These poor cookies have been forgotten many times over.
So much can go wrong with meringue. If not beaten enough, the whites will collapse. If beaten too much, the water will break away from the protein strands and leak out. If the sugar isn’t incorporated properly it will settle, creating a solid raft of caramelized mess on the bottom of whatever shape you’ve made. If the oven is too hot, the meringue will brown and take on a flavor that isn’t caramelized sugar and isn’t burnt eggs, but a rancid combination of the two. If there is too much humidity in the air, well, just don’t even try to make meringue. The mixture will just keep on soaking in moisture from the air, getting sticky all over again, no matter how long or how many times you dry it out in a low oven.
There is no rushing meringue. You can’t really turn up the temperature in the oven (it will brown), and however long it takes to dry out, it takes. There are no shortcuts to perfect meringue.
I didn’t know all this one day in March of 2000, after I’d finished grad school and was fitfully starting a career as a food writer but making my living doing curriculum development for a continuing education company. I was thumbing through the latest issue of Saveur magazine – at that point a highlight of each month for me – and I came across a recipe for “Forgotten Cookies.” They were little meringues, studded with chocolate and chopped pecans, baked long and at a low temperature, as one would expect for meringues, and then left in the turned-off oven overnight to finish drying (that’s the “forgotten” part, get it?). They sounded good. I dog-eared the page and promptly forgot all about them.
A few months later a friend had me over for tea to celebrate my birthday. On the table was a plate of little meringue cookies studded with chocolate and chopped pecans. “Forgotten cookies?” I asked. They were delicious.
So about a month later I pulled out the recipe, separated some eggs, and left cookies in the oven overnight. First thing the next morning I pulled a pan of cookies out of the oven thinking a little egg white cookie would make a nice accompaniment with my morning coffee. I picked one off the pan, expecting the light airiness of the cookies I’d had on my birthday. Instead the little nugget stuck to my fingers and the pan. The outside of each cookie had turned into a thin layer of sugary egg white glue. I quickly realized that they hadn’t dried properly and turned the oven back on. They were dry in about an hour, cool a bit after that, and made a lovely mid-morning snack. I stacked them in a cookie tin, cleaned the pan, and continued with my day. After dinner I pulled out the tin to offer a few of my creations to my dashing husband for dessert. Instead of the little puffs I’d put away earlier that day I had a tin full of gooey stuck-together globs. I extricated the baking sheet from the cupboard (our small San Francisco apartment kitchen required master puzzle skills to store my large assortment of cookware), turned the oven back on, gently worked the cookies apart and onto the sheet, and dried them out yet again, even going so far as to leave them in the oven overnight again to cool and dry.
When they were sticky again the next morning I felt the tears welling up in my throat. No, I thought, there is no crying over sticky cookies. I set the oven to 200°, dried the cookies again, and hit the books. I soon realized that summer in San Francisco – dreary, foggy, ever-so-slightly damp summer in San Francisco – is no time to make meringue. I tucked the recipe away for the bright, dry days of fall.
I’d forgotten all about them until an abundance of egg whites and a burst of clear dry weather last weekend brought them back to mind.
I’ve made many modifications from the original recipe. I find a second drying is necessary to get them from getting sticky within a few hours (although if you live in the dessert or it’s winter and you inhabit an overheated apartment the second drying may not be necessary). Also, I switched out the chocolate and used cocoa nibs instead – a bit more bitter and perfect against the sweet meringue air.
6 egg whites
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup powdered sugar
1/2 cup cocoa nibs
1 cup chopped pecans
Preheat oven to 225. Put egg whites in a large bowl and beat until very frothy. Add salt and continue beating until the egg whites form stiff peaks – that is, when you lift a beater out not only does a peak remain in the bowl of whites, but you can turn the beater upside down and the peak on it will hold its shape against gravity. This is tricky stuff because you are beating the whites to their limit. You are taking them right up against over-beaten territory. They should not in any way look dry or start to pull apart. If they do, start over.
Reduce speed of the beater or mixed to medium-slow and add sugar 3 or 4 tablespoons at a time. Let each addition dissolve into the whites before adding another. Once all the sugar is added the whites should look glossy and as smooth as ice.
Gently fold in cocoa nibs and pecans. Seriously, fold these in a gently as possible, trying best you can not to deflate the egg whites you just painstakingly inflated.
Line three large cookie pans with parchment paper and drop spoonfuls of the mixture on the pans. They don’t spread and bake into the shape they are going into the oven. Bake for 25 minutes, rotate pans, bake for another 25 minutes, and turn the oven off. Let the cookies sit and slowly but surely dry out overnight. In the morning turn the oven back on to 200. Let it come to temperature, bake the cookies 15 minutes, turn the oven off, and let them sit until the oven is completely cool.
Store cookies in an airtight container. Since they are just meringue and chocolate and nuts they keep forever, or at least several weeks. Why you wouldn’t have eaten them all by then I have no idea, but they do keep very nicely. If it’s humid out or starts to rain they may start to stick. Just dry them out in a 200-degree oven all over again.