We all know the phrase, “practice makes perfect.” I have to disagree. Prima ballerinas must continue to practice throughout their career always looking for ways to be a little bit better. Expert surgeons, who teach other surgeons, seek to hone and improve their technique and find new and better ways to perform procedures. Not that I am anywhere in their league – but everyday I practice making choices that will help me become even better at maintaining my healthy lifestyle. As long as we are here we just keep practicing – perfection is for the next life.
Back in early December I blogged about my unsuccessful snowman shaped meringue cookies. What I haven’t fessed up to in the mean time is the further attempts and failures I have had trying to make any meringue cookie. After “the snowman debacle” I tried again a week or so later only to produce sad spongy little blobs. When I lamented my failures, well intentioned friends breezily told me how easy it is to make cute little meringues. I was frustrated and disheartened so I swore off baking.
Puzzled by my failures my good friend Venessa, of Kernels and Seeds blog, invited me over for a little baking lesson. We didn’t make meringues, but she did show me how to make marshmallows, another fun recipe that requires stiff peaked egg whites (see her beautiful post here). Before we started the marshmallows she showed me a bag of the most beautiful meringue cookies I have ever seen. She made them herself after I shared my experience. Not only were they exactly what I envisioned, they tasted amazing. The top cracked as I bit into it and hidden in the botom was the most wonderful pillow of marshmallow fluff. Well that did it – I had to master making meringues. They only require four ingredients FOR CRYING OUT LOUD!
A couple of weeks ago I asked Venessa to share her recipe and any tips for how she may have altered the basic process. She sent me a link to a post on the blog Food in Jars and told me that she warmed the egg whites and sugar over a water bath to help them whip up better. Armed with my new tips I tried again and failed again. I couldn’t get the eggs to stiffen up. They were a lovely sort of melted marshmallow fluff texture. UGGGGGG!!!!!!! Perhaps there was some unseen substance in the mixing bowl or a crazy amount of humidity in my kitchen.
Something about that third failure felt more like a challenge than a disaster. I decided to accept.
When the sun came out again today, I knew it was time to try again. After a few days of nice weather I guessed that the relative humidity should be low. I also had the use of my brand new stainless steel bowls. I left a half dozen eggs out while I set about practically sterilizing the kitchen. Before I cracked the first egg, I measured my other ingredients and set them where I could reach them easily with my free hand. Then I prayed.
The yoke broke on the first egg I cracked, and to be honest, I almost walked out of the kitchen. The next three eggs separated easily and I was ready to go. The first batch did not work but I was beyond the point of stopping. I washed everything again and after a quick Google search and a slide show on how to whip egg whites into stiff peaks, I was back in it.
This time, I sprinkled a little salt on the egg whites before beginning, as suggested by the slide show. The whisk attachment in my brand new hand mixer spun steadily and the eggs began to froth. Not wanting to take any chances I sifted 1/2 teaspoon of cream of tarter into the bowl while whisking. I kept the mixer on low speed and slowly, but surely, the froth became foam. After about 5 minutes of whisking the foam resembled hair mousse. That’s when I started to get nervous. It was looking like this batch was going to go the way of the two previous attempts and just not stiffen up. I kept whisking and then in a desperate move I stopped whisking and separated a fourth egg. I had been letting the mixing bowl perch over a pot with warm water in it so the egg whites would be fully at room temperature, so I replaced the bowl as the new egg white incorporated with the first three. Then I waited anxiously for something to happen.
After about fifteen excruciating minutes, and a second tiny dusting of cream of tarter, the texture began to change again. The egg whites began to stiffen and turn shiny. I ALMOST CRIED! But I was too busy juggling the bowl, still running mixer, and now the measuring cup of sugar to do anything but KEEP GOING! Gently pouring a small stream of sugar into the bowl with one hand, I tried to keep the bowl and mixer from flying across the room with the other. There were bits of egg white and sugar flying around the stove but I was too excited to worry about the mess – it just heightened the experience. I probably should have beaten the sugar into the egg whites another minutes more but once it was all incorporated I was afraid the beautiful too-good-to-be-true peaks would collapse if I didn’t get everything in the oven AS FAST AS POSSIBLE.
