We’re pretty much all in the thick of summer fun right now, so I’ll get right to the point. Sometimes I have a recipe making and eating experience so transcendant, it haunts me for weeks. These Dream Bars from Mindy Segal’s Cookie Love fall into the category of Insanely Haunting Recipe. Like, say, even after two solid weeks where I ran off to my hometown of Chicago and chewed-and-sighed through the world’s best hot dogs and Italian beef, new-to-me bakery visits, beer and pizza and a burger so smack-the-table good that it probably ruined every burger experience for the rest of my life, I was still thinking about these cookie bars.
Oh, 2012. Here you are, all shiny and new and full of promise. Unlike the yoga pants I’ve been wearing nonstop since December 27th, which are dull and old and full of pills. But you know what, 2012? You’re encouraging me to move forward. Put on some pants that have an actual waistband, no matter how excruciating that might be. It’s a brand new year and I’m feeling terrific about the whole thing.
To celebrate, I thought I’d throw a little extra something into my favorite meringue cookie recipe, which tends to appear about this time every year, when rich, heavy desserts have become too much, but I’m not so crazy as to forgo sweets altogether. And to up the ante, I’m adding a bright punch of flavor with sweet, fragrant Meyer lemons, which are the kind of glorious thing that will make even the laziest folk rise from their post-holiday stupor.
Ahhh, October. Finally. Finally! I live for this time of year, don’t you? No more stifling summer temperatures (not that we deal with that much in San Francisco, but I’m feeling for you other people with normal summers out there), and yet still a good stretch away from the “it’s frickin’ FREEZING!” weather. Cute sweaters and boots abound on the regular. Still a solid month away from dealing with the holiday insanity, and yet it’s totally, completely baking weather. Hooray! October and all your glorious in-between-ness, I love you so. You’re a total dreamboat.
To celebrate the sort of lovely limbo that is this time of year, I give you Pumpkin Pie Pavlovas. They’re basically October in dessert form–a cross between the feather-light pavlovas that we piled with whipped cream and summer berries a couple months back (or this deconstructed cousin we put in our faces in July), and the spicy-sweet pumpkin pies that we’ll all be craving several weeks from now. The kind of thing that lets you deliciously usher in the fall season, savoring every autumnal bite while not dealing with your mother calling you every eight minutes to ask what you’re planning on doing for Christmas. Ahhhh.
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What do you mean it’s the Fourth of July next week? My head is still in, like, March or something. At the risk of totally sounding like Andy Rooney, where has this year gone? Really, people.
Never mind that Eton Mess is actually a British thing and maybe it’s kind of bizarre to go British on America’s holiday, but hey, when something’s this good, it really, really doesn’t matter. Eton Mess is basically a deconstructed pavlova, which, by the way, is the most perfect dessert ever created and I’m pretty sure I would make that my pick for my last meal on earth. You just can’t beat the combination of billowy whipped cream, crunchy, sweet meringues that melt on the tongue, and a punch of fresh berries. Divine.
This recipe is really not so much a recipe as it is a basic idea. Although berries, especially strawberries, are the traditional way to go here, there is no earthly reason why you couldn’t use stone fruits or tropical fruits or whatever. The tartness of raspberries plays especially nicely with the sweet meringues and cream in this version, and of course a smattering of blueberries adds a bit of July Fourth jazziness. Dress it up by layering it in fancy champagne or parfait glasses, lay everything out buffet-style and have people make their own dang dessert, or throw the whole lot in a big glass bowl and go at it with a spoon. Whatever you want! You are free to make your Eton Mess all your own! Now that’s America, right there.
Although you can absolutely make your own, I love store-bought meringue cookies for this recipe because they’re always very firm and crisp, and really, there’s nothing easier. Just read the label and make sure you’re getting ones that just contain egg whites, sugar and vanilla– no funny business. Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods have good ones.
If you want to experiment with other fruits here (I’m thinking peaches would be insanely delicious), just peel and chop them fine for the sauce and use your judgement with the sugar and lemon juice needed to balance the sweetness of the fruit you choose.
Frozen raspberries work perfectly fine here for the sauce–just get a small package of fresh ones to toss in for texture. Freshly whipped real cream is the ticket to heaven here.
3 6-ounce containers fresh raspberries
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 6-ounce container fresh blueberries
1 1/2 cups heavy cream, chilled (or more, if you like–I sure do)
1 1/2 cups coarsely crushed vanilla meringue cookies (or more, if you like–again, I sure do)
Combine two containers of raspberries, 1/2 cup of sugar and the lemon juice in a small saucepan set over high heat. Bring the mixture to a boil, mashing the berries with a fork. Cook until the berries have broken down and the sugar has dissolved, about 7 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the third container of fresh raspberries. Pour the sauce into a bowl and chill completely, either in the refrigerator or the freezer to cool it down quickly.
