Mr. Meringue! (before baking)
I haven’t posted about food in a while, maybe because we eat it too fast to take photos, but I’m always learning something or other about cooking in Italy. And the number one thing that I’ve learned about cooking in Italy is that while New Yorkers like food from around the world (sometimes the stranger the better), Italians like their own food best. So, my cooking focus has shifted over the past few years, from reading cookbooks and buying spices from around the world, to talking with Italians about what they cook, then trying it myself, or better yet, being shown. Italians don’t really seem to use recipes for a lot of what they cook, and in fact, the foods are usually pretty simple, but of good quality.
Two of this fall’s additions are meringues and bagna cauda. The meringue-making got started because we always had leftover egg whites after making egg cappuccinos and it seemed shame to waste them. I’d never thought of making meringues before because they always seemed a bit too sweet. But the idea is simple enough: Whip up the egg whites, add some sugar while continuing to whip, bake them at a low temperature, and then let them dry in the oven for up to four hours.
I haven’t got the details down to a science yet. The first time I made them they still came out too sweet, and too brown (though they didn’t taste burned), so I’m adjusting them a little every time I make them. Yesterday Alberto was helping me, and we used 1/3 c. sugar for three egg whites, squeezed the mixture out of a plastic bag onto baking sheets covered in foil, baked the cookies at 110° C (225°F) for an hour-and-a-half, and them left them in the oven pretty much all afternoon. And just to add a little fun, we mixed some chocolate powder with some of the remaining meringue mix and decorated the cookies, at first with a spoon and then with toothpicks. Thus was born Mr. Meringue (above)! This batch was still a little sun-tanned and their texture wasn’t perfect, but they’re coming along.
By the way, these meringues go really nicely with jasmine or chamomile tea. As an aside which I am almost embarrassed to tell, people had been giving me loose tea for a while, and I was just keeping it in the cabinet because I had no idea how to make it or where to find an infuser. Finally a few weeks ago I ran across an infuser in a store somewhere, bought it, and tried it. Wow! I like loose tea so much better than tea from bags! So, now that the weather is getting cool and it’s cloudy out a lot (even though according to the Torinese it’s been that way all summer), we’re getting back into a cozy routine of having chamomile tea before bedtime. But this time we have chamomile-lavender loose tea, which is even better!
Above: Whipped egg whites with sugar added, squeezing out the meringues, and the baked (and tanned) Mr. Merignue!
Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of photos for the bagna cauda. It simply doesn’t last long enough to photograph, and the dip in the pot by itself looks a bit bland (see below). In fact, when I explain what bagna cauda is to Americans, they tend to make faces. You mean it’s anchovies and garlic?! Well, yes, but it’s small amounts of each slow-cooked in a lot of cream! (There’s also a version with oil instead of cream.) And here in Piemonte, bagna cauda (which means warm bath) is the epitome of cozy fall food, a real treat!
To make it, you chop up about 8-10 anchovies (in Italy you can buy these in small glass jars, which you then rinse to remove some of the extra oil and/or salt), add 1 or more garlic cloves depending on your taste, sauté them in a small amount of oil, and then add about a box of cream per person. (Again, in Italy you can buy panna da cucina in boxes of about 20og ea., which is just under 8 oz. or 1 c.). You simmer the mixture on very low heat for about 2 hours, staying close by enough so that now and then you can stir the pot to make sure it doesn’t burn or stick.
When it’s done, you put the bagna cauda in warmed bowls for each person and serve it with various kinds of vegetables, including raw cabbage leaves, roasted peppers, a kind of small mushroom you can buy here in a jar, celery (or its rustic Piemontese cousin, cardo gobbo), boiled potatoes, and I’m sure there are plenty of other things that I’m forgetting!
A word of advice: One bowl of bagna cauda is almost a meal in itself, and as you might imagine, all that cream is very rich. The Piemontese see it as a once-a-month treat, so savor it in small quantities!
Bagna cauda slow-cooking on the stove