I do not have a sweet tooth. Nine times out of ten I will choose a second helping of pasta over dessert.
Except in December.
December was made for sweets—sweet breads, boozy cakes, spiced pies, and cookies—cookies piped with icing, festooned with sprinkles, dipped in melted chocolate, or dusted with “sugar snow”, as my kids referred to confectioners’ sugar when they were little.
To celebrate December and the holidays, I’m devoting this month’s posts to sweets—Italian sweets, of course—starting with the sweetest of them all.
My (rather irrational) fondness for meringues dates back to my childhood, and specifically to the meringues at Pasticceria Marinari, near my aunts’ house in Rome. Marinari’s meringues were the best, creamy white and billowy, like snow drifts, or clouds. And sweet—tooth-achingly, headache-inducing sweet. When you bit into one it cracked, then crunched and collapsed, resulting in a fine spray of powdery crumbs. The interior was a pocket of air and a lovely soft layer that was sticky and chewy, like nougat.
There was a tempting selection of meringues in Marinari’s display cases, some of them tiny as buttons, others as big as hamburger buns, some studded with nuts and others dipped in chocolate. The ones that my sister and I always chose were the big ones, and they came in doubles—two giant meringues sandwiched together with thick whipped cream and decorated with drizzles of chocolate. How we ever finished them I don’t know, but we did.
I don’t make meringues often. For one thing, they really are awfully sweet. Also, much like when I make jam, I worry that something will go wrong—my egg whites won’t whip properly or the meringues will flatten into pale, foamy pancakes in the oven. This, I’m happy to say, has not happened in a long time. The key to making successful meringues, I have found, is to a) follow the recipe instructions closely and b) don’t be afraid. Fear is more likely than anything else to deflate your meringues, so just go for it. Here are a few tips to help you along:
1) Use room-temperature egg whites that are free of any yolk
2) Use a clean, dry stainless steel bowl
3) Add a bit of acid, such as cream of tartar, to help stabilize the whipped whites
4) Be sure to beat the whites to stiff, shiny peaks
This recipe for chocolate-dipped hazelnut meringues comes from my book Williams-Sonoma Rustic Italian. To balance the sweetness of the meringues, I folded chopped toasted hazelnuts into the batter and then dipped the baked meringues in melted bittersweet chocolate. I have to say, I’m pretty sure that even the pastry chefs at Pasticceria Marinari would approve of these.
P.S. If you adore holiday cookies, check out my friend Lora’s blog, Cake Duchess. Lora is spreading holiday cheer by featuring links to cookie posts from blogs across the Internet. It’s called #cookielove and there are dozens of cookie recipes and photos to feast on.
from Williams-Sonoma Rustic Italian (2011, Weldon Owen)
Bittersweet chocolate and chopped toasted hazelnuts balance the sweetness of these crispy, festive meringue cookies.
- 4 large egg whites, at room temperature
- 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 cup superfine sugar
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 1/4 cups hazelnuts, shelled, toasted, skinned, and coarsely chopped (see Cook's Note)
- 5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Position two racks in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 275 degrees F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine the egg whites and cream of tartar. Beat on medium speed until foamy. Sprinkle in the salt. Raise the speed to high and beat in the sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time. Beat in the vanilla. At this point, the egg whites should hold stiff, glossy peaks that curl at the tips. Using a silicone spatula, gently fold in the hazelnuts.
Drop rounded teaspoonfuls of the meringue onto the prepared baking sheets. (If you want more uniformly shaped meringues, spoon the meringue into a pastry bag and pipe it onto the parchment-lined pans.)
Place the baking sheets in the oven and bake until the edges of the meringues are pale golden, 35-40 minutes. Turn off the heat and leave the meringues in the oven for 30 minutes without opening the oven door. Remove the baking sheets from the oven. Using an angled metal spatula, gently transfer the meringues to wire racks to cool completely. Reserve the parchment-lined baking sheets; you will use them after you dip the meringues in chocolate.
Put the chocolate in the top of a double boiler and set over (but not touching) barely simmering water. Heat, stirring, until the chocolate has melted. Stir in the oil. Remove from the heat.
Carefully pick up a cooled meringue and dip the bottom into the hot chocolate, letting the excess drip off. Set the meringue, chocolate side down, on a reserved parchment-lined baking sheet. Dip the remaining meringues into the chocolate in the same way and set them on the baking sheets. Place in the freezer until the chocolate is set, about 5 minutes. Using the angled spatula, remove the meringues from the baking sheets. Store the merinuges in airtight containers, using a sheet of parchment paper to separate the layers, at room temperature for up to 1 week.