I love February. I like the way it sounds, beginning with a frisky fricative followed suddenly by the pairing of two unlikely mid-word consonants in a mismatch that invites us to think before speaking. I like the way it begins with that famous rodent checking the shadows for promises of spring and meanders through the lesser holidays of presidential birthdays to either an abrupt or unlikely ending, depending on a four year cycle. Most of all I like it’s invitation to forget the cold darkness of winter and dwell on warmer sentiments as we study the art of love at mid-month for the occasion of Valentine’s Day.
In the kitchen, February always seems to spark my imagination. I get lost in big thoughts about what might be, imagine new ways of expressing myself in the varied media of kitchen staples. I am inspired by love stories, and love letters. I want to make beautiful gifts for my loved ones, craft candies, shape cookies, temper chocolate, expand on what I have done before, on what I know. What that means, while I am generally upbeat about it, is that I traditionally make a mess at Valentine’s Day.
This year is no exception. This Valentine's Day recipe for a Meringue Torte was conceived as part delicate meringue and part creamy mousse filling. In theory it called for the collaboration of several thin crunchy layers of meringue with an amaretto spiked chocolate cream. I hoped it would be crowned with another layer of meringue piped into a delicate filigree. Like many creative endeavors, its execution was part love affair and part cautionary tale.
I adore meringue, especially the kind that is firm and crunchy on the outside but puffed and just a little bit chewy on the inside. It is a part of my roots. It is just that type of meringue that is made by one of only two recipes I have which were surely my mother’s: Chocolate Chip Meringue Cookies and Snow Cream. Both recipes are simple, sweet, weather dependent and in the moment. Both are pure; combining sugar, eggs, vanilla and then introducing something elemental: snow or air. Both shimmer. Neither keeps for long.
At the time, Chocolate Tofu Mousse seemed like a great addition to the crisp layers of meringue. A recent addition to my recipe file, I thought it would offer the perfect contrast: something old and something new, rich dark mousse against light airy meringue, creamy filling between crunchy layers, whispers of Asian influence melded with European tradition, a nod to my roots and my branches. Of course there are times when what I start off thinking is a great idea doesn’t turn out as I plan. Thankfully, even when things don’t go as expected there is often that silver lining.
For this year's recipe I began by drawing saucer sized circles on cookie sheet sized pieces of baking parchment. After tracing the circles I used some plastic cake decorating shapes, much like cookie cutters, to help me draw a filigree in one of the circles. I dipped the bottom in cocoa powder, as I might dust cookie cutters with flour between cookies, then tapped the bottom edge on the parchment to mark it. I tried several designs before finding what I thought would work.
Next I made the meringue. I dabbed a tiny bit of meringue on each corner of the cookie sheet and turned the parchment drawn side down, sticking each corner to the dab of meringue. Then I spread the meringue over the circles I could see through the paper and piped it over my tracings. While it baked I made the Chocolate Tofu Mousse, adding Amaretto instead of spices, and put it in the refrigerator to firm up a bit. Then I waited. When it was almost time to serve the Torte I began its assembly.
It began well. Assembly went quickly as I spread the Amaretto Chocolate Mousse between the delicate layers of meringue. In no time the torte was four layers high on the crystal serving plate. It was coming together just as I had pictured it would. Quickly I turned to retrieve the final layer, the filigree top. I reached out and tenderly picked it up. Then, as I turned to crown the torte…I dropped it!
I know that meringue does not fall intact. Still I hoped. Only one side was broken and mostly in relatively large pieces. I tried to piece it back together on top of the mousse. It wasn’t a complete disaster but, then again, it no longer said what I hoped to convey with my Valentine's Day dessert.
Luckily I had scrawled quite a few hearts on the baking parchment with the meringue that was leftover in the piping bag. In a moment I decided to carefully remove the layer I had just pieced together and arrange some of the hearts on top instead.
It was a good move. The hearts looked pretty on top. They looked as good as the delicate filigree had and were much easier to handle. Problem solved, I cut into the torte to serve it.
I sliced into the torte carefully hoping to make the slices clean. I used a serrated knife and carefully cut downward from the center. Using a cake server I drew the first piece out. I was hoping to see the contrasting layers inside the torte as I pulled the slice onto the plate. I didn’t.
With the first press of my fork into my slice the mousse began to slide and the torte began to collapse. It seems that when creamy mousse meets crisp meringue the meringue begins to melt, almost immediately. After just a few moments my torte had sunk forward on my plate. After just a few bites it was thoroughly disheveled.
