Lately it seems like I’ve had a lot of bad days. More like a lot of bad weeks. Everyone has those days where nothing goes right, where it seems like the flowers close when you walk by and the clouds begin to leak rain. But when those “once in a while” days turn into every other day, you start to feel discouraged.
I don’t know what it’s been. It started with an unpleasant day in school a few weeks ago, when one of my teachers gave everyone low marks on the final. We all protested but she stayed firm and unyielding. I heard the harshness in her voice and I felt in that moment that her only joy in life came from punishing us.
The following period only made matters worse. It’s a “bird class” – the kind that’s so easy, you fly through with a free A, but that day we had a substitute teacher and everyone acted up. I didn’t find it amusing, but found myself powerless and unmotivated to stand up and help her as she slowly lost control of the class. As the day drew to a close, I realized with dread I’d left some important paperwork at home, and that was the last straw as the sky opened up and began to pour.
A week later, I was spending my weekend afternoon on my bed, trying to sort out a college application. It was a particularly frustrating application, with all sorts of strange requirements and vague instructions that were testing my temper. I must have called twenty people for help on filling it out, but all I got was twenty different opinions, all conflicting. I sat there the whole day, just building up more and more tension until I had to stop looking at the unfinished page.
My friend chose that low, hopeless moment to call me with a complaint and a desire to fight, but I didn’t have any fight in me. As she yelled and I felt our friendship ending, I couldn’t take any more. My heart felt as tender as a badly bruised peach. I quietly hung up, feeling the worst I’d felt all week, and trying not to let it break me.
Usually at moments like that, I turn to the kitchen. But because of all my commitments, I haven’t had as much time to bake as I’d like. I’ve missed three of my friend’s birthdays to date, even though I’ve had their special birthday cakes planned out since the summer. There’s also baked goods I want to make for many people in my life I’m thankful for – teachers, college advisers, my SAT prep tutors. But those have to stay on hold a little while longer.
I decided to make these Striped Peppermint Meringues with Dark Chocolate Ganache as an escape from my stress. They looked beautiful, festive (hello, December) and delicious. Plus, I knew this was a recipe I could do in my sleep. I’ve made this meringue countless times as part of my favorite Swiss meringue buttercream, and I’ve never had difficulties with chocolate ganache. As I cracked the eggs, I felt calmness rise in me from my toes up, like a paper towel touched to water.
The meringue whipped into stiff peaks without trouble. I pulled out the whisk and examined the thick, glossy swirl of meringue and couldn’t help but feel peace. I pulled out my camera and took a photo of the meringue, thinking about this post. The last step before piping was to beat in a little peppermint extract. I measured out the half teaspoon and poured it into the meringue, and switched the mixer on.
I knew right away something was wrong.
The mixer began to churn and the meringue deflated in about two seconds right before my eyes. What had once been stiff, shiny meringue was now a soft, pepperminty mess, and I suddenly felt betrayed even by my KitchenAid. It felt like too much to handle.
My dad calls days like this “deviled egg days.” He told me the story as he drove me home on a particularly bad day. I was keeping my head turned and looking at the raindrops trail down the window so he couldn’t see my face, but he didn’t get discouraged.
He described a dinner party he was serving, where deviled eggs were on the menu. He threw dozens of eggs into the boiling water, only to look down and see that the eggs had broken. He went to the store and bought dozens more. On his second try, the eggs were impossible to peel, and he was forced to toss them as well. At his limit, he bought more eggs and tried a third time. He made them just right this time, and arranged them on a platter. He turned around to move the platter out of the kitchen and accidentally banged it on the counter. All the eggs slid onto the floor, unsalvageable.
I turned to look at him for the first time. “What did you do?”
He smiled and said, “I realized there weren’t going to be any deviled eggs. I just moved on, and as it turned out, nobody missed them.”
I was thinking about his words as I looked back down at the meringue. I’d whipped it another 10 minutes, hoping it would increase in volume again, but it stayed resolutely flat. But the oven was preheated, the sheets were lined with parchment, and I decided to go ahead and try them. I prepared the bag and piped them in neat stars, which drooped and failed to keep their lines. I pushed them into the oven anyway.
When they came out, they weren’t as tall or pointy as they should have been. But they tasted nice, like the holidays and after-dinner mints, so I made the ganache too. I decided they looked very cute, and the meringues were really complemented by the chocolate. In the end, I guess my kitchen wasn’t betraying me – maybe it was trying to teach me something.
I haven’t had any bad days since December began, and I’m glad to see the end of them. This morning was stunning. At dawn, I stepped outside with my camera to photograph the frigid beauty around me: a pale white sun in a cotton-candy sky and the frost-kissed Japanese maple leaves. I breathed in the fresh air and felt my fingers grow numb, and I smiled the whole way to school.
I did some research afterward, because I just didn’t believe that I would mess up meringue. It turns out, meringue doesn’t like peppermint oil, which some peppermint extracts contain. I checked the bottle and yes – sure enough, oil of peppermint was listed as one of the ingredients. I angrily rechecked the recipe, but it didn’t make any mention of this vital fact. Well, you live and learn.
If you plan to make this recipe, you can find a peppermint extract without peppermint oil or use a different extract/different colored stripes. Or, you can go ahead and throw in that peppermint oil and just bake flatter meringues. They were still delicious.
It’s very easy to make the red stripes. Before filling a piping bag with the meringue, you use a small food paintbrush to paint 3 long stripes of red gel food coloring inside the bag. Then when you pipe the meringue stars, they come out cheerily streaked with red. I was thinking about using different extracts and colors, like lemon extract and yellow, orange extract and orange, or lavender extract and purple (you get the idea.) If you aren’t into food coloring, the meringues won’t taste any different without it.
The meringues are crispy, light as air, and very peppermint-y. The chocolate helps keep the strong peppermint flavor in check and adds a bit of moisture and richness to an otherwise weightless dessert. I made the cookies very small, and it was hard to only eat one at a time.
12/4/09 Update: It’s Day 2, and the cookies have only gotten better. The chocolate has softened the meringue slightly, so while it still has a crunch, it dissolves into a sweet, creamy inside. The peppermint isn’t overpowering and the whole package is so good. It’s a definite make-again for me.
Striped Peppermint Meringues with Chocolate Ganache
From Martha Stewart’s Cookies
Makes about 5 dozen
3 large egg whites
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp pure peppermint extract (see extract notes above)
Red gel food coloring
3/4 cup heavy cream
4 1/2 oz semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
Preheat oven to 175 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Whisk the egg whites and sugar in the heatproof bowl of an electric mixer over a pan of simmering water. Stir until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is warm and smooth between your finger tips, 3-5 minutes. Transfer the bowl to the stand mixer and whisk on high speed until stiff peaks form. Mix in the (peppermint oil free! see notes) extract.
With a small, clean paintbrush used for food, paint three stripes of food coloring inside a pastry bag fitted with an open star tip (I used a drop flower tip). Then fill with 1-2 cups meringue and pipe small, 3/4″ high stars onto the sheets. If you need to refill the pastry bag, repaint the food coloring. Clean the brush every time you dip it into the food coloring, or use a new one.
Bake the cookies until crisp but not brown, about 1 hour and 40 minutes. Cool completely on wire racks before sandwiching with ganache.
To make the ganache: bring cream to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Pour over the chocolate in a small bowl and let sit for 5 minutes. Stir until smooth and let cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally. The ganache should be thick enough to hold its shape. Fill it into a pastry bag fitted with a plain round tip and pipe a small mound of ganache onto one meringue before topping with another.
Store cookies in a single layer in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.