23 April 2011

They are good

It wasn’t that long ago that the egg, a symbol of the Resurrection and such, was devilishly criticized. The line of argument was: the egg is so full of cholesterol, so full of rubbish. Just eat it and away you’ll pass, or something like that. Did the early Christians think about how unhealthy the egg is before adapting it as a token of Easter, prompting the billions of Easter-celebrating souls of every past and place into the egg blowout? Such idiots, those first Christians!

As a person who is very capable of going on the egg binge at and around festive Easter table – would you be that strong to not be tempted by an egg with stars brush-stroked all over it , sitting in the company of its brethren in an ornamental bowl seen from every corner of your studio apartment, the egg that’s eager to be cracked open, cleared from that prettied-up shell, dipped, starting from the top, into a mix of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, and bitten into its glossy white and plump jiggly yolk? -- I’m chuffed to know that eggs will not quite kill me. Research shows that eggs are not as bad as they were thought to be. They are good. They are nutrient-rich. They are just angelic.

Egg whites are angelic, that is. Egg yolks be damned!

It’s not my intention to talk about the white-yolk split. Probably food scientists are right, and we should head their warnings and advice. Or maybe food scientists are misguided, and instead it’s best to listen to our bodies that know by default what we need and what we don’t. Personally, I’m for the golden-mean-approach to life in general and food in particular, except once-a-year celebrations such as Easter, Christmas, and my birthday, the bright days that, in my humble opinion, are meant to be observed by treating myself generously to foods I like, considering the season. (The list of those is extensive and thus shall go unreported on in this post.)

Anyway, it’s Easter, “air time” for whole good happy-chicken eggs and the usual Easter activities: the egg-decorating, the egg-hunting (optional), the egg-giving, and the egg-eating. This year I decided that I should somewhat diversify the latter and make something sweet with the egg at center stage. I figured out I should make meringues (egg whites – here we go!), known as early as in the seventeenth century under the names “Pets” or “white bisket bread”.

The other day I made this coffee cream. It was so ethereal and light (that is, as light as cream goes). And it knocked me off my feet and blew my mind away. I was supposed to use the coffee cream for an eponymous cake, but I couldn’t help sending spoonful by spoonful of it in my mouth from where it sneaked into my heart and is there to stay. And so the idea for meringues filled with coffee cream for Easter was sketched and off I went to try it out. After a fair amount of experimentation and testing, what emerged were pale beige, delicate, brittle, crunchy, with-a-slight-chew meringues filled with elegant fluffy coffee whipped cream. Eaten over a sink with one hand capped below your mouth to catch the crumbs, or on a plate with a fork to be good-mannered, it’s one word: delicious!

Meringue! What an untraditional thing to serve at Easter!, I hear my grandmothers say. It is a revered tradition in Russia to make kulich, cylindrical dome-shaped sweet yeasty bread, a symbol of Orthodox Easter.

As a kid, I would always stop by one of my grandmothers’ to watch her making kulich two or three days before the festive celebrations. I was fascinated by the mystery behind it. You can’t be in a bad mood to make it, and if you are, be prepared to see kulich dense and flat as a pancake when out from the oven. You can’t talk loudly next to where ­kulich is resting before baking, otherwise it will not rise. And once ­kulich is baked, you should place it, still in a tin, on a billowy pillow and cover with a clean ironed cotton sheet to let the holy bread cool off before unmolding it. So much revere, so much wonder! Only grandmothers can make kulich, I thought. They know so much, they are kind and patient and caring, and they like to speak in low voice.

I respect the traditions. I admire them. But I also want to learn the new and unorthodox for me, to find what speaks to me, to see where, in the end, I can and want to belong – and if I should avoid eating egg yolks.

Happy Easter, Happy Passover, Reader!

Coffee Cream Meringues

To me, these are so good just on its own.

For the meringues:
Adapted from Baking Illustrated
4 egg whites, at room temperature
185 gr (6.5 oz) granulated sugar
3 gr (0.1 oz) lemon juice

1. Pre-heat the oven to 100 C (212 F) and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. (Note: meringues baked at the given temperature will take on pale silky beige and that's fine; it matches well the subtle white-beige color of the coffee cream.)

2. In a clean bowl, combine the egg whites with the lemon juice and beat at medium-low until foamy, about 30 seconds. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until the egg whites are white, voluminous and, as Baking Illustrated aptly describes, the consistency of shaving cream, about 90 seconds. In a gentle stream, add half of the sugar and beat, at high speed, until stiff peaks form, about 2-3 minutes.

3. Dial the speed down to the lowest, sprinkle in the other half of the sugar. Mix just until incorporated.

4. Using a dry soupspoon, immediately place nine heaping dollops of meringue, spacing them evenly, on the prepared baking sheet.

5. Bake for 1.5 hours or until the meringues look smooth, firm, dry, and shiny from the outside. Do not open the oven while baking; it will lead to the loss of heat and cause meringues to sink. Switch the oven off and leave the meringues in for another couple of hours to completely cool down.

6. Placed (once cool!) in an airtight container, the meringues will keep for up to two weeks, until ready to use.

For the coffee cream:
(inspired by Pierre Hermé via Dorie Greenspan)
200 gr (7 oz ) chilled heavy cream
10 gr (0.3 oz) granulated sugar
15 gr (0.5 oz) very strong freshly brewed coffee, cooled off

1. Stir the sugar and the coffee in the cream and beat until stiff peaks form. Do not overbeat, otherwise the cream will split.

2. Keep refrigerated and use within the next 24 hours. Before using, give it a gentle stir.

To assemble:

1. With a sharp serrated knife, cut each meringue in half lengthwise. Seeing how brittle meringues are, it is probably the trickiest part of the whole business. Here is how you do it: supporting a meringue shell in one hand without applying any force or pressure, start slowly cutting into it until its hollow top gives, usually a few moves with a knife are enough. Carefully remove the top (it’s ok if it shatters slightly, it’s easy to patch the bits together; the cream will hold the pieces just right), fill the bottom with a spoonful of the coffee cream (use a desert spoon), and place the top back. Repeat with the remaining meringues. Once assembled, the meringues should be served within the next 10-15 mins to prevent them from becoming soggy and soft.


Toni said...

Oh Anya - this made me want to take a bite out of my monitor! Merangues with coffee cream? You devil, you!

anya said...

Toni, thanks! My intentions were a pure goodwill. :)

J said...

They look real nice, instantly appealing, makes me want to feel that crunch.