Saturday, 3 November 2012

Stiff Peaks

Well, slightly runny peaks, actually. But this is my first attempt at beating the hell out of egg whites until they give in and miraculously turn themselves into meringue. I'm reckoned by some to be a fairly decent cook, and I wouldn't disagree with them. But where I fall down is in desserts. Okay, I can make an apple pie or crumble with my eyes shut, but when it comes to things like custard, meringues, sponge cakes etc, I'm a complete novice because I've never paid much attention to that kind of stuff. I do love to eat it, though, despite my previous claims about not having a sweet tooth (I think it emerged about ten years ago, like a late-developing wisdom tooth but without the pain).

 I spent the last couple of months watching The Great British Bake-Off, and it has kindled a bit of a spark in me. It seems that baking is an enormous area of culinary art that, dare I say it, requires a lot more skill and knowledge than that required to bung meat and two veg on a plate.

So this afternoon I decided to try something I've never done before - a meringue (which may or may not form the base of a pavlova). It seems ridiculously simple: take three egg whites (some recipes suggest adding a pinch of salt and cream of tartar), whizz 'em about a bit, and then whizz in 6oz of sugar - icing sugar is preferred because of its finer texture, but I used ordinary granulated. The beating process is supposed to take 5-10 minutes, but I was using a hand whisk, was probably too slow during the first ten minutes, and my arm was all set to drop off when I stopped after half an hour. I know I haven't quite achieved the desired consistency - stiff peaks, baby! - but I just couldn't continue. However, I've made it into a circle on a baking sheet, and tried to form ramparts around the edge to hold the fruit in with. It's now basking in a slow oven for an hour. I'm sure what comes out will be edible, even if somewhat short of perfection.

 The next challenge will be whipped cream - stiff peaks again.

 A side effect of making the meringue is going to be home-made dairy ice cream. I stumbled on this by chance, but if you are using three egg whites in your meringue, you won't be surprised to learn you'll have three orphaned egg yolks. And, apart from the cream, what ice cream needs is three egg yolks. Result!

After the attempt described above, a couple of people pointed out the reason for failure was that I used granulated sugar, so I tracked down some caster sugar (at least, that's what I think it is - it's a bit hard to tell with some stuff in Spain - it's a very fine white sugar), and had another go. The result was pretty much the same as the first attempt: I just wasn't getting enough air into the egg white, so it was doomed to failure. And you need your stiff peaks BEFORE you add the sugar.

By this time, I've been halfway round the Internet looking for solutions (and yes, Cynthia, I would LOVE a KitchenAid, but gosh aren't they expensive!), and learnt a great deal. The problem with recipes on the Internet and in actual books that you pay lots of money for, is that nothing ever goes wrong. Anyway, here is my stiff peaks advice from assorted sources:

1) Equipment. Do NOT use plastic stuff. You need a stainless steel bowl and whisk. Copper bowls are also recommended, although some sources say that copper ions will migrate into your egg mixture, and this may or may not be a good thing. Ceramic or glass bowls are fine too.

2) Equipment. Must be spotlessly clean. Any trace of oil or grease will cause the process to fail. Some people recommend placing your bowl and whisk in the freezer for fifteen minutes before use.

3) Equipment. Try to match the size of your whisk and bowl with the quantity of egg white you are using. The whisk (excluding its handle) should be about three times the height of the amount of egg white in your bowl.

4) Eggs. The eggs should be as fresh as possible, and at room temperature when you begin the process. When separating the whites from the yolks, it is VITALLY IMPORTANT that there is no trace of yolk in with your whites. So, whatever separation method you are using, you need one small bowl for the collection of yolks, one for the separated white of one egg, and the bigger bowl that you will be doing the mixing in. Once you have separated one egg white, pop it into the big bowl. This way, if you mess up separating one egg, you can simply throw it away without contaminating your other egg whites.

5) Method. Having been so careful in preparing everything as above, it can all go horribly wrong if you don't beat it properly. And very few online recipes bother to explain how to do that. They just say things like 'make sure you incorporate lots of air into the mixture'. Yes, but how? I found this brilliant little video on YouTube that tells it like it is:
The trick is in the flick, apparently. However long you go at it, you will NEVER achieve stiff peaks if you just use a stirring motion with your whisk. What you need to do is angle the bowl toward your belly, and for every revolution of the whisk, give it a little flick upwards. I tried this and it worked brilliantly - I'd get a little trail of egg white flying through the air each time. Do this continuously until the mixture forms a peak when you lift the whisk out of it, and the peak does not collapse.

So, finally, I managed it! I did take a photo, but it's not very good. And I did lose most of the stiff-peakiness when I was incorporating the sugar. However, I'm definitely making progress!

And while I've been writing this update, Michele has posted a link on Facebook to a website article:

The very first paragraph made me want to slash my wrists: 'The most important thing to remember when making meringues is that moisture is their greatest enemy. Therefore, don't make meringues on humid or rainy days. Also, avoid making them when doing other cooking.'

It's been grey/overcast/actually raining here the last couple of days. I've also got 6 litres of stock bubbling away in the background. Gahhh!

But I did get stiff peaks.