or finely minced nuts, such as bright green pistachios.
   For the third try I completely finished whipping the egg whites to the proper stiff and fluffy consistency. Then, and only then, did I mix in the vanilla extract while the machine was still cranking away. After I turned off the machine and removed the bowl to the counter, I used a light hand to fold in the cocoa. I preferred leaving streaks of cocoa through the mix, and then I added the chocolate chips. One of Maddie's guy friends said that the addition of chocolate chips was genius. While I am generally opposed to people throwing the word genius around willy-nilly, when it was applied to me, well... I willingly and gladly accepted the label. 'Cause really, the chocolate chips added to the mix is genius; a moment of inspiration. I also liked liberally decorating the tops with ground cocoa nibs for a more beautiful presentation, plus the nibs are pretty tasty.

The crust is dry, but yields easily to the bite and the inside is gooey like a homemade marshmallow.
Triple Chocolate Meringue Cookies

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Monterey Bay Aquarium and Seafood Salad: Dungeness Crab, Shrimp, Grapefruit, Avocado, and Tomato

My Traveling Tales by Linda

The sea is as close as we come to another world. ~ Anne Stevenson

A sea turtle glides past us in the main tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium at feeding time.
Mark is mesmerized by the view overhead.

   This past fall, Mark and I endured a two hour, very high-pressure timeshare presentation, just to be able to spend two nights on the stunning and singular Big Sur coastline. The swanky facility located in Carmel, had sent me an offer for a very reduced rate for a two night stay in one of their townhouses, if I agreed to submit to a meeting with their sales staff on Friday afternoon. This would be worth it I reasoned, to be able to spend a weekend in some of the most beautiful country in California, and receive a $100 credit to the gorgeous Pacific's Edge Restaurant.
   An added incentive was that Mark had never had the pleasure of visiting the wonderful Monterey Bay Aquarium, which would be not too far from our lodging. I had been to the aquarium twice before. On my first visit, I was the guest of a friend who was the organizer of a spectacular holiday party which was held there at night. The other occasion was part of a Team Build with Whole Foods Market. It had been a few years since my last visit, and I was excited to share the experience again with Mark, who would be a first-timer.

   The building that houses the aquarium is a modern, large and beautiful, and has majestic views of the world-famous Monterey Bay. The mission of the nonprofit Monterey Bay Aquarium is to inspire conservation of the oceans. Education abounds. Monterey Bay is home to many kinds of sea creatures and wildlife. In the spring, gray whales can be seen on their migration heading south from the Bering Sea to the calving lagoons off Mexico's Baja Peninsula. This event attracts killer whales who hunt the gray whales. 
   Thankfully, there are no captive marine mammals to be found here, other than sea otters, but there are many tanks that are populated with dancing jelly fish, sea turtles that glide in giant circles, and large schools of fish. In other venues, there are many varieties of delicate sea horses tethering themselves by their tiny tails to colorful coral outcroppings. In the largest tank, you will find bluefin and yellow fin tuna, along with stingrays and a large and menacing shark or two.

A black light effect is created from the illumination coming from the Kreisel tanks 
which create a circular flow to support and suspend the jellies.
   Life size and to scale models of marine mammals are suspended from the ceilings throughout the aquarium. Children of all ages look with their mouths agape at the amazing spectacle of it all. There is a sea otter exhibit and a penguin venue, both of which are both very entertaining.

Seahorse is the title given to 54 species of marine fish in the genus Hippocampus. "Hippocampus" comes from the Ancient Greek hippos meaning "horse" and kampos meaning "sea monster".

Look carefully… this is not a stray piece of seaweed.

Everyone turns into a kid again at the aquarium, and Mark was no exception.

Tiny spotted jelly fish.

   Monterey Bay has a rich history that was founding on fishing. The Monterey Bay area is also part of the larger area known colloquially as the Central Coast. From the MBA website:

It's been a boom and bust history for the Pacific sardine fishery. During the 1920s through the 1940s, sardines were the most important commercial fish in California. However, under high demand for canned fish, fish meal and oil, this species was fished to the point of commercial extinction. Due to strict fisheries management and improved habitat conditions, Pacific sardine populations began to recover in the 1980s and now support a modest fishery off California.

Sardines lived in great abundance in the Monterey Bay at one time.
The aquarium has a great selection of old photos that show the
history of the sardine industry at its peak.
   The message is clear in the exhibits, photographs and art displayed in the aquarium. We need to act now, if it is not already too late, to save our oceans. The photo collage in the photo below was created by artist Chris Jordan, and it is made from plastic waste that is a major source of pollution in our seas.

The penguins appeared to be having a conversation that included slapstick antics.
   There is a large observation deck at the back of the aquarium, equipped with a telescope, that provides a great place to view a large stretch of the bay.

