Thursday, December 23, 2010

Alice's wonderland

I went on a bit of a meringue frenzy this holiday season, the reason being that I had received a gift copy of  the fabulous Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy: Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies by Alice Medrich. (And has there ever been a better title for a cookie cookbook in the history of the English language than Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy?)

Ms. Medrich is best known as a chocolate guru, the high priestess of all things high in cocoa fat, the mistress of Cocolat, Berkeley's late great temple to chocolate. I therefore knew that I'd be in good hands as I happily wallowed in her darkest chocolately recipes, and I also was well aware from another of her cookbooks, Pure Dessert, that I was in for a good time even if chocolate wasn't involved. 

(Note to those who love ice cream: try the Sour Cream Ice Cream in Pure Dessert. It's so good that I kept sampling it every two minutes from the time that I mixed it up until it finally froze. As far as I'm concerned, it has set a new bar for ice cream. [There's a pun hidden in there somewhere for those of you playing at home.])

Unbaked meringues
Anyway, back to Chewy Gooey. In addition to those two varieties of cookies, there are also separate chapters for Crispy, Crunchy, Chunky, Flaky, and Melt-in-Your-Mouth delights. One thing that I really appreciated about this book was that weight measures are given in addition to cups and ounces. Baking is such a delicate chemical balance that these little details truly make the recipes idiot-proof, and I like anything that helps ensure success. Ms. Medrich is also a very entertaining writer, so a happy afternoon can be easily whiled away while nibbling on both her prose and her cookies.  

Of all her countless variations on cookies, what drew me to the meringues, I think, were the photographs. Ribbons of coconut waving in the air, chunks of chocolate and hazelnuts snuggling in the egg whites... they seemed like innocent clouds and a nice break from all the insanely delicious buttery stuff I'd been making and munching on over most of December. My liver would thank me, I firmly assured myself, as I made tray after tray of what turned out to be the best meringues I've ever sampled.

Here, then, are three of my favorites from this book. Reprinted with the kind permission of Ms. Medrich and her publisher (Artisan), exactly as they appear in Chewy Gooey.

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New classic coconut macaroons 2.0
Makes twenty-two 2 1/4-inch cookies

4 large egg whites
3 1/2 cups (5.25 ounces) unsweetened dried flaked (not shredded) coconut, also called coconut chips, or 3 cups (9 ounces) sweetened dried shredded coconut
3/4 cup (5.25 ounces) sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Slightly rounded 1/4 teaspoon salt
Cookie sheets, lined with parchment paper

1. Combine all of the ingredients in a large heatproof mixing bowl, preferably stainless steel because the mixture will heat faster than in glass. Set the bowl directly in a wide skillet of barely simmering water and stir the mixture with a silicone spatula, scraping the bottom to prevent burning, until the mixture is very hot to the touch and the egg whites have thickened slightly and turned from translucent to opaque, 5 to 7 minutes. Set the batter aside for 30 minutes to let the coconut absorb more of the goop.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven.

2. Using 2 tablespoons of batter, make attractive heaps 2 inches apart on the lined cookie sheets. Bake for about 5 minutes, just until the coconut tips begin to color, rotating the pans from top to bottom and from front to back halfway through the baking time to ensure even baking. Lower the temperature to 325 degrees F and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until the cookies are a beautiful cream and gold with deeper brown edges, and again rotating the pans from top to bottom and from front to back halfway through the baking time. If the coconut tips are browning too fast, you can lower the heat to 300 degrees F. Set the pans or just the liners on racks to cook. Let cool completely before gently peeling the parchment away from each cookie. The cookies are best on the day they are baked - the exterior is crisp and chewy and the interior soft and moist. Although the crispy edges will soften, the cookies remain delicious stored in an airtight container for 4 to 5 days. 
With lime & cinnamon

The variation, or what she calls an "upgrade," that I used was titled Coconut Macaroons with Lime Zest and Cinnamon: Stir 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons freshly grated lime zest into the batter before scooping. Using a fine grater or Microplane zester, grate a little cinnamon stick over the cookies just before serving.  (A photograph of this variation is on the left here. Look at the vibrant bits of lime nestled in among the coconut and meringue. What a sublime tropical combination!)

 * * *

The  second recipe is called Chunky Hazelnut Meringues. Like the author says, these are "light, sweet, and tenderly crunchy cookies with hidden pockets of dark chocolate and toasty nuts."

Chunky hazelnut meringues
Makes 36 to 40 cookies

5 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped, or 1 scant cup chocolate chunks or chips
1 cups (5 ounces) toasted and skinned hazelnuts, coarsely chopped
3 large egg whites, at room temperature
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
2/3 cup (4.625 ounces) sugar
Cinnamon stick (optional)

Cookie sheets, lined with parchment paper

1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven.

2. Set aside about one-fifth of the chocolate and the nuts for topping the cookies.

Lighter than air
3. Combine the egg whites and cream of tartar in a clean dry mixer bowl. Beat at medium-high speed with a heavy-duty stand mixer (or high speed with a hand-held mixer) until the egg whites are creamy white (instead of translucent) and hold a soft shape when the beaters are lifted. Continue to beat on medium-high speed, adding the sugar a little at a time, taking 1 1/2 to 2 minutes in all. The mixture should stand in very stiff peaks when the beaters are lifted. Use a rubber spatula to fold in the chocolate and nuts just until incorporated. 

4. Drop heaping teaspoons of meringue 1 1/2 inches apart on the lined cookie sheet. Top each meringue with some of the reserved chocolate and nuts. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until the meringues begin to turn golden. Rotate the pans from top to bottom and from front to back. Turn the oven down to 200 degrees F and bake for another 1 1/2 hours. Turn off the oven and leave the meringues in it to cool. Let the cookies cool completely before using or storing. If desired, grate a little of the cinnamon stick over each cookie before serving. May be kept in an airtight container for at least 2 months.

* * *

This last cookie is a variation on the Chunky Hazelnut Meringues. The star of the show is the huge handful of salted roasted nuts that make this a lot more savory and quite a bit less sweet than the other two meringues we've looked at. 

As Ms. Medrich advises, "The nuts are salty here, and there are twice as many of them, all left in pretty big pieces, with just enough sweet meringue to hold them together. With or without the chocolate, these could change your mind about meringues in general. Meanwhile, even if your politics are all dark chocolate, you won't want to miss a little rich milk chocolate with those salty nuts. Really."

Sweet and salty nut meringues
Makes 36 to 40 cookies

Omit the chocolate or not. Or use milk chocolate instead of dark. Substitute 2 cups (10 ounces) roasted salted mixed nuts, very coarsely chopped, for the hazelnuts.

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