Kitchen Experiments: Meringues

Meringues have always been one of my favorite mystery kitchen experiments. I never really understood how or what was required to make these yummy things, or how simple it actually is. My first tastes of meringue were courtesy of traditional Dominican desserts. Our birthday cakes are covered in meringue frosting, similar to seven minute icing. It is soft, fluffy, super sweet and resembles marshmallow fluff. When the cake is left out for a couple hours, the frosting begins to harden and form a bit of a crunchy shell. The longer it sat out, the crunchier it’d get. The thick layer of frosting helps preserve the cake layers underneath; keeping the cake relatively moist. As an adult, it’s still my favorite part of Dominican cakes. Sometimes, I collect my parents’ and sister’s leftover frosting off their pieces of cake and refrigerate it for a couple days so some of it would harden; giving me a mix of soft, fluffy frosting with tons of crunchy bits.

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These days, the only way I can get my meringue fix is if I make them myself. This was definitely a kitchen experiment to me. I’ve played around with meringue several times before but never made the actual meringue cookie. For this batch, I used Food52’s non-recipe to make my meringues. I had one egg white sitting around my fridge that needed to be made into something. This non-recipe uses ratios to figure out how much of each ingredient is needed to make consistent meringue cookies, depending on how many whites you have.

The ratios are: 1 part egg whites: 2 parts sugar: .5 parts (in tsps) cream of tartar

My amounts were:  1/4 cup of egg whites (from two whites): 1/2 cup sugar: 1/8 tsp cream of tartar.

Sounds simple and straightforward, right? Well, the difficulties (if any) lie in the method. The egg whites must be room temperature before whipping to soft peaks. Before you even do that, you have to make sure your bowl and beaters are completely grease free. Feeling skeptical? Wipe your tools down with a small amount of lemon juice before whipping.

Before beginning, preheat your oven to 225F, and arrange your oven racks in either the lower and upper thirds of the oven or place one rack in the center. Low temperatures are crucial for meringues; don’t try to hike it up so they’ll be done quicker. Your patience will be rewarded.

Pour your whites in your grease free bowl with the cream of tartar and whip away with your beaters. You’ll notice how bubbly the mixture gets as you whip. For this method, the whites need to be whipped to soft peaks. What does this mean? A soft peak means that when held up, the whites can’t hold the peak. Turn off your beaters and dip them straight down into the bowl. Lift them up and turn the beaters over. The egg whites on the tip of the beaters should be soft, airy, and begin to lose their form the longer you have the beaters facing up.

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Soft, bubbly peaks

At this stage, we’re ready to gradually add the sugar. Start by adding in the sugar, while beating, by the tablespoon. Incorporate the sugar for about 10 seconds before adding another tablespoon. Keep going until all the sugar is completely incorporated. Turn your beaters on high and beat the whites into submission. The whites will have turned into meringue, thanks to the addition of the sugar. You’ll notice the mixture is now glossy, thick and slightly heavy. Continue beating until you have stiff peaks; meaning the meringue holds the peak when held up.

After you’ve reached this point, add your flavorings. I added about 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract to this batch but the sky’s the limit. You can add zest to make lemon, lime, or orange meringues. Mint, almond, or coconut extracts to make flavored meringues. You can also add melted semisweet chocolate to make chocolate meringues! The options are endless.

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Now that you have your meringue, it’s time to portion them out on a lined baking sheet. You can portion out your cookies with two spoons, a piping bag, or attempt to use a disher, like I did. It went pretty well but after a few cookies, the meringue didn’t want to come out of the disher.  I coaxed them out of the disher with a spatula and continued to portion them out. I topped mine with some sprinkles but it’s totally optional.

Once all portioned out, place your baking sheet in the preheated oven for 1 1/2 – 2 hours. Yes, you read that right. This is by far, the hardest part of the recipe. I know it’s such a LONG TIME but the wait is worth it. The oven’s low temperature gently coaxes out the meringues’ moisture, leaving a crunchy, melt in your mouth cookie.

You’ll notice that the finished meringues’ shine has dulled and that they are super light in weight. That dull exterior is hiding a crunchy and sweet interior that tastes like vanilla flavored air. Weird description but I feel like meringues are what marshmallows would be if they ever got completely hard.

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Now that I know how easy it is to make these, my favorite cookies won’t be out of reach anymore. I can now experiment with different flavors and make as many or as little as I want!

