'The true cook is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. He knows his worth: he holds in his palm the happiness of mankind, the welfare of generations yet unborn.'

Monday, 10 December 2012

Meringue mushrooms

It's Christmas season! It's advent in the liturgical year of the Church, and even though I'm a retired Christian, it is by far still my favourite season of the year. I feel a heightened awareness of the blessings in our lives and it's not difficult to see an abundance of joy everywhere in this season of festivities.

I like to make Christmas yule logs in this season even though it's a lot of work (and therefore has to remain a once-a-year undertaking), and one of the funniest elements involved is making meringue mushrooms. I was transfixed by their look the first time I saw them: I had no clue how it could be done. Even though I do a lot of baking, I'm more into the actual mixing of batters and doughs and I'm not really into decorations and piping. Since last year I have been inflicting my friend Hitomi to pipe these meringue mushrooms for me - I mix the batter and she pipes, and I assembled the stems and caps to form mushrooms.

This recipe is from the chocolate guru Alice Medrich. Her instructions on how to make them are fantastic and I'm quoting them almost ad verbatim here. I love her addition of coffee to the meringue to give them some actual flavour other than pure sweetness too. I did however reduce the sugar to make them less tooth-achingly sweet...

Meringue mushrooms

(Recipe adapted from Alice Medrich's Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-In-Your-Mouth Cookies)

3 large egg whites, at room temperature
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
Pinch of salt
75g (5 tbsp) sugar, divided into 3 tbsp and 2 tbsp
1 1/2 tsp instant coffee or espresso powder (I used more for a more pronounced coffee flavour, even though the colour wouldn't be as pristine white)
About 2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder
60g dark chocolate, cut into small piece (I found that unsweetened chocolate works best since it cuts through the sweetness of the meringue)

Cookie sheets, lined with parchment paper
Large pastry bag fitted with a 1.25cm / 1/2-inch plain tip

Preheat the oven to 100C/200F. Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven.

Stir the instant coffee into the 3 tbsp of sugar. In a clean dry bowl with an electric mixer, beat the egg whites, salt and cream of tartar on medium speed until soft peaks form when the beaters are lifted. On high speed, gradually add 3 tbsp of the coffee sugar about a tablespoon at a time. The mixture should stand in stiff peaks when the beaters are lifted. Use a rubber spatula to fold in the remaining 2 tbsp sugar. Scrape the meringue into the pastry bag. Alice says that she makes 40 mushrooms with 3cm caps, but I made about 60 out of this batch. In any case, try to pipe an equal quantity of stems and caps!

How to pipe stems

Always pipe the mushroom stems first, while the meringue is still stiff enough to stand high. Hold the bag perpendicular to the cookie sheet, with the tip opening a fraction of an inch away from the sheet. Start squeezing gently, without moving the bag at first (to form a wide base for the stem), then raise the bag as you squeeze. Continue to raise the bag after you've stopped squeezing, to form a tall point. It's ok if the tip bends over.

How to pipe smooth domes

Piped mushroom caps, like macarons, often have pointy tops, which you then have to smooth out with a wet finger before baking But you can learn to pipe smooth domes to begin with.

To pipe smooth domes, hold your pastry bag completely perpendicular to the cookies sheet and as far from the sheet as the height of your intended dome, regardless of diameter. Hold the bag perfectly still when you are squeezing the bag: do not move it up and down or around Squeeze until the batter fills the space between the baking sheet and the pastry tip - and keep squeezing if you want a wider diameter. When you stop squeezing, don't move the bag. Points form when we move or lift the bag while meringue is still coming out of it. Since there is always a time lag between the brain saying 'stop' and hands actually stopping, try to think 'stop' a few nanoseconds before are done and hold the bag still for several nanoseconds after you stop squeezing. When no more batter is coming out, don't lift the bag up. Instead, move it in a tiny circle and then sideways away from the dome - still without squeezing. The pastry tip will skim across the surface of the dome, cutting off the beginning of any point - as long as you are not squeezing.

We didn't bother with the pointy tops, obviously...

Sieve a light dusting of cocoa over the caps and stems and blow on them gently to blur the cocoa and give the mushrooms and authentic look. Bake for 2 hours until crisp and completely dry. Rotate the pans from top to bottom and from front to back halfway through baking time to ensure even baking. If not assembling immediately, store caps and stems airtight as soon as they are cool to prevent them from becoming moist and sticky.

Assembling the mushrooms

Place the chocolate gently over a bain-marie or in the microwave. Stir until melted and smooth. Use a sharp knife to cut 1/4 to 1/2 inch off the tip of each stem to create a flat surface. Spread a generous coat of melted chocolate over the flat side of several mushroom caps with a spoon. Attach the cut surface of the stems to the middle of the chocolate-coated caps. Repeat until all of the mushrooms are assembled. Set them aside until the chocolate has hardened and the caps and stems are glued together firmly. It's imperative that you store them in an airtight container as soon as they are cool so that they do not become sticky and moist.

Use them to decorate bûche de Noël, adorn another desserts or simply give away as gifts.

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