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Meringue Cake "Siberian Mama"

Saturday, November 30, 2013

This is the only dish that mama and I have ever received applause for, from the whole table. We were at a Thanksgiving party in a magic Art House of Quincy, inhabited by talented, artistic, loving people of all walks of life. Not long ago I also lived in that bewitched place, and everyone there is like family to me. Mom was dubbed the official Thanksgiving mother of the evening. There were many miraculous things on the table, all cooked by my even more miraculous friends. Mom and I were simply entrusted with a dessert. The party was merry, the food delicious, the wine flowed, and so did the stories and the songs, some going back to the happy memories of the Soviet childhood. Mom, of course, had to confirm everybody's preconceptions about Siberia by telling of the baby bear (yes, live) that she had as a pet when she was small. Incidentally, the bear was named Masha, like me.

Actually, we were not going to post this recipe when we were cooking. However, the unexpected amount of moaning and applause changed our minds. Thus, we'll have to make do with a smartphone photo of a half-eaten cake. Maybe the feeling matters more than the camera sensor. The feeling of being with people who are your own, the feeling of true gratitude for what you have, the feeling of connection with the stuff your soul is made of, and with your roots. That happy feeling that Thanksgiving should be all about.

This cake is based on a Pavlova recipe by Nigella Lawson, and inspired by another meringue cake that my (yes, Siberian) grandma used to bake. I baked it with my (Siberian) mama, and it invoked some memories, so we decided to call it "Siberian Mama." Let it recall for some the sweetness of raspberries grown by a potato plot at a Russian dacha, let others remember the soft white of the Siberian snowdrifts, and let everyone feel just a bit of mother's love in this unsophisticated blissful treat.

from Russia (well almost),
with Love,
Masha & Nadia

What you need:
1 cup whole almonds
1 pint raspberries
2 cups heavy whipping cream + 2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
a tiny bit of bitter dark chocolate to shred over the cake

For the meringue layer #1:
4 egg whites
2/3 cups granulated sugar
1/2 tsp cream of tartar (optional)
2/3 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder (100% cacao)

For the meringue layer #2: 
4 egg whites
2/3 cups granulated sugar
1/2 tsp cream of tartar (optional)
2/3 tsp balsamic vinegar
4 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder (100% cacao) 

For the frosting: 
2 egg yolks
1/4 cups granulated sugar
 2 Tbsp milk
1 stick of unsalted butter (113 g)

How to do it:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Chop the almonds in a food processor until you have small bits, but not quite sawdust.

Make sure the butter is fresh (if the stick of butter has a yellow coating, scrape it off with a knife). Cut it into chunks and set to soften at room temperature in a medium mixing bowl.

To prepare baking sheets:
Pick one or two baking sheets that can fit in the oven on the same shelf at the same time and can accommodate two circles of ~9" diameter. Line the baking sheets with parchment paper and use an upturned ~ 9" plate to trace two circles on the parchment paper. These circles will be your guides when you mound the meringue onto the baking sheets.
To prevent the baking sheets from sliding around, you may want to dab their bottom side with softened butter for better stickiness.

To make the meringue:
To make sure that the two circles of meringue are the same size, we made the meringue for the layers in two batches, but baked the meringue all at once. You could probably also whip all the egg whites at once.
To make the first portion of meringue: whip the egg whites with an electric mixer until fine foam forms. Add cream of tartar and 1/3 of the sugar. Keep beating at high speed as you gradually add all of the sugar, and keep beating until stiff peaks form. Sprinkle with cocoa powder, 1/2 of the chopped almonds and balsamic vinegar and gently fold in with a wooden spoon until all the ingredients are incorporated. Mound the meringue onto the baking sheet using the traced circle as your guide. Smooth the top and the sides of the layer with a knife. It should be more or less even.
Wash and dry the mixing bowl and make the second meringue layer as above.

Place both meringue layers into the oven. Wait 4 minutes and lower the temperature to 300 degrees. Bake for just over 1 hour (1 hr - 1hr 15 min). At the end, turn off the oven, open the oven door and let the meringues cool completely. They should be dry and crispy on the outside, but a little soft (Nigella calls it "squidgy") in the center.

To make the frosting:
While the meringue is baking, whip the yolks and sugar with an electric mixer (choose a small container, as there is very little stuff to whip). Mix in milk and put the mixture into the top (obviously!) compartment of a double boiler. Set on medium heat and briskly mix the egg mixture until it starts to thicken and steam is rising from the surface of the egg mixture. Mom is actually more adventurous and prefers to use a regular pot set over low heat, but the danger of turning the frosting into an omelette is greater this way!
Let the egg mixture cool, while you cream the butter thoroughly with a wooden spoon. Add the egg mixture into the butter one tablespoon (or even tea spoon) at a time, mixing gently and patiently until fully incorporated. If you've got no patience, this will not work. Butter needs to be coerced to let the egg into its motherly embrace.

To serve:
Dab the serving dish with the frosting for stickiness. Place the darker meringue round onto a serving dish and smother with the butter frosting. Top off with the second meringue round. You can keep this set up at room temperature until your guests are ready for dessert.
Right before serving, whip the cream with 2 tablespoons sugar until soft peaks form. Mound this luscious white bliss on top of the cake and arrange the raspberries over it. Sprinkle with shreds of dark chocolate, and then - indulge, moan, and indulge others!