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Entries in pastry history (3)

Tuesday
Jul262011

No Small Trifle: A Primer on Eton Mess

What's better than a hot mess and makes for some sweet eatin'? Eton Mess, naturally!

But...what is it, exactly? So glad you asked. It's a stately collegiate dessert, defined as "a traditional English dessert consisting of a mixture of strawberries, pieces of meringue and cream, which is traditionally served at Eton College's annual cricket game against the students of Winchester College."

So the Eton part of the name is pretty obvious...but what about the mess? And what's the story behind this vaguely trifle-esque dessert?

According to Robin Weir in Recipes from the Dairy, Eton mess was served in the 1930s in the school's sock (tuck) shop, and was originally made with either strawberries or bananas mixed with ice cream or cream. Meringue was a later addition (many credit this addition to Michael Smith, author of Fine English Cookery). Nowadays, Eton mess consists of pieces of crisp meringue, lightly whipped cream and strawberries, all stirred together - hence the name "mess".

But Eton isn't the only place where it's eaten: A similar dessert is the Lancing Mess, served throughout the year at Lancing College in West Sussex, England (see per this menu).

Of course, you could always describe this dessert the way I did while recently trying to explain it to a friend: "it's kind of like Pavlova and Trifle had a baby."

But no matter how you slice it (or spoon it), one thing is for certain: this is one mess you won't be able to get enough of. It's infinitely adaptable, too: got blackberries or blueberries? Substitute them in whole (or in part) for the strawberries. Don't like meringues? Try it with crumbled Nilla wafers or ladyfingers instead. 

Want a recipe? I will be posting a recipe next Monday on Serious Eats; in the meantime, here's a good one to try, or, if you're in Seattle, you can get Eton Mess at Smith in Capitol Hill.

Monday
Jan282008

Boo-Meringue: An FAQ and a Daring Bakers Challenge

 

Lemon with Meringue, with a little help from a friend ;-)

Meringues: light-as air confections; a marriage made in heaven with lemon pies. But on a deeper level (and at this point we pause to look the slightly-browned puff soulfully in the eye), who are you, little meringue? We had these questions on our mind when taking on our first Daring Bakers Challenge; so, we took some time to do some research on this sweet treat. Here's Cakespy's response to some Frequently Asked Questions about the mighty meringue and its relationship with that famous pie, as well as our offering to the Daring Baker's Challenge!

 

Q: What is a meringue?
A: Most simply put, it's a confection made from whipped egg whites and fine (caster) sugar. The way it helps us to think of it is, kind of like whipped cream, but instead of cream, egg whites (for what it's worth).

Q: What is the difference between meringue cookies and meringue on top of a pie?
A: There are different ways to make meringues. The "soft" meringue that you will see on top of pies has only a small amount of sugar to egg white; the "hard" meringues which may be bagged or sold in boxes, are crumbly but quite solid; this is a result of a higher sugar-to-egg white ratio.

Q: Where does its funny name come from?
A: Depends on who you ask. Some insist that it got its name from the Swiss town of Meiringen where some claim the confection was invented by a pastry chef in 1720. However, the word "meringue" appeared in a French cookbook from 1692; so, there is some debate over where the name really comes from. The Dictionary of etymology cites "unknown origin". Quel mysterieuse!

Q: Why do I never see Lemon pies without meringue?
A: Good question, and while you may see a tarte citron, you'll rarely see a lemon pie sans meringue. Although we couldn't find a definitive answer, here's what we think: lemons are sour. Their taste alone doesn't really make a good sweet, so frequently they will have a sweet accompaniment; think of the lemon bar's shortbread crust, even that tarte citron's sweet pastry shell. Since the pie crust will frequently not be sweet, we think that perhaps the addition of the sugary meringue is to add a much-needed sweet complement to the sour lemony filling.

