It’s amazing how little you realize you know once you’re in the thick of things.
For the week, I’ve been walking around the kitchen, trying not to get in anyone’s way, looking like a deer in headlights. I was more than nervous on my first day. OK – I was terrified, and while the terror has ebbed somewhat, the nervousness and the dread that I’m going to royally screw something up has not.
Though I’m officially there to work with the pastry chefs – two hulking, towering guys who look more like they should be playing rugby than making velvety creams and delicate chocolates – I’ve also been assigned to help the sous-chef prepare some of the appetizers, assist the chef with lunch for the staff, prepare vegetables for dinner service, and basically watch everything that’s going on around me with an eagle’s eye, taking it all in and learning the fast-paced rhythm of the lunch service.
So far, they have been very patient with me, and in all honesty, they have no need to be. I’m a novice, and this is a restaurant with a reputation to keep. They would be well within their rights to yell and scold and call me names – if I fail it’s not only a waste of time, but also a waste of money. Instead they’ve been very fair, only getting slightly annoyed when I failed my first Chantilly aka whipped cream, (putting the right sugar in at the wrong time) and having me practice making lines and rosettes with left over meringue.
I’ve learned about the three types of meringue and their uses, that chocolate if treated properly never goes bad, about the two different ways of making whipped cream, proper ways of holding the piping bag, the different knives, and above all that if I don’t work cleaner and more organized the chefs are going to take my arms off.
As I work only for the lunch service, I have my evenings free to practice. This means there’s quite a bit of baking, whipping and chopping going on in my house. Any condiment or cream that can be put into a piping bag is served in strange looking arrangements, including guacamole and frozen banana “ice cream.” My husband is no longer allowed to chop onions, since I have to practice my mince and orange peels are set aside for slicing into very fine strips.
With a bunch of Italian meringue all over the house, and my husband’s colleagues eagerly reminding him that they’d be happy to take any “practice pastries” off my hands, I was inspired to make these decadent desserts. Plus, as many of you know, I have an abhorrence of wasting any food and as meringues use egg whites only, I had to do something with all the yolks.
One of the desserts served at the restaurant is tart citron semi-revisited with a thick sablé cookie, lemon cream, and meringue on top. I wasn’t about to go make lemon cream, but as I had been thinking about a chocolate sablé for two weeks, it was only a matter of keeping some meringue aside from my play-time to create a rather over the top dessert.
This time, I added a bit of Cointreau to my meringue, praying all the while that it wouldn’t collapse under the extra liquid. And some food coloring because I had it in the house and never use it.
Italian meringue is softer than the meringue you traditionally find in French bakeries. It doesn’t really dry out the way a French meringue does and is softer and more creamy. But it’s a bit scary to make as sugar and water need to be heated to a precise temperature and then poured into the egg whites at a regular, slow stream. The secret to Italian meringue is never stop beating. Even if you spill food coloring all over your counter and you look up to find your computer on fire. (I made that last one up.) The secret is patience, because you’re going to be there a while. I bring a book.
First there was some practice time. I hate my piping bag with a passion because it’s made of a porous fabric that leaks sugar every where. But it’s what I’ve got to work with.
Then it was time for the real thing.
I’ll be honest, while the taste and texture were there, the extra liquid of the Cointreau kind of collapsed the meringue. It would have been better to add the liquor with the sugar and water and not at the end. Live and learn.
Topped with a bit of passion fruit which tempered the sugar of the meringue and the bitterness of the chocolate, all the flavors came together.
I’m not including a recipe today, but for the sablés I took a note from Martha Stewart who had good recipe and process. All I added was three teaspoons of cocoa powder.
As for the meringue… once I master the process I’ll share. Making it still makes me nervous enough that I’m not sure if I can describe the process properly.
And clearly, I still need plenty of practice with the piping bag.