View to the left on the observation deck at the aquarium.

    The aquarium is very near to the old Cannery Row—made famous by one of my favorite authors—John Steinbeck. This modern day fame has also brought with it all of the kitschy trappings of a tourist town. It is regularly the venue of vintage car shows on the weekends, and the sidewalks are crowded with visitors licking ice cream cones and chewing on salt water taffy—noisy kids in tow.
   Even so, at the end of the day, when I am walking the old Ocean View Avenue (the name of the street when it was trod by the two best friends, John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts), deep in my reverie, I like to imagine them strolling and enjoying the sea air. I picture the both of them engaged in a lively conversation about philosophy, poetry, writing or their next trip together on the sea. They return to Ed Ricketts' Lab for a drink, dinner and maybe a cigar. I remember that the two friends had planned another expedition together, this time to British Columbia. A week from their departure in May of 1948, Ricketts was driving home from dinner one evening, when his car was struck by a train not far from his laboratory. He died three days later, just a few days shy of turning 51.
   And it is then—in the realization that one's life can end in a moment gone horribly wrong—that I think about the things that matter to me. I think about my family and friends—literature, poetry, writing, gardening, photography, and savoring the preparation of a nourishing meal. With that image in my mind—the one of the best friends walking together, deep in discourse—I resolve to keep pursuing my own passions and relationships, and hold close those that are dear to me. I will try my very best to imbue my existence with meaning—or at least some fun and laughter—until the clock runs out.

(May 14, 1897 - May 11, 1948), born Edward Flanders Robb Ricketts, in Chicago, was a marine biologist, and early promoter of ecology, a philosophical writer, and owner-operator of Pacific Biological Laboratories, a marine biological supply company on Cannery Row.
   Ricketts wrote the classic study of intertidal communities, Between Pacific Tides (1939) with his friend Jack Calvin, and was John Steinbeck's best friend until Ricketts' death in a train accident at Drake Avenue in 1948. Ricketts also collaborated with Steinbeck on Sea of Cortez, later renamed Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951), an account of their biological collecting expedition to the Gulf of California. The Log from the Sea of Cortez is considered one of the great literary travel exploration books.
   Ed Ricketts provided Steinbeck with the model—along with with his own vivid imagination—for the fictional character of "Doc", operator of Western Biological Laboratory, located across the street from Lee Chong's grocery (based on the real Wing Chong Co.) and a house of prostitution in Steinbeck's novel Cannery Row (1945) and its sequel, Sweet Thursday. Ricketts also formed the basis the the other "Doctor" characters in Steinbeck's fiction.
   The real Ricketts was an early proponent of ecology and an avid student of literature, philosophy and poetry. Along with fish and game scientist Frances Clark, Ricketts predicted the collapse of the Monterey Bay sardine industry. Ricketts started the lab on Cannery Row (then named Ocean View Avenue) in 1928. Although the building burned in 1936, he returned to the rebuilt Lab to pursue is biological supply business and research. The Lab served as his home and became a forum for writers and artists.

Seafood Salad: Dungeness Crab, Shrimp, Grapefruit, Avocado and Tomato

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Heidrun Meadery, Sparkling Mead and Linda's Salted Honey Butter Popcorn

My Traveling Tales by Linda

"The years have passed like swift draughts of sweet mead in lofty halls beyond the West." 
                                                                 ~ From The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

Carly Verhey, Director of Sales and Hospitality, at Heidrun Meadery.
A beautiful tree-lined lane leads to the meadery.
The Heidrun Meadery tasting room is rustic and open air. 
I rejoiced at seeing the meadery keeps its own bees!
   Just a few days after Christmas this past year, I was scrolling through the feed on my facebook page early on Saturday morning, when I noticed a post from Taste Marin. Turns out that there is a meadery in Marin County. Who knew? I certainly did not, and I was instantly intrigued. Mead, in case you are hearing about it for the first time, is an ancient alcoholic beverage. Wine is made from grapes, and mead is made from honey. It is thought to be the ancestor of all fermented drinks with a history dating back to at least 2000 BC.
   Excited with my new discovery, I then called Heidrun Meadery to see if I could arrange for a tasting that very afternoon. There was indeed space available, and so just a few hours later on a sunny winter's day, Mark and I found ourselves traveling out on the back roads of Marin not too far from Point Reyes Station. We turned down a long tree-lined lane and followed the painted arrow to the meadery.

   We were greeted by a most lovely and engaging young woman named Carly, who is the Director of Sales and Hospitality. For the next hour she educated us about mead and the operations at Heidrun. Not only did we taste several kinds of mead and honey, but we were treated to a full tour of the facility and grounds. I was very excited to see the bee hives that we spotted as we drove into the property.
   One of the things that I love about tasting at small facilities (usually wineries), is that you often find people who are incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about their products. This was the case with Carly. Her enthusiasm for the mead, her knowledge of its history and how it is made at Heirdrun, was truly inspiring.