Q: Are meringues delicious?
A: Meringues are, on their own...very sweet. So, it depends on the taster. Marie-Antoinette, that queen of sugar she was, is said to have adored them; to the Cakespy crew, in general they're not entirely compelling all their lonesome. To us, the true goodness of the meringue is brought out by other flavors which accompany and complement that sweetness.

Q: What does it mean when a meringue "weeps"?
A: On a Lemon Meringue pie, a magical place exists where meringue ends and filling begins. Not so magical when a syrup forms in that layer and seeps out while you're cutting the pie in front of guests. Usually, this is because the filling is undercooked on the bottom, and moisture is held suspended. How do you keep your meringue from weeping? Act quickly upon taking your pie from the oven: meringues should always be set on piping hot pie filling to adhere properly. More suggestions can be found here.

Q: What is a marshmallow meringue?
A: A marshmallow meringue is pretty much a meringue, but with marshmallow cream added (think fluff), and is a wonderful accompaniment to sweet potato pie or sweet potato cupcakes (photo left, Marshmallow meringue topped cupcake from Trophy Cupcakes). We like this recipe for its tiny addition of salt, which seems to make the taste come alive.

 

Q: Is Divinity a meringue?
A: While they are similar, we'd say that they're more like cousins than immediate relatives; the ingredients and methods differ. While meringues consist of egg whites and super-fine sugar, divinity calls for a mixture of white sugar, corn syrup and vanilla; also, the method of making divinity is more consistent with candymaking techniques, calling for a syrup to be made and heated before the beaten egg whites are added. For a recipe, check out this link.

Q: Can you teach me to meringue like in Dirty Dancing?
A: Silly rabbit, you're mistaking the meringue with the merengue, which is a type of Latin dance. While doing the merengue is an excellent way to work up an appetite for meringues, they are completely different things.

Interested in finding out more? We found the following resources very helpful: whatscookingamerica.net and joyofbaking.com.

And as for the Daring Bakers Challenge?

 

Lemon Tart
Well, we cheated a little bit to go for the extra tartlet challenge (we got some help from a talented baker who *ahem* does it for a living--wouldn't have looked like this if made by Mrs. Cakespy alone), but ours did come out quite nicely, guess it makes a difference when you have all those tools and gadgets of a commercial kitchen. It was really fun--Head Spy Jessie had never "done" meringues before, so it was a very interesting experience. Oh, the power that a mini torch makes you feel in the kitchen.

 

 

 

 

Sunday
Jan202008

Pie in the Sky: Demystifying Sweet Pies (With Help from the Mini Pie Revolution)

 

Someone had to be the first

What is pie, really? According to the dictionary, "a baked food having a filling of fruit, meat, pudding, etc., prepared in a pastry-lined pan or dish and often topped with a pastry crust." Well, to put it simply, it's a very open-ended food; one of those unique and versatile dishes that can go sweet as easily as it does savory. But even focusing on just the sweet pies, there's still an overwhelming amount of variety as to what a pie can be; from lemon meringue to Chess Pie to classic apple a la mode, it's enough to make one's head spin. Recently, we got a little help from Ann and Karyn, some of the masterminds behind the Mini Pie Revolution (take that, cupcakes!) in decoding the pie family genus. Here's how Karyn explained the differences between the primary types of sweet pies (sorted alphabetically):


Cream Pies: Where eggs are used with heavy cream to make a silky, thick base. These are a subset of custard pies, and the boundaries between them often blur. If you're going to throw a pie at someone, cream pies are the obvious choice. I
think cream pies are a bit more, should I say democratic?, than fruit pies. You can make many using nothing more than pantry staples. '50s housewives loved them. Photo left: Banana Cream pie from Billy's Bakery, NYC.