At the last second I folded in my prepared lemon zest and lemon and vanilla extract mixture. Then grabbing two rubber scrapers I started plopping mounds of meringue onto my silicone lined cookie sheets. I was worried that small blobs would just turn brown and spongy so I only made 7 large mounds. After snapping a few quick pictures and yelling for Mr. Second Helpings to come and see how amazing they looked, I shoved the pans into my pre-heated oven, closed the door, and prayed again. ”Please Please Please let them not melt, turn brown, or get otherwise unappetizing while they are in the oven!”
With 25 minutes on the timer I cleaned the dishes and paced. When I finally opened the oven door I was so relived to see 7 fluffy, still white, meringues sitting exactly where I left them. There were actually not fully cooked – large mounds take longer. I left them in a while longer and when I started to notice the color changing slightly I turned off the oven and cracked the door. They sat in the still warm oven for an additional 40 minutes before I transfered them to a cooling rack.
The final result was pretty soft and smushy but they were pillowy, sweet, and wonderfully lemony (I baked them more later and they turned out great). I wanted to ride the wave of my near success so I immediately set to work on a new batch. This time I was calmer and more patient as the eggs whipped from frothy to foamy and finally thick. After slowly adding the sugar and beating a little longer I could see that this batch was whipping up even firmer than the previous ones. I added some vanilla and then a mixture of cocoa powder and cinnamon. This batch came out very stiff and easily passed the, “hold the bowl upside down over your head,” test. I could see that true stiff peaks are fairly stable so I took more time scooping and shaping each mound on the pans.
After 30 minutes they had a lovely crisp shell but I could tell the centers were still too soft. I reset the oven to 170 and left them to cook another 40 minutes before turning off the oven but leaving them inside to cool slowly. By mixing cocoa powder into the meringue it was less important to keep them from discoloring while cooking. They also smelled fantastic, like the best cup of hot chocolate.
The final batch came out like the cocoa cousin to Venessa’s candy cane meringues. They have a crisp exterior that crumbles a bit when you bite into one. Under the shell is a cinnamony chocolately soft pillow that melts on your tongue. Exactly what I have been hoping for since early December and so much better than any packaged meringue cookie.
It’s a funny thing to have gotten all wrapped up in. That’s really what it is all about though. Practice, practice, practice, and then maybe one day you can point to some small accomplishment and proudly declare, “I did that! Isn’t it great?” And it will be – even when it’s not perfect.
Meringue Cookies – A Basic Recipe
- Preheat Oven to 250 degrees and prepare two cookie sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper.
- On low speed beat 3 room temperature egg whites and a tiny pinch of salt to a froth ( about 2 minutes) then sprinkle in 1/2 tsp. of cream of tarter.
- Continue beating on low increasing speed slowly from low to medium over about 10 minutes.
- Once the whites thicken and begin to form stiff peaks – slowly add 3/4 cup of granulated sugar 1 or 2 TB at a time while continuing to beat the egg whites.
- When they have reached the full stiff peak stage add any additional flavoring ingredients – beating in or folding as needed.
- Using spoons or a piping bag arrange mounds on prepared cookie sheets making between 12 – 14 cookies.
- Place pans in the oven for 30 minutes at 250 degrees.
- After 30 minutes reduce heat to 170 degrees and bake for an additional 30 minutes.
- Turn off oven leaving pans in the oven to cool slowly for an hour or more. (Cookies are finished when the are crisp on the outside and the inside is gooey and a little sticky but not soft. If they need to cook more reset oven to 170 degrees until texture is as desired.)
- Cool completely and store in an airtight container.
Approximate Nutrition for a Bakers’ Dozen unflavored cookies: calories 49; fat 0g; sodium 13g; carbs 12g; protein 1g WW Points Plus 1
Walking on Sunshine Lemon – Right after I placed the first batch of cookies in the oven the song Walking on Sunshine came on the radio and it was exactly how I was feeling having finally succeeded in making the batter.
- zest of 1/2 a lemon
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/2 tsp lemon extract
Mix ingredients together before beginning the meringue and gently fold in right before measuring out the cookies.
Mexican Hot Chocolate
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- 3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
- scant Tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa powder
Mix cinnamon and cocoa together before beginning meringue. Once meringue is at the stiff peak stage beat in 1 tsp of vanilla. Slowly add the dry ingredients while continuing to beat egg whites until fully incorporated.