I think some of my earliest memories of pine needles come from the little fir grove on my grandparent's farm. That grove used to seem huge to me. The tall, curiously cloaked trees constantly dropping pine cones and covering the ground with their sleek leaves. The shag carpet effect those dying needles created mesmerized me. The way the light filtered through those trees was different, but I remember loving it. It was always pretty there, no matter the time of year.
While that grove was often my go to, other places on the farm also grabbed me. The raspberry bushes, sunflowers, hammock, the back field where you could see all the land rolling out perfectly beneath you. Living on a hilltop is not something to take for granted.
Recently, I was asked to consider what inspires me to keep up this space. There are so many things, but my paternal grandmother is almost always what I end up referring back to. Not because she was a world famous pastry chef, but because the lifelong memory her "simple" dishes inflicted upon every member of her extended family never ceases to amaze me. At some point she made something that one of us just absolutely adored.
While I have a hard time picking out just one thing, I do know that one of the earliest things to set a mark in my memory was a simple yellow tupperware container of meringues.
They weren't exactly a delicate cookie, but that's what made them grandma's. This lady had the patience and talent to whip egg whites and sugar to perfection, but she also had this inherent housewife tendency to bake things until they were browned and set. I think that just comes with the generation she grew up in. As a result, her meringues were always slightly browned on the outside, much like the weather-worn skin she sported after spending countless summers in her garden. This created a very crisp-shelled cookie, but somehow she still managed to maintain that slight marshmallow-y softness inside. They had a good heart, also like Grandma.
That's a lot of introspection about a cookie, I'll admit. But I think there's always one part of my brain constantly turning over some aspect of food, and I've had many years to consider grandma's meringues.
In a recent post work-induced-nap haze, I found myself craving the satisfaction of whipping up sugar and egg whites on high speed and creating that fantastically easy, glossy miracle for myself. In my earlier years of meringue exploration, I had some pretty epic fails. I found out the hard way that egg whites do not like oil. I was dead set on creating these beautiful peppermint meringue kisses, but every time I added the extract I would watch with astonishment as my beautiful peaks fell before my eyes. I went to several different grocery stores, determined to find an imitation extract without any oil, before giving up.
After that sad adventure and my hopeless attempts to beat wilted meringue back into submission, I did some extensive googling about the do's and don'ts of whipping egg whites. In these explorations I came across one of the most simplistic, but utterly satisfying meringue cookies.
Emeril Lagasses's "Forgotten Kisses" are just that. You whip together a very simple meringue base, plop it onto baking sheets, stick them into an oven preheated to 350 degrees F, shut the oven off, and then forget about them. You have to give them at least 2-3 hours in the cooling oven, but that's the beauty of it. I often leave mine in overnight, pull them out in the morning and I have the most delicate, soft-centered meringue imaginable. It's my favorite way to bake meringue now if stability isn't my main objective.
The oven heat renders the chocolate chips to just the right amount of softness, so that they only add to the amazing affect you get when you sink your teeth into one. You need two hands so you can cup the other underneath to catch any meringue bits and chocolate chips that scatter. Or you can employ my dad's technique of stuffing the entire thing into your mouth and just letting it dissolve. Your call!
Remembering the saving grace these cookies were to my trampled-upon meringue experiences, I felt the need to revisit them. And I couldn't help but think what an amazing addition just the tiniest bit of peppermint extract would be. I learned shortly after my bad first experience that 1/4-1/2 teaspoon is way to much oil for egg whites to handle. But a tiny bit, such as an 1/8 teaspoon, is enough to impart the flavor without killing the peaks.
So, in a stranger's kitchen I found the necessary tools to make these cookies happen. Lacking certain necessities like parchment paper (meringues loooove to stick to anything/everything), I got creative and whipped out the aluminum foil. Finding no cooking spray, I warmed up a bit of butter and lightly but thoroughly greased every inch of the lined pan. While I'd advise dry parchment paper whenever possible, this method also worked like a charm.
I honestly don't know why it is that I haven't yet invested in a kitchen scoop, but I was beyond thrilled to find one in a cluttered drawer. It makes them look like little snowballs, and the sphericalness just adds to their overall charm. You almost can't even tell that the peppermint-y insides are housing a cave of softened chocolate chips.
I could wax poetic about these for days. They were just what I needed last weekend, and they might just be what you need as well. Whip 'em up, throw them in the oven, and forget about it. Until you eat them, of course, then they'll be stuck in your head forever.
Mint Chocolate Chip Meringues
Yield: about 16 cookies if you use a small, two tablespoon-sized scoop. Much more if you end up doing teaspoon amounts, like Emeril originally did.
- 2 large egg whites, at room temperature
- 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 2/3 cup granulated sugar
- A dash of vanilla extract
- 1/8 teaspoon peppermint extract
- 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips (or finely chopped chocolate)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and line 1-2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a clean, dry stand mixer or medium bowl and hand mixer, whip the egg whites until foamy. Add the cream of tartar and beat just until fluffy and not at all dry (do not over-beat). Begin to add the sugar gradually, about 2 tablespoons at a time, waiting until the sugar is completely incorporated before adding more. When 1/2 of the sugar has been added, add the vanilla and peppermint and continue to add remaining sugar. Beat until the meringue is shiny and tight with stiff peaks. Gently fold in the chocolate chips.
With a small kitchen scoop, mound the batter onto prepared sheet pans. Alternatively, if looking for a smaller cookie, simply use a teaspoon to scoop the dough and then the back of another (tea)spoon to scrape the meringue into a little mound on the baking sheet.
Place cookies into fully heated oven, shut the door tightly, and turn off the oven heat. Leave undisturbed in the oven for at least 2 hours and up to overnight. Store in an airtight container.
Sources: Emeril Lagasse of Food Network