Eats, Shoots & Reads

Eats #1: The Alchemy of Eggs & Sugar…

Ingredients: [Meringue] 3 large eggs, 150g caster sugar, pinch of salt. [Toppings] 25g peeled hazelnuts, 200ml double cream, 1 tablespoon icing sugar, 1/2 vanilla pod, 1/2 punnet of raspberries, 1/2 punnet of blackberries, 100g caster sugar, 100ml water, small bunch of fresh mint.

Note: I reduced the ingredients by half to serve 4-5 people.

Difficulty: 5/5
Rating: 5/5

Yesterday I attempted “The ultimate fruit meringue with vanilla cream, hazelnuts and caramel” (page 394, Cook with Jamie).

To be honest I was a little apprehensive about taking on such a difficult dish for my first recipe, yes the dish has some simple components, whipped cream, sprinkling of berries, toasted hazelnuts, etc. but other aspects left me feeling very nervous indeed.

In my 30 years, despite watching numerous cooking programmes, I’ve never separated an egg, made caramel, zested an orange or even seen a vanilla pod – this challenge would throw me in at the deep end with little margin for error.

Was I tempted to hit the random button and generate a different number? yes… but what would be the point in that? Why attempt a challenge if you remove the challenging aspect? It’s the nature of the game and one I intend to tackle head on!

I started my day with a trip to Sainsbury’s, although not my regular supermarket, I felt compelled to shop there. Surely if it’s a Jamie Oliver recipe Sainsbury’s must stock the ingredients? Bizarre logic I know, especially as Jamie is no longer the spokesperson for Sainsbury’s, but I headed out anyway.
Shopping was pleasant for a Saturday morning and all of the ingredients were in stock (if a little hard to find). I also bought a sieve (for the icing sugar) and an electric whisk as I wasn’t going to attempt meringue using man power alone.

I had my ingredients, I’d done my reading and prepared myself for what was to come, there was no turning back now, time to get stuck in. The first task was the meringue, I had to separate 3 eggs, whisk the mixture until at soft peaks, add the sugar and a pinch of salt gradually and then whisk until smooth. This was all new to me and straight away I found myself feeling unsure of my abilities… how much of the egg white is the white? some of its thicker than the rest, do I need that? Are 3 eggs enough, it doesn’t look like a lot? I guess these are the questions that come with lack of experience.

After 15 minutes, with only 1 failed egg separation, I had a thick creamy meringue. To add an extra dimension I added the zest of an orange as suggested in the recipe book.

It was interesting to watch the runny clear egg whites suddenly transform into this frothy white mixture and then transform further with the simple addition of sugar and a pinch of salt. Once whisked, and very glad of an electric whisk, I popped the meringue in the oven. I was a little concerned about the cooking time, especially as our oven tends to cook faster than expected. I paced the flat like an expectant father, sneaking a peak every now and then – anyone who has cooked meringues before will probably know that feeling… but patience is a virtue and my meringue emerged looking crisp and fluffy.

Once the meringue cooled I whipped the cream and icing sugar and toasted off the hazelnuts. I layered the nuts, fruit and cream until all the ingredients were gone – feeling rather naughty for the calorific content considering my diet, but who am I to argue with the challenge?

The last step, the caramel. The simple alchemy that turns sugar and water into a gooey, sticky liquid. Simply pop the sugar and water in a pan and bring to the boil, reduce until it resembles caramel and drizzle – although relatively simple I always get nervous around hot, bubbling, potentially dangerous substances such as sugar or oil so I was very cautious in my approach. The caramel was yummy, crunchy, sweet and added an extra dimension to the recipe.

Finish off with some fresh mint and we’re done!

Review

For my first culinary challenge I was apprehensive and nervous, there’s no denying that. Were those nerves necessary? Yes and no… The final dish was light, fluffy, creamy and indulgent all at the same time. The berries and mint added a freshness and the caramel added a crunch that set it off nicely. My worrying paid off, but without those nerves things could of been very different. A few minutes extra whisking, baking or reducing the caramel could of had very disastrous effects.

The small margin of error in this recipe wasn’t helped by some of the vagueness in the book. Instructions like cook the meringues until “they’re crisp on the outside and chewy and gooey in the middle” and “reduce until the liquid turns into caramel” without indication of how to test the inside of a meringue or what caramel should look like. I’ll be kind to the book though and admit that the random nature of my challenge might be to blame – certain skills should probably be learnt sequentially.

The final lesson I’ll take away from today’s challenge is to reduce the ingredients further. Despite halving the ingredients I still made enough to feed 6 people, when ideally I wanted to feed 2 – the diet is still an unofficial challenge of 2012!

Overall a tough challenge to kick off 2012 but one that turned out to be a success! Why not give it a go yourself?

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