That is not to say I regret the experiment. I enjoyed my time in the kitchen, blending favorite recipes old and new, drawing filigrees in cocoa powder, baking heart shaped meringues. And, while the match was, perhaps, less than ideal, the crisp almond laced meringue and the amaretto spiked chocolate mousse tasted great. The creamy mousse softened the intense sweetness of the baked meringue and even as the meringue began to melt it added some structure to the silken tofu mousse. And perhaps the differences are something worth honoring: the way meringue crumbles and mousse spreads on a plate.
While I still see potential in this recipe I feel compelled to add this caution: make this confection only with full knowledge that it won't wait for pictures and leftover slices won’t keep for later. Build this only if you plan to eat it while you can, right away, in the moment. Or, if you'd rather, just deconstruct it. Rather than make things as simple as mousse and meringue more complicated than they need to be, simply serve Chocolate Chip Meringue Cookies and Amaretto Chocolate Mousse layered quickly into a pretty parfait rather than stacked on a platter and cut into slices.
In any case, I keep thinking of a Bible verse, Matthew 6:19, where Jesus tells us not to store up treasure on earth. Treasure is perishable, it will rust or spoil and good things often won’t keep. Perhaps the value of a Meringue Torte is in the truth that we shouldn’t insist on saving (or putting off) the good things until later. Use them now. However simple or complicated, love every moment. Look for ways to make the joy grow. Even if the process isn’t perfect, isn’t everything you expect or hope for, it can still be a pleasure and lead to a sweet conclusion.
2 egg whites, at room temperature
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/8 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon vanilla
¼ teaspoon almond extract
¾ cup sugar
¼ cup almond meal
¼ cup mini chocolate chips, if desired
Preheat oven to 250F.
Cover two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Using a small plate or other guide, draw three 5-6-inch circles on each piece of parchment paper.
Draw a filigree design in one, if desired. Turn the parchment pieces over (so that the drawn circles are on the underside but can be seen through the top) onto large cookie sheets.
With an electric mixer beat together egg whites and cream of tartar just until soft peaks form. Add salt, vanilla and almond extract. Continue beating at high speed as you add the sugar one Tablespoon at a time, allowing 10 seconds or so between additions. (Very stiff peaks should form). Gently fold in the almond meal with a whisk or rubber spatula.
Drop about ½-cup of meringue in the center of each drawn circle (except the filigree circle, if you made one.) With a rubber spatula or the back of a spoon, gently push the meringue out to the edges of the circle and filling in the drawn area as you go with an even layer of meringue. Sprinkle the top of the layers with mini chocolate chips, if desired.
If you would like to make a filigree circle or meringue hearts, spoon the remaining meringue into a quart sized Ziploc bag. Push meringue to one corner and, squeezing any air out gently, close the bag.
Snip ¼-inch from a bottom corner of the bag and pipe the meringue over the outline of the drawn filigree. If any meringue is left over pipe heart outlines or swirls onto blank spaces of the parchment.
Place baking sheets on racks in the upper half of the oven. Bake at 250 degrees for about 30 – 35 minutes or until meringue is set and dry to the touch but still pale. Turn the oven off, prop open the oven door and allow the meringues to stand in the oven another 30 minutes. Remove pans from oven and allow cookies to cool on the pan.
When the meringue circles are cool, carefully peel the parchment from the back of the meringue and set aside in a safe place until ready to assemble.
Prepare the Amaretto Chocolate Mousse, or other filling of your choice (Ice cream comes to mind, as does Balsamic Whipped Cream and a fruit sauce, Whipped Chocolate Ganache, or a soft Chocolate Cream Cheese Spread or Lemon Meringue Pie Filling.)
Just before serving, place a dab of the filling mixture in the middle of a serving platter. Carefully place the first meringue layer on top ( the dab of filling should secure the meringue to the serving plate so it won’t slide around as easily. Place ½-cup or so of the filling (depending on how much of it you have and how easily it spreads) on top of the meringue layer. Gently spread it to the edges of the meringue circle. Top with the next meringue layer and repeat with the next three layers, ending with a layer of the filling.
If you have made a filigree layer carefully position this piece on top of the final layer of filling. If you are using meringue hearts, carefully arrange some combination of the hearts you have made over the filling or, simply use a final meringue circle for the top.
Breathe deeply, take a single moment to admire the pretty torte you have made and then… Serve it immediately!