Sunday, November 25, 2007

Happy Accidents

When A. came home for Thanksgiving, she brought a recipe that she wanted to make for a friend. It was a chocolate chip meringue recipe, and the meringues were fine, I suppose, but they were awfully sweet, even after I -- hoping to counteract some of the sugar -- added some cocoa powder. I checked recipes on the web, and they were mostly very similar, though they did have a somewhat more reasonable baking method, which I adopted. The recipe A. brought asked me to preheat the oven to 375, turn it off when I put the meringues in, and then leave the meringues in the oven for thirteen hours. As this would have meant the meringues would be done after A.'s departure, I switched to 250 for an hour, followed by two hours in the oven, which also meant I could use the oven for other things.

In the past, I have often not understood the problem many people have with foods that are very sweet. It's true that I'd long ago abandoned the sea-of-corn-syrup form of pecan pie for the much less sweet pecan pie from Beat This, but while guests who have that pie for the first time marvel at how good and how much less sweet it is, it's still a very sweet dessert. A nine-inch pie will easily give you twelve servings. But I have long adored many very sweet foods, from caramel to fruit punch.

But tastes, including my own, change. These days I am more about the dry martini than the mai tai, and I will always pass up the milk chocolate for the dark. Within reason, of course. I still find that a bar of 72% chocolate can be eaten only in nibbles, over time.

So I wanted a much less sweet meringue, and when I was home alone yesterday, I set out to make one. I used more egg whites and less sugar. I used cocoa powder and bittersweet chocolate, plus some orange zest. And I used Whey Low (google it if you don't know) in place of sugar. In my first try, I decided to beat the egg whites to about soft peaks and then beat in the sugar and cocoa combined, and I ended up with something which seemed like it might make a decent icing. So I tossed that and tried again, and this time the finished texture seemed just write, and I had about forty nice little clouds of meringue when I put them in the oven.

When I (finally: I'd baked them for an hour, then turned the oven off and gone out to a movie and dinner with some friends and then invited them back for pecan pie) took them out of the oven, I had flat disks. I was disappointed, but then I peeled one off the Silpat and tasted it, and I thought, "Not bad." Additional tasting and the opinions of my guests (and I must have realized they were pretty good, or I wouldn't have offered them around) ramped "not bad" up to "delicious."

I would still like to know which of the possible factors (whey low instead of sugar, not enough whey low/sugar, the presence of the orange zest, or something else) deflated my meringues, but given that I'm not willing to change any of the known possible culprits and given how good they are, I'll probably just stick with this recipe in the future. These meringues (or whatever you'd call them) have a taste that's both delicious and sophisticated. They're a perfect small cookie to serve with coffee or tea. Or probably to garnish a chocolate mousse, though in that case you might want to shape them differently.

OC Meringues

3 egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 t. salt
1/2 cup sugar
3 T. cocoa powder
1 t. vanilla extract
3 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped fine
Zest of one orange, finely grated

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Line a baking sheet with foil, or use a Silpat

Beat the eggs on low speed until they're frothy. Add the salt and beat to soft peaks.

While beating, gradually add the sugar and beat to stiff peaks. Beat in the cocoa powder and then the vanilla extract.

Fold in the chocolate and the orange zest.

Drop by teaspoons onto the prepared baking sheet.

Bake at 250 degrees for an hour. Turn the oven off and let the meringues sit for two more hours.

Other recipes will tell you to use mini chocolate chips. You could do that, I suppose, but it's much better to use good chocolate (I used Trader Joe's Pound Plus bittersweet for this. I didn't use the 72% chocolate, which I think would have been too much.) and to chop it yourself. It's good to have some of the chocolate still in small chunks while some of it has been reduced almost to a powder.

I mixed my orange zest in with the chocolate, but I would be happier, I think, with another method. I had to fold longer than I'd have liked to get all the zest incorporated. I think that next time I might put the zest and a tablespoon of sugar in a spice grinder and then fold the mixture in at the end. It seemed to me that all of the folding didn't deflate the meringue, at least when it went on the cookie sheets, but I could tell that the last ones I put on the sheet were softer than the first ones because I'd had to scrape the batter off the sides of the bowl a couple of times to get the last couple of cookies formed. But they all baked up the same.

I formed mine with two teaspoons. I got a heaping teaspoon of meringue in one spoon then pushed it off with the other. You can make them larger or smaller if you like, but if you get about three or three-and-a-half dozen meringues from this recipe, I think that's the ideal size.

As soon as these are out of the oven, you need to put them in a ziplock bag or a container that seals tightly. Otherwise, they will suck moisture out of the air and become sticky.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Little Something for the Cook

I guess it's been a while since I posted. I don't have a good reason for that. V. and I went to Italy in the middle of October, and it was a trip filled with so much good food and wine that I could easily have made many posts about the spinach gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce or the really fabulous pizzas I had in Florence and Rome (we also went to Venice, where the food is slightly less impressive, but the gelatto is cheaper). Or at the very least, I might have posted about the melanzane marinate that I had in an extremely charming family-run restaurant a couple of blocks from the Tibur. I did my best to recreate it when I got home, and I got something very good, albeit somewhat different from the inspiration antipasto.

But I didn't, obviously, write about any of that. Still, it's hard to let Thanksgiving pass without posting.

Thanksgiving this year, as it has been for the last couple, was just the girls and I having dinner together. A. has been away at college, and this was the first time I've seen her since the beginning of September. V. had warned me that when she came back the first time, I would find her changed, but she's the same wonderful person that she always has been. Also hungry. She is not especially enamored of the dining hall food at her school, and she was very much looking forward to having me cook for her. And I have.

Where my daughters are concerned, there is really no point in making the large number of dishes that I would normally prepare. The girls want turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, and pie. A. will also eat green beans. This year, I confited them (reusing the fat from the first time I tried the process), and A. thought they were remarkably good. I had to agree. L. was particularly enamored of the garlic mashed potatoes, and they both liked the turkey, the gravy, and the pies. I was happy with the way everything turned out.

Since I only had eight things to make altogether (turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, green beans, pumpkin pie, and pecan pie) and since the pies and the cranberry sauce were made (and the turkey brined) the night before, the cooking process for Thanksgiving itself was relatively leisurely. At some point, I was putting the turkey neck and the giblets into a saucepan to make a stock for the gravy, and it seemed to me that I ought to have a nice way to use the liver. I had a large pot of water that I was heating up to boil the potatoes in later, so I used that to make a hard-boiled egg, and I made a turkey liver spread that was entirely delicious. It, along with a glass of wine, is just the sort of thing to keep you humming along while you're spending a day in the kitchen.

Turkey Liver Spread

The liver from one turkey
1 T. butter
2 T. port
1 hard boiled egg
A 1/2" thick slice of bread
Heavy cream

Melt the butter in a skillet over low heat. Season the liver with salt and pepper. Turn the heat up to medium and cook the liver for two to three minutes on each side. Add the port, ignite, and cook until the flames die down. Let cool slightly, then put the liver and liquid into the bowl of your food processor. Add the egg and process until smooth. Add the bread and process again. With the processor running, add cream until the consistency is as you like it. Add salt to taste. Serve with toast.

The spread is especially terrific when eaten right away, but you'll likely have too much to eat right away unless you have considerable help. Cover the rest tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate. It's still very good when it's thoroughly chilled.

The girls, of course, have no interest in anything made from liver. More for me.