I don’t have cable, ’cause friends, if I did, I don’t think I would get anything done, ever.
Network television is no great shakes — there is a mere handful of shows that I actually like and watch with any regularity — but it works for me, instead, as a kind of white noise. I think I do my best, most creative work with the TV running in the background — the ongoing conversations emanating from the squawk box keep my inner voice from rambling off in all directions, which I’m prone to do in utter silence.
Inner voice: Must. focus. on. article. Focus. Too bad that last photo I took of the bread was out of focus, the lighting was perfect. I should make cheesy garlic bread for dinner tonight to go with the salad. My salad greens from the garden are so yummy this year. Oh wait … article on gardening … must. concentrate.
I think many folks feel the same about music: it helps the concentration.
Such a sad commentary on the state of network television, this is: it’s good for background noise, little else.
Except public television. I really love the Create channel on PBS. Some of my favorite cooks have shows there: Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, the Cooks Illustrated crew, Steven Raichlen.
And now, Martha Stewart, with her newest show, Martha Bakes.
In a shining example of how people can recover from personal disasters (self-wrought or otherwise) and rise again to a second chance, Martha takes to the public airwaves once more, and this time, she’s utterly charming. Martha Bakes is probably my favorite show of the new fall season. (Until Downton Abbey returns, that is.)
I tuned into Martha Bakes quite by accident, channel-flipping before turning in for the night. I groaned inwardly at the sight of her, but paused over the remote control, morbidly curious.
Martha’s old daytime network tv show was, I thought, an utter train wreck. It was Martha at her worst: pompous, overbearing, condescending, and all around awkward. It was only watchable when she had a guest equal to her cooking talent, someone who could hold his or her own in the studio kitchen. Watching her and any random Hollywood celebrity guest “helping out” on a dish was like bearing witness to a puppy wondering into an alligator swamp with bright-eyed enthusiasm and wagging tail: sooner or later, you knew, you just knew, he’d be swallowed whole by the queen beast.
But there’s none of that Martha here. The woman does know her stuff, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how watchable Martha Bakes is. Her studio kitchen is bright and no nonsense, and, as I said, she’s completely charming, informative, and encouraging.
Martha Bakes is where I first saw these gorgeous meringue swirls, and I knew I’d have to make them myself. I believe the recipe actually first appeared in an edition of “Martha Stewart Living” last year, but Martha’s demo really brought this recipe to life. The striping technique alone is worth the view.
Meringue is not my favorite treat, to be perfectly honest, but it creates such beautiful and delicate desserts that I often make it just because.
Swiss meringue — the type of meringue we’re using for these cookies — is not that hard to make, as long as you follow a few guidelines. Here are some tips to make your meringue a success the first time out:
- Meringue is extremely sensitive to weather. If your kitchen is experiencing high humidity — due either to weather or even other cooking projects with high oven temperatures or boiling water on the stove — your meringues might not set properly. Air conditioning or well-placed cooling fans will help. Autumn is the perfect time to make meringue swirls!
- Make sure your mixing bowl is spotless before beginning. Residues from previous baking projects can cause the whipped egg whites to collapse. Wash and rinse the bowl thoroughly. Swirl some vinegar around the bowl, then rinse again. Dry thoroughly (I use a paper towel to make sure all of the water is removed from the bowl — dish towels can sometimes leave wet streaks behind).
- Swiss meringue begins by beating the egg whites and sugar over simmering water until it reaches a temperature of 140°F. Whisk continuously to dissolve the sugar into the egg whites. Undissolved sugar is a common problem with meringue — it can cause the meringue to sweat and/or make your meringue cookies sticky. To test, place a dot of the egg white/sugar mixture on your thumb and rub it with your forefinger. If it feels gritty, the sugar is not adequate dissolved: keep whisking.
- With an electric mixer (recommended), it will take about 7 minutes to reach the stiff peak stage. Do not over beat, or you’ll risk creating a swiss butter cream frosting (which is awesome, and the stuff of every bride’s wedding cake dreams, but cannot be used to make these meringue swirls cookies). Don’t be shy about stopping the mixer and testing the meringue: dip the whisk attachment into the meringue and slowly pull straight up to create a peak in the meringue. Watch the point of the little meringue mountain you created: the peak should hold its point. Then turn the whisk attachment upside down and observe the peak where the wires meet: it should hold, as well, slouching ever so slightly, at most (in the photo above, the meringue needs about another 30 seconds of whipping, which it received after I added the tangerine zest).
- Use fresh, in-date cream of tartar. Cream of tartar (an acid) is an egg white stabilizer and will help the egg whites hold their shape.
- Always bake your meringues in a slow oven, which will properly dry your cookies without singeing them or causing them to collapse. The recipe here uses a 200°F oven (yes, that’s two hundred degrees Fahrenheit) for an hour or so.
I love how these meringue swirls turned out. The tangerine zest and real vanilla bean combo is such a delight — almost like big rounds of candy.
I used neon gel food colors here for a bright result. (I, too, normally avoid food coloring, but the stripes in this recipe represent less than an eighth of a teaspoon total. It might take some experimenting on your part, but I imagine that a number of natural colorings would work just fine, as long as they’re thick and can cling to a pastry bag.)
These cookies are definitely share-worthy — packaged in a clear container, they would be a show-stopping hostess gift.
Here’s to second chances. May we all be as fortunate as Martha should we ever need one.
- 3 large egg whites, room temperature
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1/2 vanilla bean, seeds scraped
- 1/4 teaspoon of cream of tartar
- Large pinch of salt
- 1 teaspoon finely grated fresh tangerine or orange zest
- Gel-paste food coloring, in orange
- Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Whisk egg whites and sugar together in a heatproof bowl. Add the vanilla bean seeds. Set the bowl over a pot of simmering water, and stir until sugar dissolves and mixture is warm, about 3 minutes. Add cream of tartar and salt.
- Beat with a mixer on medium-high speed until stiff, glossy peaks form and meringue is mostly cooled, about 7 minutes. Beat in zest. Check frequently to ensure the meringue is not over-beaten.
- Using a small paintbrush, paint 3 vertical stripes of food coloring inside a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch round tip (Ateco #805). Space the lines equally around the bag for most attractively striping. Carefully fill the bag with meringue, taking care to push the meringue straight down to the tip without smearing the food coloring. Pipe 1 3/4-inch circular shapes (they don't need to be perfect rounds) 2 inches apart on 2 parchment-lined baking sheets. As you finish piping each cookie, apply less pressure to pastry bag, and swirl the tip off in a circular motion.
- Bake the meringue cookies until crisp on the outside but still soft inside, about 1 hour 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and let set for about 10 minutes. Gently transfer the meringues to a wire rack and allow to cool completely.
Source: adapted only slightly from Martha Bakes