What an Air-Head, Martha!- Chocolate Meringues! -282 eggs, 206 3/4 cups of sugar, 207 sticks of Butter, and 260 1/4 cups of flour used so far- 11 recipes to go!
September 3, 2012
Back in March of this year I attempted Martha’s Chocolate Meringues for a second time. The first time I tried to bake these little devils was about a year ago and they came out of the oven flat and mushy. It had been raining all that day and the humidity in my kitchen was too much for the meringues to properly dry. For those of you that have not baked a meringue before, let me share what I know about them with you. There is some lore that points to the first meringues being developed in the 15th century in the Swiss town of Meiringen and then further developed in Italy. The word, Meringue, itself is French, though and first appeared in English from a translation of a French cookbook in 1706. Meringues are simple ingredients combined in complicated ways. They are fussy when it comes to how they need to bake. Essentially, you are dehydrating them while warming them just enough to expand. Whipped egg whites, sugar, flavoring, and usually an acid such as cream of tartar or in some instances, vinegar are added together to make the meringue base. There are three common methods for combining these ingredients divided as follows:
The French Method: Fine granulated sugar is simply beat into egg whites. This is the lightest and fluffiest type of meringue. It is also the most unstable.
The Swiss Method: Egg whites are slowly whisked over a bain-marie (hot water bath) to heat the egg whites. This makes for a denser and glossier meringue. This method is best for meringues for pies that will remain unbaked. The heat kills any potential bacteria that might play havoc with your digestive system.
The Italian Method: Boiled sugar syrup is added to the egg whites. This method makes for a very stiff meringue that holds it’s form. The heated syrup warms the egg whites and creates a very structural, dense meringue batter. This is the stuff you want to use for complicated meringues like macarons or baked Alaska.
Martha’s recipe was simple enough. It incorporated the French method and was easy to assemble. Whipped egg whites, sugar, cream of tartar, and cocoa were all combined and placed into a pastry bag with a star tip. Each tiny meringue is then piped out onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet and placed in 200˚ oven for several hours until completely dehydrated. The color of these confections, and they are truly confections as meringues have more of a candy consistency rather than that of a cookie, were a slight tan with a glossy finish. They are simply a lovely cookie that literally melt in your mouth delivering their chocolatey sweetness. The humidity gods smiled down on me this past March and I successfully baked almost four dozen of these for my husband, Dan to take to his coworkers as a little team-building pick-me-up.
It seems that every time recently I sit at this computer to start typing out one of these posts, I start off with an apology for being so remiss between posts. I’m not apologizing this time. Work took me away from an oven for six months and in the last month my mother-in-law suffered a fall requiring all in the family to scramble to make transitional living arrangements for her. I’m afraid this blog kept falling lower and lower on my list of priorities but that’s life, isn’t it?
Things have settled down. My mother-in-law is out of the hospital and is in rehabilitation right now. She is doing very well and getting stronger every day. Soon she’ll move to a new semi-independent living facility which we affectionately refer to as, “The Cruise Ship.” I’ve been back in Kansas City and have reunited with my stand mixer and my convection oven. I’m also pretty glad to see my husband, too. Oh, and the cats.
I don’t really feel like writing a story today. I’ve got something else on my mind. I’ve been thinking a lot about the notion of perfection lately. It all started with helping my husband and in-laws pack up their mother’s home. Everything had to be examined as we searched for bills and paperwork. We also ran across a lot of photos. Many laughs were had and a few tears were shed. Each photo was delightfully imperfect. Before the time of photoshop and digital cameras, there was a process to capturing images. Camera film was expensive to purchase and equally expensive to develop and so only the most important occasions were captured. First days of school, Easter, Christmas, Family reunions, Birthdays, etc… were always the subject matter. The images were often over-exposed, under-exposed, double-exposed, etc… . Eyes were closed, clothing choices were questionable, hair styles were atrocious. They were, as I mentioned, delightfully imperfect.
On a recent trip home, I witnessed my thirteen-year-old nephew playing with his iPhone. He was using an app. called Instagram which is much like a smaller and less complex version of photoshop for your phone. He was editing recent photos of himself. He played with the color to give himself a darker tan. He removed some offensive wisps of hair atop his head. He brightened the blues of the water behind him and shaded his chest to give the illusion of more developed pectoral muscles. By the time he was done, he created an image of a god-like heartthrob that Teen Beat magazine would be proud to feature on their November cover. It was perfection. It was also a lie.
My basement flooded this weekend and I went through boxes of my old photos. I looked back at the images of myself as a teen, a tween, a child, a toddler, an infant. It was like a pictorial history of awkwardness. Every blemish was captured. Every bad hair day (yes, I wasn’t always bald) was immortalized. In not a single photo did I appear god-like. I never appeared tan. I was either pale as a sheet or red as a lobster. In many photos my eyes were closed. What I did notice, though, was that each imperfect detail, brought back a perfect memory. I remembered that ugly shirt and how much I loathed wearing it. I remembered that Summer when friends pressured me into bleaching my hair. I remembered the start of that school year when the brothers at my school made me cut it all off because it didn’t conform with school policy. I remembered the camera I brought to school that Fall semester to capture my fellow fifth-graders goofing off in front of my new Instamatic.
I then worried for my nephew. When he looked back, would he remember the reality or would the perfection alter that in some way? Did he edit out everything that would trigger an authentic memory? I then worried about all of us. Who was capturing those moments? How often are they hitting the delete button when something is less than perfect?
I visited my mother-in-law yesterday.
I sat in the cold semi-private room chatting away with her as her roommate sat a few feet away hacking violently into her oxygen mask. My mother-in-law listened to my philosophical rant and then reminded me of the photo portrait of her I had framed for my husband a few Christmases ago. It was a wonderful portrait of her at age four that her parents had professionally taken in 1934. The photo was yellowed and ghostly. It was the image of a little farm girl from Illinois. Atop her round face was a head of thick blonde hair that had been hacked several different lengths. Little Rosemary, in preparation for this sitting decided to give herself a haircut the day before the photo was taken. This happened over seventy-five years ago and yet she still remembers it vividly. The photographer didn’t try to fix it or hide the fact that she had a less-than-perfect coif. It was an imperfect moment immortalized.
Perfection is overrated. Even more so, it doesn’t exist.
There are no perfect moments. We will never be our perfect selves. There are no perfect cookies. (Sorry, Martha.)
Perfection is something to strive for, but like Aesop’s Fox and the Grapes, it’s not to be achieved.
The perfection comes in how we remember our falling short of perfection. The best memories from my life have centered around the perfectly imperfect moments of my life.
That said, I really wished my mom had snapped a photo of my sister and I with feminine napkins glued to our socks as we attempted to skate across the kitchen with Mom’s magical “Foot Mops.”
I guess it wasn’t worth the cost of film and the embarrassment at the Eckerd’s Drug Store photo lab.