Custard Pies:
Any pie where eggs are used to set a liquid. Pumpkin pie's a good example. I would suggest that lemon and lime pies fall into this category as well, along with pudding pies and most chocolate pies. Cakespy Note: another one which has fascinated us in the past is the Hoosier Pie, a kind of sugar-custard pie which seems to be big in the American mid-west. Photo left: Pumpkin pie from the North Hill Bakery, Seattle. 
Fruit Pies: I would suggest that the fruit pie family includes any pie where whole fruit or chopped fruit combines with a thickener to create a filling. I confess, I love fruit pies, especially those combination-berry pies that balance sweet and tart flavors. I love them too because they can be so intensely regional and seasonal. In the summer, I love blackberry and blueberry pie topped with vanilla ice cream. In New England, apple pies with cheddar cheese are the norm, while the best cherry pies (in my experience) hail from Michigan. Strawberry-rhubarb pies for the spring fling, pumpkin pies for Turkey Day. Fruit pies are cultural pies, family pies; traditional pies. There's not much new-fangled about them (though there always could be) and I think people like that. 

Mousse Pies and Chiffon Pies: Egg whites are the major player here, though many recipes call for gelatin as well.

 

Nut Pies: I lump all pies requiring nuts set with corn syrup in this category (including peanut pie, though peanuts are legumes, not nuts); Walnut pie, Kentucky Derby pie, Pecan pie . . . while some of the recipes contain eggs, the eggs don't set a liquid, which is what I think separates nut pies from custard and cream pies. I might lump in sweet bean-based pies, too, since the beans were used when people didn't have nuts.

Whew! Glad we got all that figured out. Of course, we won't even get into the poetry and lore of pie crust; however, may we suggest this great post on Smitten Kitchen? Also, if you haven't already read it, there is a wonderful essay on the quest for the perfect crust in Jeffrey Steingarten's The Man Who Ate Everything.

 

But now, to answer the pressing pie questions:


What is the difference between a tart and a pie?
No, tarts aren't just pretentious pies. A tart is always uncovered, and generally made in special, delicately shaped tins. So by this logic a tart is a pie, while a pie is not necessarily a tart. However, the general connotation is that a pie is more rustic, peasant fare, where a tart is more refined. Also, pastry chef Chris Jarchow (who, incidentally, made the tart pictured to the left) points out that tarts are generally defined further by the use of Pâte Sucrée (sweetened crust) as opposed to Pâte Brisée (unsweetened crust), which is what you'd see on say, an apple pie.
Are pies an aphrodisiac?: Yes--according to a study in which (we want to be paid to do studies like this), men's "vital statistics" were measured based on certain smells, pumpkin pie elicited the biggest response. When approached for fact-checking, a cute male couldn't say that pumpkin pie would be his first choice though.
Why do they call it a pizza "pie"? Well, "pizza" literally translates to "pie" or "torte" (thus really rendering "pizza pie" a bit redundant). While pizza does share general traits with a savory pie, the major difference is usually that its crust contains yeast (more bread-y), and so is not quite a  pastry crust. According to the dictionary this makes it technically not a pie--but really, we'd just as soon eat some rather than argue over the details.

Is Boston Cream Pie really a pie? Tasty as it is, this sponge cake, chocolate and custard confection is technically this is not a pie--check out this article for the explanation of why "pie" may have gotten into its name. Other tasty treats that are not actually pies include the
Moon Pie and the Whoopie Pie. Some versions of the Mississippi Mud Pie are really more like cakes, although some do have a decidedly pie-like cookie crust.
Is pie the new cake? Well, some may say so, but the choice--pie, cake, other--is really up to you. However, we must say that at Cakespy, we think these adorable mini pie - cupcake hybrids cropping up recently are awfully cute.
Cakespy Note: Thank you to our sources for this writeup, including Ann and Karyn of the Mini Pie Revolution, Pastry chef Chris Jarchow, the following books: Everything You Pretend to Know about Food (And Are Afraid Someone Will Ask) by Nancy Rommelmann, James McNair's Pie Book, and Joy of Cooking's All About Pies and Tarts; online we got some help from American Heritage, What's Cooking America and Joy of Baking.

 

 

 

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