Meringues Without A Recipe – adapted from Food52

Makes approximately 19 meringues

  • 1/4 cup of egg whites (from two whites), room temperature
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/8 tsp cream of tartar
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Directions:

  1. Preheat your oven to 225F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place your oven racks in either the lower or upper thirds of the oven (for multiple sheets) or in the center of the oven (for one sheet).
  2. In a dry, clean, medium sized mixing bowl, beat the whites and cream of tartar with an electric mixer until foamy and can form soft peaks.
  3. Gradually add the sugar, by the tablespoon, waiting about 10 seconds before adding another spoonful. Continue beating until all the sugar has been incorporated and the whites are stiff and glossy.
  4. Add the vanilla (or other flavorings) and beat to incorporate. Drop the meringues onto the prepared sheet either with a piping bag, a set of spoons, or a disher.
  5. Bake your meringues for 1 1/2 – 2 hours, rotating the pan(s) halfway through baking.
  6. Turn the oven off and cool the meringues inside the oven until completely cool. Meringues should come off the parchment cleanly. Place in an airtight container to prevent softening.

Lucy’s Tips:

  • Egg whites are best separated cold but whip better when warm. Separate your eggs straight out of the fridge but leave them on the counter for an hour or so, until it’s room temp. In a hurry? Place your cold whites in an airtight container and sit the container in a bowl with warm water. Swirl the container in the water for a couple minutes or until the whites no longer feel cold. 

 

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DIY Pumpkin Puree and Pumpkin Pie Spice

Now that Halloween is over, we can all concentrate on the next holiday in the lineup: Thanksgiving. The following day after Halloween, I saw an onslaught of Christmas stuff everywhere. Ads are already popping up on TV, big toy books from Target and Toys R Us have landed at my door, and the seasonal aisle in my local drugstore is decked out in red, white, and green. Honestly, I’m not ready for this Christmas explosion! People are getting too ahead of themselves in preparing for the biggest shopping season of the year, but let’s concentrate on turkey day.

I love the hype around Thanksgiving, even if it is a small amount. The hype I do hear, is all about the food and the preparations behind them. Planning a meal worthy of this holiday takes a lot of time; there’s invites, place settings, decorations, and of course, the menu. Most people start prepping and planning as early as possible, even as soon as the beginning of the month. One of the biggest items on the list what can be prepared in advanced and how far in advance can it be prepared. Instead of relying on a last minute purchase of canned pumpkin, why not make it yourself this year?

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Homemade pumpkin puree is a seriously easy process that can be done well in advanced, and can get you more bang for your buck. I used Ree’s (aka The Pioneer Woman) instructions as a guide. First, buy yourself a sugar pumpkin. I got my medium sized pumpkin at my local farmer’s market for $2. Make sure it is a sugar pumpkin and not a pumpkin used for carving or decoration!

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Now that the pumpkin has been acquired, it’s time to get to work. Preheat your oven at 350F. Line a baking sheet with parchment and set aside. Grab your cutting board and a large knife. If your pumpkin has a little dirt, you can wash it off but don’t worry too much about it because we’re going to peel it later anyway.

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Grab your knife and carefully slice the pumpkin into two halves. What I should’ve done here was cut the stem off, but I didn’t. You should cut the stem off first; it’ll make cutting it in two a lot easier. Now that your pumpkin is halved, use a large spoon to remove all the pumpkin guts and seeds. Save this stuff! We’re going to harvest the seeds to roast later.

At this point, your pumpkin should be rid of it’s innards. You can also cut the pumpkin into quarters for easier roasting (you may need another baking sheet, if you do). Put the pumpkin halves face down on the prepped sheet and bake in your preheated oven for 45 minutes to an hour. It’s done when a fork can easily slide into the pumpkin.

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While the pumpkin’s baking, sift through the guts for all the seeds! This is slightly tedious but pepitas are awesome, so get your hands dirty! After getting all the seeds, give them a rinse. Gently dry them with a paper towel before drizzling in a bit of olive oil, some salt and pepper. Spread your seeds out on a parchment lined baking sheet and pop them in the oven. I’d say give them about 10-12 minutes, but please watch them so they don’t burn! Once cooled, you should have a lovely, and delicious snack!

After checking your pumpkin for doneness (with the fork, remember?), remove from the oven and let cool.

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While that’s cooling, let’s talk pumpkin pie spice. A lot of people serve pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, deliciously so, and one of the main ingredients besides the pumpkin is it’s signature spice. This is the stuff that drives people nuts during the fall, mostly in those pumpkin spice latte things from coffee chains. What most don’t realize is that this signature spice mix is simply a combination of things you probably already have in your pantry! Instead of shelling out close to $8 for a tiny bottle, a quick Google search, led me to this recipe from Joy the Baker.

Pumpkin pie spice is basically a mix of cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, and ginger (and cardamom, if you got it). This is as easy as measuring out the spices, and mixing it in an empty spice jar. All you need is 1 tablespoon of ground cinnamon, 2 teaspoons ground ginger, 1/2 a teaspoon of each: ground cloves, ground allspice, and freshly grated nutmeg. Joy also adds a big pinch of cardamom (or mace), add it in if you have it. Pop all these in the empty spice jar and give it a healthy shake. Make sure all the spices are incorporated, and you’ve got pumpkin pie spice! So easy, and so affordable!

