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Saturday, July 14, 2007

Adventures in Meringue

Meringue opens a world of possibilities to anyone trying to eat healthy but delicious food. Whether a soft cloud of meringue topping, the delicate chewiness of meringue as a shell for topping, or the delightful crispness of baked meringue drops, meringue is guaranteed to satisfy the sweet-tooth without busting the waistline. However, like many stars, this wonderful food has a reputation for being a bit temperamental. I challenge you to rise to the challenge with me as I attempt to build mastery over meringue. My adventures in meringue begin with my efforts to create an orange chocolate meringue recipe.

Meringue offers a perfect challenge for building meaningful mastery over food. Too often diets are litanies of rules. At the end of all those rules, too often we feel enslaved to food and the rules dictating its consumption. Mastering a difficult but reasonable culinary task--like understanding meringue--offers you the chance to turn the tables on dieting and take charge of your relationship to your food. The essential elements of meringue are widely available and relatively cheap, making it perfect for learning by trying.

My adventures in meringue began with an inspiration: I love the orange flavored dark chocolate that seems to only be available at Christmas. Many childhood memories are pleasantly associated with the twisting of rich chocolate and citrus. So I decided to try to create a recipe that would mingle those tastes within the intelligent indulgence of meringue.

I was working from a basic meringue recipe I received from my college roommate. Before beginning, however, I looked through several of my favorite cookbooks. I was surprised that many didn't even attempt the subject. Alton Brown, however, was priceless. He offers a clear, step-by-step guide of the process of making meringue that helps explain the food chemistry behind these sweets. He is a worthy companion to anyone truly interested in the subject.

For my first batch, I was overly eager. I took the eggs out of the refrigerator, but didn't wait long enough for them to truly warm to room temperature. Instead, I began whipping them while they were still chilled. As a result, I was never able to achieve the volume that I should have, even though I whipped for some time.

Lesson One: Always whip egg whites that are completely room temperature or slightly warmer. Put your hand to the bowl that contains the whites. If it feels even slightly cool to the touch you will be cheating yourself out of volume.

When I added the cream of tartar, it clumped oddly in the bowl, and I had difficulty getting it to incorporate fully into the egg whites.

Lesson Two: Mix your cream of tartar with 2 Tbsp of your sugar. Add this sugar/cream of tartar mix first slowly. Allow volume to build before adding more sugar.

I know from past experience that when whipping meringue, it will first become opaque, and then slowly build a sheen or luster. This can take some time, and depends not only on the temperature of your ingredients, but also on your equipment. Because I do not have a hand-held mixer, I was using my Kitchenaid stand mixer. Although usually a wonderful tool for any task, the stand mixer with whisk attachment was unable to fully reach the bottom of the bowl, and a small pool of egg white remained unincorporated at the bottom. For the second batch, I learned my lesson and alternated between hand whipping and mixer (observe the difference in the photos at right).

Lesson Three: If you have a hand-held mixer, this is best. If not, alternate between whipping vigorously by hand and the stand-mixer. Although hand-whipping can be a bit of an exercise, this will produce much better results.

Now came time to experiment with my flavoring agents. However, I discovered that flavoring agents can also impact the structure of the meringue. As I added the 1/2 tsp of orange extract, I heard the distinctive hiss of delicate meringue bubbles releasing their air. As I whipped to incorporate the extract the mixture lost some of its lightness and reduced slightly in volume.

Initially disappointed, I scooped the meringues onto the parchment paper to bake. I decided to make twelve large meringue 'cookies' rather than many smaller meringue bites. This is a matter of taste generally, but I find that a single larger portion helps me with portion control. Those small bites make it just too easy to eat many.

Immediately after finishing the first batch I set about the second batch. This time I was more patient and used egg whites that were thoroughly warmed. I was rewarded with a much fuller meringue as I went through the stage of whipping. This time around I also made the decision to see how low I could take the sugar, to try to increase the healthfulness of these sweets without sacrificing taste: I reduced the 3/4 C of sugar to merely 1/3 C. Even with the reduced sugar, the meringue seemed to be whipping together well and showed every prospect of achieving stiff peaks. Nevertheless, when it came time to add the orange extract, I once again heard the hiss of escaping air. At best I had medium peaks.

Lesson Four:So far I am convinced this is an inescapable side effect of using the orange extract.Alton Brown warns that incorporating fats into meringue can jeopardize the lift in the meringue. This recipe originally calls for incorporating chocolate chips, so I was initially not concerned. However, it seems the orange extract reduces the ability of the meringue structure to hold in the air bubbles that give it volume. In the end, I think this is a worthwhile trade-off for the delightful and unusual orange and chocolate taste.

Undaunted, because this was a learning process after all, I scooped the meringue onto the parchment sheet in small spoonfuls. It produced 30 small meringue bites. When I baked these, they were still very soft at the end of the proscribed baking time, which surprised me. The larger meringues had been crisp on the outside after the proscribed 25 minutes. I expected these smaller bites would be done earlier, if anything. After 30 minutes, as the outsides began to brown, I carefully removed the meringue bites to cool.

Both produced a heavenly taste. Although one of my tasters suggested that she could taste more sweetness in the larger, more sugary, meringues, the difference was slight. However, I believe the difference in sugar produced the difference in the texture of the finished meringues. The larger meringues, with their higher sugar content, produced a delicately crisp exterior with a heavenly soft interior. By contrast, the smaller meringue bites, with their lower sugar content, remained soft throughout and never formed a crisp exterior (after several days in a sealed container, however, they did form some crispness).

Coming soon: The final Orange Chocolate Meringue Recipe!

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