Whip the cream and the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar to stiff peaks. When the raspberry sauce is cold, assemble the parfaits. Start by placing a dollop of whipped cream in the bottom of six dessert glasses. Spoon a bit of raspberry sauce over the cream, followed by a smattering of meringue pieces. Spoon on more cream, dot on some blueberries, and sprinkle on more meringue. Repeat the layers, alternating raspberry sauce and blueberries after the cream layers. Serve immediately.
Let’s just get one thing straight right now: I’m a Midwestern person at heart. Born and raised in Illinois and proud of it. It’s a wonderful place to be from, and to me, there’s no better place to be in the summer. But I’ve lived in California for seven years, and although I used to think that someday I’d return to where I’m from to raise my kids, now you’d have to drag me kicking and screaming. Or at least grumbling the whole way. Because I’ve been brainwashed in that crazy way that so many Californians are, which is to say that, generally speaking, I totally believe that there’s no better place to live. I still can’t believe that I get to live here. The mild weather, the ability to see the mountains and the ocean in the same day, and all our year-round crazy sexy produce. I never understood the appeal of an avocado until I moved to California, and the strawberries, people. The strawberries!
Now, we have access to decent strawberries pretty much all year, but man, when prime strawberry season really hits here, we’ve got insanely gorgeous ones coming out our ears at criminally cheap prices. Pints at the registers in corner stores, full flats being hocked on street corners, even the organic berries are a steal right now. The fragrance smacks you in the face as soon as you walk into even the largest supermarket, piles of the kind of glistening, plump fruit that reveals a bleeding red interior all the way through when sliced. Like strawberries on Mother Nature’s steroids, I tell you. So awesome. And although I love a sparkling sorbet or a great shortcake recipe to showcase them, I think I’ve found my new favorite way to love on strawberries in their prime. I give you Strawberry Angel Pavlovas.
This recipe was inspired by one from the grande dame of the California culinary scene, she of the famous waffle recipe, Marion Cunningham. Her recipe for Strawberry Angel Pie got an instant bookmark–what’s not to obsess over when you’re dealing with a pie that involves a crisp meringue crust, billows of freshly whipped cream dotted with strawberries and dreamy lemon cream? Huminuh, huminuh.
As I’m wont to do with recipes with which I become obsessed, I thought about making that dang pie pretty much nonstop as soon as I found it, but hesitated because of the high risk of wasted delicious food. See, despite the insatiable sweet teeth that reside in this household, I really doubted we could demolish an entire pie in a day (not that I mentioned this to the husband, for fear he’d take pause, raise an eyebrow and ask if I’d care to make it interesting). And the reason it would all need to go down within one day is that with a base of delicate meringue and temperamental whipped cream, this is the sort of thing that you have to assemble and put in your face before it all starts to break down. But then I got all smart all of a sudden and opted to make pretty-pretty individual Strawberry Angel Pies, Pavlova-style.
Pavlova, for the record, would probably be up there for dessert after my very last meal. Not that I’m anticipating having my last meal anytime soon. That’s a horrible thing to say. How morbid. Sorry. But really, guys–crisp on the outside, marshmallowy-inside meringue shells topped with a bright lemon cream and whipped cream and peak of the season strawberries? Perfection. So perfect, it should be someone’s very first dessert. So let’s say that instead. The first dessert for a brand new, sweet-smelling little baby angel from heaven. There, that’s much better.
Strawberry Angel Pavlovas
Adapted from Marion Cunningham’s recipe in The San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook
If you’d like to make this recipe into a pie like the original, then just spread the meringue in a buttered 9-inch pie plate, and bake just like you would for the shells. Fill with the lemon cream, then pile on the strawberry whipped cream.
Whether you make the individual Pavlovas or just one big pie, save your assembly for right before your serve it. The meringue can be baked a day in advance (store airtight), the strawberries sliced, and the lemon custard made the day before, stored in the fridge with a sheet of plastic wrapped pushed right on the surface (rewarm it a bit by placing the bowl in a pan of warm water and stirring well, just too loosen it up a little). This recipe can be halved to make four Pavlovas–just use a handheld mixer for the smaller amounts of eggs and cream.
4 eggs at room temperature, separated
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
2 cups fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced, plus more for garnish
1/3 cup powdered sugar
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
Position an oven rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 275 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
For the meringues: In the bowl of an electric mixer, place the egg whites, salt and cream of tartar. Beat on medium speed until soft peaks form, then slowly rain in 1 cup of the sugar. Beat on high until the meringue is stiff and glossy. Beat in the vanilla extract.
Portion the meringue into 8 mounds on the baking sheet, a generous 1/4 cup full each (a standard ice cream scoop works well to keep things even). Using a spoon, shape each mound into a little meringue nest, each about 4 inches in diameter. To create a small well in the center of each meringue shell, first rest the bowl of the spoon in the center of each meringue, horizontal to the baking sheet, then hold the spoon by the very end of the stem and turn it in a circle as you pull it up and off the meringue.
Bake the meringues in the center of the oven until they are firm and lightly golden, about 1 hour. Let them cool completely on the baking sheet in the turned-off oven with the door open.