   The last time that I had mead was on a trip to Ireland in 1997. Our group attended a reenactment of a medieval dinner at Dunguaire Castle, and we all were poured a small cupful of mead, because this is the beverage that would have been served in the middle ages. It was sickly sweet and as I recall, I wasn't in a hurry to try it again soon. In contrast, Heidrun mead was a revelation. The nose of the mead is perfumed with honey and has floral notes, and this mead is also full of delicious bubbles, but it is dry with wild honey flavors that linger on the finish. It is made by using the French Méthode Champenoise, so the sugars are digested in the base wine, and then a second fermentation in the bottle creates the magnificent Champagne bubbles. This multi-step process, which takes four months from start to finish, produces a beautiful beverage that is brut dry and clean on the palate, while retaining flavorful honey notes on the finish. It is rich in aromatics and lightly-scented of orange blossoms, wild flowers or even carrot and avocado flowers, depending on the variety of honey that was used to make it.

    Gordon Hull is the proprietor at Heidrun. The meadery gets its name from Norse Mythology. Odin, according to legend, refused all food for fear of being poisoned by his enemies, and instead existed on mead produced by his magical goat named Heidrun. The business was launched over decade ago by Gordon in Arcata, but Hull desired to be closer to the Bay Area, and five years ago he purchased sixteen acres near Point Reyes and then relocated his family.
   This week when I was writing about our visit in December, Mark brought home the Winter 2013 issue of Flourish (a magazine devoted to sustainable living in California's North Bay), which just happens to have Gordon on its cover, and features a great article about Heidrun. I am attaching a link to the piece which is full of information and beautiful photos. To read the article click here.

Buckets of honey await transformation into mead.

   It takes a lot of honey to make even one bottle of mead (about a half pound). Which brings us to the very timely topic of bees and the frightening decline in bee populations worldwide. In case you have been living in a cave, and haven't heard about the plight of bees, they are dying off in massive numbers. Simply stated, they are in grave danger. It is referred to as colony collapse disorder in the scientific community. The consequences of colony collapse disorder are affecting us now, and Heidrun has had its own struggles with keeping its bee colonies alive and healthy. California, for example, did not have enough bees to pollinate its entire almond crop last year, resulting in an almond shortage. I have a two word solution to help the bees: Buy Organic! Pesticides and GMO proliferation are thought to be major contributors to the crisis.

Custom made fermenters. They are a smaller version of the kinds that are 
used in France for making Champagne.
Carly demonstrates for us how the honey is heated to a workable temp.
The honey is heated by the rod in the barrel. Our group tries a taste.

These boards are called "riddling racks" and they are part of the time-honored way 
that Champagne or sparkling beverages have been produced.

   After our tour of the warehouse, we walked outside and talked some more about bees. As previously stated, Heidrun has its own hives and beekeeper, Brad Albert. Some of the hives are kept in Bolinas and San Anselmo, as well as at the meadery, but Heidrun does not yet produce enough honey to make much mead from it. Carly did admit that keeping the bee colonies alive has been difficult. The aforementioned article in Flourish quotes Gordon saying that the heavy rains in the first years nearly wiped out the young colonies, and one morning this past October the bees had simply disappeared. Therefore the bulk of the honey used at Heidrun is sourced from other beekeepers in California, and to my surprise, quite a bit of the honey comes from Hawaii.

It was heartening to see busy bees working in the winter sunshine.
Carly fields questions from our group about the bees and honey.
   The land that Heidrun Meadery is on, was once part of the well-known Giacomini Dairy. I visited the Giacomini sisters at their dairy in Point Reyes last fall, where they make award winning cheese. I wrote about my visit in a post which we published last November. To read about my trip to Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company click here.

The Heidrun Meadery tasting room was once part of the Giacomini Dairy.

   Mark and I need more wine like Imelda Marcos needs more shoes, but we purchased six bottles of the delicious mead anyway. When we returned home, and I was doing some research for this post, I discovered that there is a renewed interest in mead across the country. According to an article that I found in the New York Times, there is a renaissance  in the making of mead.
   One of those purchased bottles of Heidrun sparkling mead made from California avocado blossom honey was sent to Michelle in Arizona, so that she, Jay and Maddie could taste it. I am sure they are going to love it as much as Mark and I do.
   To purchase mead or to go on your own tour at Heidrun, call the meadery. Tasting is by appointment.

Carly was a wonderful subject to photograph since she is so darn pretty. She was a 
really good sport about me clicking a camera in her face for an hour.

Linda's Salted Honey Butter Popcorn
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