Friday, January 27, 2017

A Frothy Challenge for the New Year - Third Time's a...

I feel that, before I go on, I should explain my connection to making these meringues, and why I feel the need to try multiple versions over the course of multiple weeks.

Here are a few reasons, in mostly chronological order:
  1. I'm the youngest of four kids - three of whom were born in May. Of the three in May, I was the third. But my parents insisted that we should each have our own birthday celebrations. And - well - there came a time when we got to the point where we didn't necessarily want to have all that cake in one month, so Mom had to get creative. (Since then, I've outgrown that ridiculous aversion to multiple cakes in one month.)
  2. My brother-in-law's mom had a wheat allergy way back before gluten-free was a thing. They would frequently spend Christmas with us, and so my Mom would make a layered "frozen meringue torte" to use as a birthday cake, since it has no wheat in it. 
  3. When I was in my late-20s/early-30s, I got invited to my first Passover Seder, and was asked to bring a dessert, since they knew I baked a lot. No leavening could be used, and since I hadn't grown up around that kind of baking restriction in small-town South Dakota, I was a little stumped, until I thought about the frozen meringue torte.
  4. We now have a bunch of friends who - for one reason or another - are avoiding gluten. And some who are avoiding dairy. And, well, desserts made of pretty much just egg whites and sugar tend to avoid most allergens. (Umm... no... I don't have an alternative for people who are also egg-allergic.)
There's also a great family story from when I was in high school and one of my cousins was staying with us on a "gap year" and we were making meringues in my mother's electric range and... well... my cousin blew up the oven. Or, rather, the element was old and somehow it split while the meringues were in the oven and arced. Either way, it was pretty spectacular. And I kind of always associate meringues with sparkly times in the kitchen.

So, with all that in mind, we come to this week, when I checked the barometer and pulled the egg whites out of the fridge good and early. (Timing note: I may have done this just a day or two after the last batch, as opposed to a full week later, so that the whites didn't go bad - but don't tell anyone, because I don't want to ruin the immediate feel of the blog posts.) 

The recipe is actually a word-of-mouth recipe that I got from my mom way back when, and which I put into a family cookbook that I put together for my sister's wedding a few years back.

As with the past two weeks' attempts, we'll only be focusing on the meringues - not the toppings.
A couple of things you might notice if you compare this prep photo with those from the past couple of weeks: 1) no vinegar; 2) the cornstarch has been replaced by cream of tartar - which goes in at the beginning; 3) less than half the sugar.

I once again measured out the egg whites, then added the cream of tartar and let the mixer go. I figured it would be a little while, but in moments I had frothy egg whites.

I'm debating whether I like the square images better than rectangle. Hmm...
I added the sugar in, bit by bit, along with the vanilla, and - again - thought I'd be waiting a few minutes. Within about 45 seconds, they had whipped up to this:
Seriously - at least 5 minutes faster than the other method!

I wasn't ready to be convinced, though - it seemed too easy - so I put the mixer head back down and let it run for another minute or so.

At which point I had to admit that I couldn't see the peaks getting much stiffer than that. I mean - straight up against gravity is about as stiff as you can hope for.

Although I wanted to stick with the "scoop it onto the parchment paper" technique, since I'd done that with the previous two batches, I found that this was an incredibly shape-able batch. I could make "walls" on the sides of the dollops, adjust the top peaks, and - had I wanted to - probably could have piped it out.
See the cylindrical shape on the one at the front left? I did that!
The one catch? Since there's only about a third as much sugar, you don't get as much "batter" - just nine of these this time, and I think there were twelve with the other batches.

These went into a 275-degree oven for 45 minutes, and then the oven got turned off and they had to stay in for another hour until they were completely cooled off. 

You can see a few holes in the sides, but no large cracks - so far, that's better, right?
I took them out of the oven after the hour of cooling, and since they were still just a hair warm (I suspect this is more of an issue with a gas range than with an electric range due to the pilot light), I left them on the pan on a rack to cool all the way.

Okay... the square photo works for this shot.

When I picked one up to see how the bottom was, I noticed how incredibly light it was compared to the last batch. (Again - 1/3 the sugar for the same amount of egg - so that's a lot of weight taken out of the mix.) As with the others, these had a nice solid base that I could tap with a fingernail, and my hopes were rising as I set it down and grabbed my knife.

Okay. Yes. The top - which was much thinner than that of the other batches - shattered upon contact with the knife. But, inside, along with the air pocket, there was a kind of frothy "marshmallow with a shell."

Biting into it, I got the crisp outer shell, the slightly dry/firm outer layer of the marshmallow, and then the springy interior. It's an odd sensation to bite into, really. Whereas all of the previous meringues have been a bit chalky throughout, this was almost doughy.

Is that the marshmallow-y interior I've been aiming for all along? If so, was it worth the work?

I've got to admit that I'm not sure how to answer that.

These, obviously, were also not as sweet as the last two batches. I'm more used to the "just barely sweet" version, so I appreciate that - though over the past two bakes I've gotten kind of used to the "oversweet" version, which did make these a bit of a surprise.

Here's the thing, though: I think the temperature of the bake may have been a larger factor than the extra ingredients (the vinegar and corn starch) that put me on this sample path in the first place.

I also have to stop and consider that each of the recipes states that you're supposed to be making a relatively large disk compared to the forms I've been making (8 or 9 inches, as opposed to 3 inches). That could be making a difference to the interior texture, too.

For now, I think I'll let the froth die down on this challenge and declare it a bit of a draw - though I may take it up again sometime later, when I don't already have 3 dozen random meringues in the kitchen.


Quick! What should my next kitchen trial be? Any ideas?

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