Now that we have pumpkin pie spice and pepitas, let’s get back to the pumpkin.  Grab your knife and cut your halves into quarters (if you haven’t already). Gently slide the knife under the pumpkin’s soft and tender skin. Cut your peeled pumpkin into chunks, and discard the skins.

And now, we puree. Place your chunks in the food processor and puree until the chunks resemble baby food. Periodically, scrape the sides down with a spatula. This may take several batches, depending on the size of your food processor. I have a mini prep, so mine took forever. When all of the chunks have been pureed, you’re done! Bask in the pumpkin-y glory you have now created! At this point, you can store it in jars, containers, tupperware, plastic bags, whatever you have that has a lid and can be frozen or refrigerated. This golden stuff should last a few weeks in the fridge, months if you freeze it. But we all know that if there’s pumpkin in the house, pumpkin things will be made! Just make sure to save some for your Thanksgiving pie!

Pumpkin Puree tutorial – slightly adapted from The Pioneer Woman

Pumpkin Pie Spice – adapted from Joy the Baker

Makes about 2 tablespoons

  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Directions:

  1. Blend all of the spices together, making sure to work through any lumps. Store in an old spice jar.

Roasted Butternut Squash and A Name Change

As the title of this post implies, I have renamed this blog. I thought about doing this for a while, and decided to take the plunge. “Toaster Oven Confections” is now “Lucy the Baker.” Why the change? Well, since beginning this blog, I have hardly used my toaster oven for anything. All of the baked recipes on this blog so far have been baked using a regular, stove oven. I don’t want to deceive or mislead you guys, so I changed it. Does this mean that the recipe I post can’t be done in a toaster oven? No! If you do want to experiment and bake in your toaster oven, scale your recipe and temperatures accordingly. This is a rebranding of sorts because I want to post a wider variety of recipes, and try to get myself in the kitchen and on this blog more often.

Anyway, let’s talk squash. Butternut squash is one of my favorite vegetables. This weirdly shaped winter squash isn’t even a vegetable! The butternut squash is actually a fruit and is known for its bright orange appearance, and its nutty and sweet taste. Its also a great source of vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin C, and fiber.

Fresh butternut squash

Fresh butternut squash

Butternut squash made its first appearance for the season two weeks ago at my local farmer’s market. I have an affinity for orange vegetables, and was patiently awaiting its arrival. I have bought two in the past two weeks and have been in bliss since. Butternut squash can be cooked any way you’d cook a sweet potato, another one of my fave orange veggies, but best way to tackle one of these beauties is to roast them.

Preheat your oven to 375F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. To prep a butternut squash, peel the skin off with a vegetable peeler. Now, peeling this baby whole can be a bit of a challenge because its curves can be hard to reach with the peeler. You can actually cut the squash at the bulb, to make peeling easier; just be careful because it is pretty slippery when peeled! Not in the mood to hassle with a veggie peeler? No problem! Roast the squash with the skin on; it is totally edible and softens when roasted.

Peeled squashie!

Peeled squashie!

After peeling, grab your cutting board and knife, if you haven’t already, and cut this sucker in half. You can either cut it lengthwise and roast in two halves, or you can separate the bulb from the body and chop both into cubes. Cut off the bulb by cutting the rounded part of the squash. Cut the bulb in half to deseed. The bulb is full of pulp, and seeds that are also edible once roasted; kind of like pumpkin seeds or pepitas. We don’t want the seeds today, so take a spoon and shovel out the pulp and seeds.

I like to slice my squash into disks, and later into cubes. Place the bulb halves on your cutting board and slice into thick disks. Watch your fingers when chopping! Once done slicing into disks, cut them into cubes. Repeat with the rest of the squash.

Chopped up squash

Chopped up squash

After you have cubed all your squash, and your fingers are still intact, drizzle the cubes with some olive oil and toss to coat. Distribute your cubes evenly onto the prepped baking sheets. If you’re using the squash in a savory application, liberally season with salt. Roast the cubes for 30-40 minutes, depending on how hot your oven runs, tossing halfway during cooking.

Roasted butternut squash cubes

Roasted butternut squash cubes

The end result is a soft, nutty cube of deliciousness. If you’re planning on eating them with dinner, you can eat as is or puree to put into soups, or even mash them potato style. You can also use roasted butternut squash for sweet applications; just roast, mash/puree, and use them where you would normally use pumpkin or sweet potato.

I encourage you to try a butternut squash if you haven’t, and revel in its deliciousness. For those who already feast on this amazing fruit, what are your favorite butternut squash recipes?