Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Making Mushrooms

It's New Year's Eve and I pretty much have all the "work" stuff done for the year, aside from that pesky thing about thinking of a new title for The New Project. I think my problem is that I like the working title, but I agree with my agent that it probably doesn't work and that the fun associations I have with that title only make sense in my head. Unfortunately, I've found myself visualizing the cover with that title, and now I can't seem to shake it. I've dug through poetry on related subjects, listened to my "soundtrack" for that book, searched collections of quotations, etc. I've found whole poems that are perfect, but no one neat line or phrase that would make a good title.

But I'm going to forget about that for today as I have a party to go to tonight. Maybe my subconscious will keep working on it and give me a revelation in the shower.

Now, for that fun thing I hinted at yesterday: Here's how to make the meringue mushrooms! I was going to call them Magical Mushrooms, since I am a fantasy writer and they do look like something out of fairy land, but then I remembered that there's an entirely different connotation to that term. So, anyway, here's the how-to, with some pretty bad photo illustrations (taking pictures of yourself at very close range doing things that require two hands is something of a challenge). The recipe is inspired by/adapted from/expanded from something I found in the Pillsbury Complete Book of Baking (which I swiped from my mom, but I don't think she minded, since that means I'm the one to bake).

Start with two egg whites at room temperature. Add a quarter teaspoon cream of tartar and beat until they're really foamy. Gradually add 1/2 cup of sugar, one tablespoon at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. Keep beating until the egg whites are glossy, the sugar is thoroughly mixed in, and stiff peaks form (when you lift the beaters, it leaves peaks whose tops don't flop over).

Heat the oven to 200 degrees (Fahrenheit). Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Using a pastry press or a pastry bag with a tip that has about a 1/4 inch opening, make the mushroom caps by squirting out egg white blobs that are about an inch in diameter. Do this by keeping the tip close to the cookie sheet and holding it there while you squeeze. You'll end up with some peaks on the caps that look like the top of a soft-serve ice cream cone. If you want to smooth them out to look more like mushrooms, press the peaks down with the back of a damp spoon (if you use a dry spoon, you'll just get more peaks). Make about 50 caps.

Sift unsweetened cocoa powder over the tops of the caps. I used half of a mesh tea ball because I figured the sifter might be overkill.

Bake the caps at 200 degrees for 40-60 minutes. Baking time will vary widely depending on the humidity, as you're more drying than baking. The first time I made these, it was fairly normal humidity, and it took about ten minutes longer than the second time, when it was really dry, and I think they were a bit overdone (I had a few shatter on me).

While the caps are baking, line another cookie sheet with parchment paper and make the stems. The recipe says to make vertical stems about 3/4 inch high, but good luck getting it to cut off that easily. I found it worked best to just barely start squeezing, then pull straight up without squeezing. They're not going to be uniform, but then real mushrooms aren't, either, so it's okay. Make at least as many stems as you make caps, but I would suggest making some extras (you'll probably have enough egg whites). They have a nasty habit of flopping over or going weird.

You'll know the caps are done when they release easily from the parchment. When they aren't done, the inside of the cap will try to stick to the paper. As soon as you take the caps out of the oven (after putting the stems in the oven), take the caps off the paper and use your finger to make a dent in the bottom. I found that it works best when they aren't totally dried out, with the insides still slightly soft, and then you can kind of poke through the bottom to make a good dent. As you dent the bottoms, move them off the cookie sheet to cool.

The stems will bake for about 35-45 minutes (again, less time if it's really dry, more time if it's humid). They're done when you can easily lift them off the parchment paper. Remove them from the cookie sheet right away and let them cool (that doesn't take long). Melt 2 ounces of semi-sweet chocolate (I unwrapped four squares of dark chocolate Dove Promises, nuked on high for a minute, stirred, then put back in the microwave for 30 more seconds). It works best if the chocolate isn't entirely liquid. Stop melting while there are still obvious pieces of chocolate and then stir. This serves as the "glue" to put the mushrooms together, so you want "soft" more than "liquid." Put a dab of chocolate into the dent on the bottom of the cap.

Then stick a stem, pointed end up, into the chocolate. I found it worked best when I flicked off the very tips of the stems (they're really, really dry). Ta da! You've got a mushroom.

Let the chocolate cool/dry completely, then store the mushrooms loosely covered. Here are the finished mushrooms:

Have a happy New Year!

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