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

   If you make the full recipe, you will have a considerable amount of egg yolks leftover. One of my favorite ways to use leftover egg yolks is to make lemon curd, or even better, lime curd which is less well known and absolutely sublime as a dipping sauce for strawberries, or any berry, really. Egg yolks will last two to three days, tightly sealed in the refrigerator. This gives you time to also whip up Hollandaise sauce for a delicious breakfast of Eggs Benedict, or anchovy-tinged dressing for a Caesar Salad.
   To increase or decrease the proportions, it is handy to know that Ottolenghi's basic meringue recipe is a 2:1 ratio of sugar to egg whites. Eggs are available in different sizes so the easiest way to make sure you have your proportions correct is to weigh the egg whites. My scale has a tare function on it, so I simply put the empty container on the scale and then turn it on. The scale will register zero weight, and then I can proceed with separating the eggs and weighing the egg whites as I go.
   Fat is no friend to meringues. Make sure your bowl and whisk are squeaky clean. If you make cookies and cakes in your stand mixer bowl, chances are, no matter how much you scrubbed, there can still be an invisible greasy residue left after washing and thoroughly drying. The fat is easily removed by rubbing the flesh of a fresh lemon slice all over the bowl and whisk. Rinse the bowl  and whisk with water and dry with a fresh, clean towel. The other enemy, besides fat, is humidity. Do not attempt to make meringues on a humid or rainy day. You'll be setting yourself up for disappointment if you forge ahead undeterred by the warning.
   One final note, regular granulated white sugar weighs the same as ultra-fine sugar. Some specialty grocers carry ultra-fine sugar, which is also known as Caster sugar. The good news is that you can make ultra-fine sugar at home with a food processor. Simply weigh your sugar and then transfer to the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Make sure you have the feed tube sealed to avoid a puff cloud of sugar escaping through the top. Whirl the sugar for a couple of minutes and then transfer to a parchment lined cookie sheet.

a thick lemon slice, to clean mixer bowl and whip attachment
600g extra-fine sugar, also known as Caster sugar
300g egg whites (about 10 large or 8 extra-large)
2 tsps vanilla extract
6 Tbsps unsweetened cocoa powder
about 1-1/2 cups chocolate chips
about 3/4 cup cocoa nibs

Special Equipment:
stand mixer
food processor equipped with a steel blade, optional
parchment paper

1. Egg whites are easier to separate from yolks when the eggs are cold. Conversely, room temperature whites whip up fluffier and higher than cold whites. I use three bowls to separate my eggs. A small bowl to catch one egg white at a time, a jar to hold the yolks, and a plastic measuring vessel to hold all the egg whites. Using one bowl to act as a catch for each egg white ensures that if I accidentally break an egg yolk, I don't taint all the egg whites. Any tiny bit of yolk will inhibit the eggs from whipping properly, so I am extra careful when separating the eggs. Cover the egg whites and let them rest while they come to room temperature, about one hour. Store the egg yolks, tightly sealed, in the refrigerator for another use.
2. If you don't have Caster sugar on-hand, make ultra-fine sugar by whirling granulated sugar in the bowl of a food processor with the steel blade. Let the motor run for 2 to 3 minutes.

Cocao nibs need to be finely ground in a food processor or very carefully in a coffee grinder.
3. Wipe the food processor clean, then whirl the cocoa nibs until finely ground, about 2 minutes.
4. To ensure that the bowl of your stand mixer and whisk attachment are squeaky clean, take a thick slice of lemon and thoroughly rub the citrus over the surfaces, then rinse and dry thoroughly with a fresh, clean towel.
5. Arrange oven racks and preheat oven to 400°F. Spread the super-fine sugar on a parchment lined baking sheet and transfer to the oven for 8 minutes. In the meantime, transfer the room temperature egg whites to the bowl of a stand mixer. At the 8 minute mark, begin beating the egg whites with the whisk attachment, gradually increasing the speed to medium-high (#8 on my KitchenAid 600 Series). After a couple of minutes the egg whites will begin to appear frothy and light. Remove the hot sugar from the oven. Immediately reduce the oven temperature to 225°F and leave the door ajar to release the heat, helping the oven to cool.
6.  Set a timer for 10 minutes and begin gradually adding the hot sugar to the whipping egg whites. Add all the sugar, large spoonful by large spoonful over the course of 3 to 4 minutes while the machine continually runs.

Add the hot sugar one big scoopful at a time, slowly incorporating the sugar into the egg whites.
Use the parchment paper as a chute
to add the remaining hot sugar to the mixer.
5. Continue to beat the egg whites on medium-high speed for the remainder of the time. The mixture will cool as it beats. At the 10 minute mark the bottom of the bowl will be warm, but not hot. It's okay to beat the eggs for one or two more minutes to continue cooling the mixture, if needed. Before turning off the machine, add the vanilla extract and let the whisk incorporate the liquid into the egg whites.

The beaten egg whites are stiff  and hold their shape when formed.
Gently fold in the cocoa powder and chocolate chips.
Coating half of the shaped meringue with the finely ground cocao nibs.
6. Remove the bowl from the stand mixture and move it to a work surface to shape the meringue cookies and place on parchment line baking sheets. Using two spoons, shape the meringue into a puffy ball about the size of a medium apple, and then lightly place it in the bowl with the cocoa nibs. Transfer the meringue, inverting it on to the cookie sheet so that the cocoa nib covered top is facing up. As you work your way towards the bottom of the bowl, you may need to add a few more chocolate chips and sprinkle with a bit more cocoa powder.

7. Transfer the cookie sheets to the oven. When you close the door, let the oven temperature once again reach 250°F, which will take a minute or two, and then immediately reduce the temperature to 200°F. The oven is used to dry the meringues, not bake them. The heat of the oven will evaporate the water leaving a crunchy exterior and a soft, airy, and marshmallow-like interior. With my oven, I let the meringues dry for about 2-1/2 hours. Remove, and let the meringues cool on the cookie sheets that are set on cooling racks. The beautiful meringues will last well for approximately 4 days, if they aren't devoured immediately, that is. Yields 15-16 large meringues.

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