For the lemon custard: Beat the egg yolks with an electric mixer until they are thick and pale yellow. Gradually beat in the sugar, then the lemon juice and zest. Scrape the mixture into a small, nonreactive saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let the custard cool completely.
For the strawberries: Place the strawberries in a medium bowl. Sprinkle with the confectioners’ sugar and toss well to coat. Set aside.
When you’re ready to assemble the Pavlovas, whip the cream until it hold stiff peaks (you should have about 3 cups whipped cream). Fold 1 cup of the whipped cream gently into the lemon custard. Fold the strawberries into the remaining 2 cups of whipped cream.
Place the meringues on individual plates. Divide the lemon cream equally among the 8 meringue shells, and top with the strawberry whipped cream. Garnish with more strawberry slices. Serve immediately.
After being in the grip of an intense Southern California heatwave for the better part of a week, the hellish beast has released us from his gnarly fists into the kind of weather that Santa Monicans usually take for granted: a high of 71 degrees, 65% humidity, ultramarine skies that kiss the horizon of a glittering navy ocean with the mountains of Malibu in the distance. Sound dramatic? It is. That’s how bad the heat was, people. It makes it tragically hard to bake, for one thing. Not that it stopped me. Anyway, with this recent return to the lovely weather that makes life worth living out here, I decided to celebrate by making meringue.
Meringue in all its forms has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. I grew up in a family of chocoholics, but occasionally, usually during the holidays, these delicious and unusual treats would appear among the goodies on my Gramma’s kitchen table. Small and light in color, crisp sweet domes of I didn’t know what, sometimes with tiny chocolate chips mixed in, sometimes flavored with peppermint. They were a sweet mystery, and I gobbled them up. I also remember begging for a towering slice of a lofty lemon meringue pie from a rotating case at a Greek restaurant, neglecting the shimmying yellow curd altogether and devouring only the sugary pillow on top. I had no idea that what I was in love with was called meringue, and would probably have abandoned it forever if I had been told what it was made of (my lifelong egg phobia is a thing of legend in my family–now it’s mostly the yolks that freak me out, and just in certain circumstances. I’m all growed up!).
Meringue, in short, is egg whites whipped with sugar. How the whites and sugar are whipped together determines the kind of meringue it is and how it can be used. There’s Swiss meringue, a “cooked” meringue, made by dissolving sugar in egg whites in a double boiler, then whipping them. Italian meringue is made by streaming hot sugar syrup into the whites while they are being whipped, and is also considered to be a cooked meringue. French (aka “classic”) meringue, which I make most often, is uncooked, just egg whites and sugar whipped together (I take granulated sugar for a spin in my clean coffee grinder first for a smoother texture). The more sugar added to any meringue, the stiffer the end result will be. These meringues are the base for thousands of recipes, everything from buttercream frostings to the aforementioned lofty pie toppings, dessert shells, macaroons, macarons, and more. And let’s not forget meringue cookies.
Because they are so neutral in flavor, meringue cookies can be flavored with just about any extract or powdered flavoring imaginable, and little jaunty bits of chocolate or nuts or somesuch can be nice too. But I like them in traditional vanilla (with the best extract, please), maybe with a bit of cocoa, with tea on a nice, breezy, sunny day like today. When I mentioned that it’s perfect meringue cookie-making weather here in Santa Monica, that mainly has to do with the relatively low humidity. Making baked meringue in humid or wet weather is a guaranteed failure–the meringue will flatten and burn and generally just be very sad.
But not today! Today we make meringues.
Makes about 20, depending on size
4 large egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
pinch of salt
3/4 teaspoon good vanilla extract
1 cup superfine sugar
Preheat oven to 225 degrees and set the rack to the lower-middle position. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
In an immaculately clean metal or glass bowl (any trace of grease will ruin your efforts), begin whipping the egg whites in standing mixer fitted with the whip attachment, or with an electric mixer, on medium speed until foamy. Add the cream of tartar and the salt, and whip at high speed until the whites are voluminous, glossy and sexy-looking, with the look and consistency of shaving cream.
With the mixer running, begin raining in the sugar, taking a short break about halfway to insure the sugar is well incorporated. When all the sugar has been added, add the vanilla.
At this point, you can add other flavorings or accoutrements (like finely chopped nuts or chips) as well. I opted to make half the meringue cookies vanilla, and gently folded in a tablespoon of Valrhona cocoa to the remaining batter to make chocolate meringues. These added elements will make the whites deflate ever-so-slightly, but they will still be delicious.
Shape the batter into cookies by using two spoons, dropping them onto the parchment-lined cookie sheets. Bake at 225 for 1 1/2 hours, until the exteriors are firm and dry. If they begin to brown, turn the oven down to 200 degrees. Turn off the oven and let the meringues dry out overnight. These can be stored in an airtight container, but are best eaten ASAP, as they will start to become soft and tackier over time. But that’s not all bad either, really.
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