The holidays are looking different this year. Many of us will not be gathering for our traditional celebrations but staying safe with low-key festivity. What will not change for many is the preparation and enjoyment of some of the special foods that mark this time of year.
While we may not be able to gather with our friends and neighbors, we can gift them something sweet to enjoy at home. Meringues are a real treat and something different among a sea of sugar cookies, chocolates and other traditional offerings. I am talking of the homemade variety, not the dry and hard commercial product made with meringue powder. Crunchy on the outside and slightly soft inside, they are a real crowd pleaser and a favorite of mine. You may think they are tricky to make, but just follow a few simple steps and you will be pleasantly surprised at just how easy they come together.
I have put a spin on the basic recipe (also included here), by offering hazelnut meringues that you can eat plain or sandwiched together with a fresh cream filling or a shelf-stable chocolate version ideal for gifting. Any neighbor who finds a half dozen or so, nicely wrapped at their doorstep this season, will be thanking you for a long time to come. Have a happy and safe holiday and see you in 2021!
Meringue Cookies: A Quick Primer
A few tips for success to consider before you start baking: It is important to separate the egg whites without a single speck of yolk intruding, as the proteins will prevent the mixture ever reaching the desired volume and stiffness. Superfine or caster sugar is essential as granulated sugar will not dissolve into the egg whites during mixing. Be sure to use a large, spotlessly clean and dry bowl. I have had great results using a stand mixer but feel I can gauge the texture more accurately using a handheld version.
Your hazelnuts should be super fresh, but your egg whites need not be. Organic eggs that have been refrigerated for one to two weeks will thicken up perfectly and are preferable for this recipe. Shelled and skinned hazelnuts are available at The Market in Greenport and for purchase online at sites such as Go Nuts.
As well as the hazelnut version, I have added a recipe for basic meringues which are great to have on hand for impromptu desserts. They keep well and can be served with whipped cream, ice cream or sandwiched together with either of the fillings below. Both cookies are also good plain with a nice cup of tea or coffee.
Hazelnut Meringue Sandwich Cookies
2 cups shelled and skinless hazelnuts
6 large organic egg whites (chilled)
1 ½ cups superfine sugar
1/8 tsp. cream of tartar
Pinch of fine salt
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the hazelnuts in a single layer on a large heavy sheet pan. Place in the oven for 7 minutes to toast lightly. Do not allow the nuts to darken and burn. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool. Place cooled nuts in the bowl of a food processor in two batches and pulse until ground to a consistently coarse texture. There should be no large pieces, but nuts should not be powdery. Lower oven temperature to 240 degrees.
Line two large sheet pans with baking parchment paper. Place the egg whites, salt and cream of tartar in the bowl of a food mixer. Starting on a low setting and gradually increasing speed, beat the eggs until white and foamy and the beaters begin to leave marks in the mixture. This should take about two minutes. Now, with the mixer on high speed, gradually add the sugar about 2 tablespoonfuls at a time, making sure it is thoroughly dissolved before adding more. By the time you have incorporated all the sugar, you will have a white, glossy and very firm mixture. When you remove the beaters, the meringue will still retain its shape and if you invert the bowl, I promise it will stay put!
Gently fold in the ground hazelnuts, one third at a time using a rubber spatula. It is important that you do this carefully to avoid deflating the mixture. Drop dessert-spoon sized dollops of the mixture on to the prepared sheet pans making sure they are evenly spaced. Place the meringues in a 240-degree oven on separate shelves as close to the center as possible. Meringues will take approximately one hour to cook. Set the timer for 20-minute intervals and rotate pans and switch shelves to ensure meringues cook evenly and do not brown. Turn off the oven and leave the meringues in place for about 20 minutes with the door open. The cooked meringues should be hard to the touch on the outside and lift easily from the parchment. Cool on a wire rack before storing in an airtight container. Makes about 32 individual cookies.
Hazelnut Cream Filling
1 ½ cups Mascarpone cheese
1/4 cup heavy cream
½ cup Nutella
2 Tbsp. Frangelico Liqueur (optional)
Beat the mascarpone and heavy cream on medium speed until thick. With mixer at low speed add the Nutella and Frangelico and beat until just combined. Refrigerate for at least half an hour before filling cookies. Store covered in refrigerator for up to 3 days.
When ready to serve, sandwich pairs of cookies together with a 1/3-inch layer of filling. Gently press together and refrigerate for about an hour before serving. The cream filling should not be stored at room temperature for more than one hour. Cookie sandwiches will keep in the fridge for a couple of days, though the texture will be softer. The unfilled cookies can be stored separately in an airtight container for up to a week.
Chocolate Filling For Sandwich Cookies
Use this shelf stable filling if you are gifting the cookies and want them to keep for several days at room temperature. Keep a close eye as it is cooling, as you will need to sandwich the cookies before the mixture hardens up. Should this happen, you can simply place the mixture back over the simmering water for a minute or two to soften and beat until smooth again.
½ cup premium chocolate chips (Ghirardelli 60% cacao are ideal)
4 Tbsp. Nutella
1 tsp. coconut oil
(can substitute a neutral oil such as canola)
Melt the chocolate chips and coconut oil in a small metal bowl suspended (should not touch the water), over a pan of simmering water, stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat, stir in the Nutella and beat until smooth. Cool the filling for about 30-45 minutes at room temperature until it reaches spreadable consistency. Spread a thin layer on the flat side of each cookies and sandwich together. The chocolate filling will further harden up. Cookies can be packaged for gifting or stored in an airtight container in a cool place for 5-7 days.
Recipe makes about 16 filled sandwich cookies.
Basic Vanilla Meringues
4 egg whites chilled
1 cup superfine sugar
1/8 tsp. cream of tartar
Pinch of salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 240 degrees. Line two large sheet pans with baking parchment. Follow the exact directions for the hazelnut meringue sandwich cookies at right, excluding the addition of the nuts. Add the vanilla extract with the last two tablespoonfuls of sugar. Drop evenly spaced dollops of meringue mixture onto the baking sheets and cook following instructions in the recipe above right. Makes about 24 pieces. Cooled meringues will keep in a sealed container for up to two weeks.