There are cookie recipes everywhere I turn, a sure hallmark of the holiday season. They’re on the blogs, they’re in my email, and they’re are all over my food mags. They’re at my internship too. It’s the holidays and everyone loves the excuse to bake, including yours truly. I love setting aside whole days devoted to baking, then turning up the music in my apartment, plotting my recipes, and then stocking the fridge with a dozen different doughs that I turn out, one after another.
I’ve been in pastry school for three months now and I’ve been a pastry intern for two. When I come calling with my cookie plates this year, people rightly have high expectations for the treats that I bring and I don’t want to let them down. So I’m pulling out the stops. I’m assembling all of my favorites together on one festive silver platter, and that platter could never, ever be complete without meringue mushrooms.
Meringue mushrooms are the signature item on every dessert tray that Brian’s Aunt Karen has ever presented. She is the original culinary talent in the family, having owned and operated a very successful catering business on Long Island for many years. When I first saw these mushrooms, I was impressed and I couldn’t wait to add them to my own party rotation. They’re delicious for sure, with their light,melt-in-your-mouth exterior coupled with just a taste of solid dark chocolate, but their real appeal to me is that they look so real that they still cause me to do a double take.
Best of all, they are actually quite simple to make. A little more time consuming than the rest of my cookies maybe, but now that I’m becoming a pastry chef I’m all about aesthetics and making things memorable, and this cookie pays off in spades on both counts.
Adapted from Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts
1/2 cup egg whites (this is from 3-4 large eggs) at room temperature
Scant 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
High-quality (Callebeut is my brand of choice) dark chocolate (61-70% is best)
Adjust two racks to divide the oven into thirds. Preheat the oven to 225 degrees Fahrenheit. Line two baking sheets with aluminum foil.
In the bowl of a mixer at med-low speed, beat the whites for about half an minute, until they start to get foamy. Add the salt and the cream of tartar. Increase the speed to moderate and beat for another minute until the whites hold a soft shape. Continue to beat on medium and start adding the sugar, one tablespoon at a time, beating 1/2 minute between additions. When half the sugar has been added, add the vanilla, continue beating, and resume adding the sugar as you were before. When all the sugar has been added, increase the speed to high and beat for 7 to 8 minutes or until the meringue is very stiff and the sugar is dissolved (rub some between two fingers to feel for grittiness). Depending on the power of your mixer, the total beating time will be between 15 and 18 minutes.
To hold the foil in place, pipe a little of the meringue onto each of the corners of the baking sheets and press the foil flat on to to adhere.
Do not allow the meringue to stand. Fit a large pastry bag (or gallon ziploc bag with the corner clipped) with a plain round tip (1/2 to 3/4 inch works best) and fill the bag with meringue. Pipe the stems onto one of the foil-lined baking sheets, by holding the bag at a right angle close to the foil and pressing the meringue out gently while slowly raising the bag straight up. The base of the stem should be a bit wider for support. Hold the bag with one hand and use a knife to cut away the stream of meringue with the other. If you get little points on top do not worry, you can shape them away after baking using a microplane. The stems should be 1 – 1 1/2 inches tall. Be sure to make a few extras, just in case (of hunger, while assembing, which tends to happen).
Strain the cocoa through a fine strainer lightly over the stems to imitate soil and natural mushroom coloring. Place in the oven on the high rack.
On the other piece of foil, shape the mushroom caps. Holding the bag straight up and close to the foil, press out flat, even rounds of meringue. The caps should average 1 1/2 – 2 inches in diameter. Sharply twist the bag away when finishing to avoid leaving a bump on the top (smooth over with a knife if you do).
Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes or even longer, until the meringues may be lifted easily from the foil and the bottoms are firm to the touch. The longer they bake, the drier they are (and the better they are too) but they should not be allowed to brown at all as it will affect the taste. Turn the heat off, prop the oven door open slightly, and allow the meringues to dry out even more as the oven comes down to completely cool, approximately one hour.
Remove the meringues from the foil. They may be placed on a clean piece of foil, or parchment. Immediately, while the meringues are very crisp, use a microplane to shave away any points on the tops of the stems, making small, flat surfaces on top for easy gluing to the tops.
Weigh out one oz. of chocolate for every five mushroom caps that you have. Chop the chocolate coarsely and warm it over a double boiler until it is completely melted and smooth(not over 115 degrees). Turn off the heat to avoid burning. Allow the chocolate to come down to 91 degrees before using. (you can do this by adding additional room temp chocolate)
Hold a mushroom cap upside down and use a spoon to spread a thin layer of chocolate around the flat side of the cap. Adhere the stem to the center of the cap in the chocolate. Place the mushroom, stem side up in an empty egg carton to stabilize it. Freeze in the carton, only until the chocolate is completely set (it will go from shiny to matte) but no longer (the moisture will kill the meringues). Remove and store at room temperature.
Do NOT store the mushrooms in an airtight container. They should be stored under layers of parchment, in a very cool, dry place.