By Marcia Pilgeram
Reader Food Columnist
Ever since I can remember, I was the queen of elaborate tea parties, both real and imagined. I’ve entertained dolls, dignitaries, dogs (stuffed and real), friends, children and finally, my favorite guests: my own adoring grandchildren. So it’s no wonder that preparing for the Angels Over Sandpoint’s Annual High Tea is my favorite philanthropic event. I start planning the three-course menu months in advance, and once I’ve made a test run or ten (eliminating the major fails), I share the proposed menu with the team. “Here, taste this,” becomes my mantra.
Last week we wrapped up our most successful tea to date. I don’t measure success by revenues generated; I leave that to the board. My measure of success comes from the time shared with my kitchen comrades. For a week leading up to the tea, surrounded by a like-minded sisterhood, we chop and whip (and sip), sharing wisdom, a few secrets and lots and lots of laughter, and I am reminded that I am happiest in my kitchen.
Many of these culinary assistants say time in my kitchen is like free cooking classes. Oldest child Ryanne spent many long days by my side in the kitchen and once wrote a paper for a sociology class entitled, “The World’s Longest-Running Cooking Class,” so maybe there’s some truth to that. Ryanne relates that she just instinctively knows how to cook, from years of observation.
I too grew up perched high on a kitchen stool, watching my apron-clad mother’s every move as I waited for the sweet bits and dough scraps clinging to the beaters and mixing bowls. Sometimes, when her patience allowed, I sifted a little flour or cranked the handle of her small, red lidded nut grinder. Much later, I learned there was a greater reward to be had than the simple chores or the treats I sampled throughout my childhood: kitchen wisdom.
Inherently, I know that the creamiest potato salad comes from potatoes cooked in their jackets and, while still warm, skinned, diced and tossed with the dressing. My mother never wasted a cooking session with an unexpected trip to the grocery store. She made do with what was in her cupboard (and her mind, where she kept a running reference list of ingredient substitutions). I know that a little vinegar will curdle milk when there’s no buttermilk in my refrigerator, and I can make my own baking powder with baking soda and corn starch.
Along with food tips, sensible advice was sprinkled as liberally as salt, and to this day I still have a penchant for creating petite versions of food, prompted I’m sure by her practical observation, “children want a cookie for each hand and men will always take a double portion of meat, so make everything small.”
With Mother’s Day on the horizon, she’s been at the top of my mind, and I’ve spent the last few days reminiscing about the practical wisdom of my mother. Many of these memories revolve around the varied kitchens we shared. At some point our roles began reversing, and it was Mom’s turn to perch on the stool while I did the cooking, though she never shied away from jumping in to help. Well into her seventies, and with the precision of a surgeon, she would measure, level and cut my multi-tiered desserts. To this day I can’t get a wedding cake “just right,” and my edible creations lack the structural integrity she provided to these elaborate projects. I owe most of the “oohs and aahs” to my mother, her ruler and her very sharp bread knife (I often fear I didn’t share those accolades with her nearly enough).
Last Friday evening I made little rose shaped meringues as one of desserts for the Angels’ Tea and the first batch failed miserably. As I began to whip up the second batch, my mother’s words rang in my ears, you can’t make fluffy meringue with fresh eggs, or on a rainy day.
My recipe file is filled with cards in my mom’s distinctive hand writing (sadly though, in fading pencil), that include her perfect meringue recipe. Her secret was a teaspoon of ice cold water for each egg white. My mom’s meringue was whipped high for pies and coconut macaroons. She never made a Pavlova, though I am sure she would have loved it. I hope you will too. Here’s to a happy “oohs and aahs” filled Mother’s Day.
This lovely dessert was first created in New Zealand and named to honor the visiting Russian ballerina, Pavlova. It is simple, yet elegant and the meringue, which is sweet and crispy and light can be baked ahead. Meringue will keep in a tightly sealed container at room temperature, or individually wrapped, for up to a week if your house is not humid.
•1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
•3 tsp cold water
•2 tsp white wine vinegar
•1 1/2 Tbsp cornstarch
•1 1/2 cups superfine granulated sugar
•6 large eggs whites, room temperature
•2 pints fresh berries
•Freshly whipped cream
Place rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 275°. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat. Pour the vanilla and vinegar into a small cup. In a small bowl, whisk the cornstarch into the superfine sugar.
In the large bowl of standup mixer, using whisk attachment, whip egg whites, cold water and salt, starting on low, increase to medium speed until soft peaks form, approximately 2 to 3 minutes.
Increase speed to medium-high, slowly and gradually sprinkling in the sugar-cornstarch mixture a spoonful at a time. Continue whipping for 2-3 minutes, then slowly pour in the vanilla and vinegar. Increase speed a bit and whip until meringue is glossy, and stiff peaks form when the whisk is lifted, 4 to 5 minutes.
Spoon the meringue into 6-8 large round mounds that are 3 inches wide on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or Silpat. With the back of the spoon, create a well in the middle of the mound to hold the filling once meringue is baked.
Place baking sheet in the oven. Reduce oven temperature to 250°F. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until the meringues are crisp, dry to the touch on the outside, and white — not tan-colored or cracked. The interiors should have a marshmallow-like consistency. Check on meringues at least once during the baking time. If they appear to be taking on color or cracking, reduce temperature 25 degrees, and turn pan around.
Gently lift from the baking sheet and cool on a wire rack. Served topped with your favorite berries, lemon curd and freshly whipped cream. Garnish with fresh mint and lemon zest.