Friday, August 07, 2009

Meringue d'automne, or the joys and frustrations of being self-taught

(Apologies for my long silence, I've been very busy with a new project, which I'll post about soon. But I still bake!)

One of the things I like about baking and blogging is that I can teach myself a good number of techniques by reading recipes on the web. Blogging about the process gives me an additional incentive to invest the time and effort to get it right. So mostly I'm pleased I've learned quite a bit since starting this blog.

But self-teaching has its limits, and I keep stumbling upon baking mysteries I can't solve even with the help of on-line resources.

A recipe that illustrates the rewards and frustrations I've encountered is my go-to recipe for celebration cakes, Pierre Hermé's meringue d'automne (which he also refers to as a Megève in some of his books).

Since this post got a bit long-winded (I know, I can get obsessive about documenting successes and failures, as with my croissant saga), I decided to summarize what I've learned in the drawing below:

A review of these five versions of the same recipe follows. Process photos and the recipe itself can be found further down in this post.

Version number 1, October 2006:
The shape was lumpy, the glaze was splotchy, the white chocolate lettering was sloppy, but the flavor and texture were delicious.

Version number 2, December 2006:
Ta-da, I found a solution to hide the lumpy shape and avoid the whole glaze issue: inspired by Alice Medrich, I wrapped the cake in chocolate and covered it with ruffles. Details and my video on how to make the chocolate ruffles can be found here.

(Some time in between versions 2 and 3 I made two additional undocumented ruffle-covered cakes, both of which turned out fine).

Version number 3, October 2007:
Here I had more success with the shape of the cake, as I built it within a cake ring lined with plastic, piping the mousse around the edges as I added each layer of meringue. But again I didn't have any success with the glaze, you can see how blotchy it looks.

Version number 4, September 2008:
The chocolate ruffles were decorated with white chocolate squiggles, creating a nice effect. But oh dear, what happened to the meringue? By the time I served the cake, ie two days after assembling it (Hermé recommends preparing it in advance), the meringue had partially vanished into the mousse (sorry no photo of the inside of the cake). The cake still held its shape, as the chilled mousse is quite firm thanks to its butter content, but the texture was not as interesting as there was no longer much contrast between crunchy meringue and unctuous mousse. I assumed the cake should not be prepared too soon before serving, despite what the recipe said.

Version number 5, July 2009:
I tried the glaze one last time, this time with success: the key lies in making a large quantity of glaze, pouring it on top of the cake and letting it settle without touching it with the spatula (though I did touch up the sides). It's a little wasteful but you can put the cake on a rack and catch the surplus on a sheet of parchment paper under the rack.
However, the meringue disappeared again (again no photo), even though I served it the day after making the cake. I don't know why, and it's driving me nuts.

Possible hypotheses for the disappearing meringue

- Is it because I used defrosted egg whites to make the meringues? That's supposed to be a good thing, aged egg whites whip better don't they?
- Or did I not dry the meringues out long enough in the oven? Twice?
- Perhaps I was too generous with the chocolate mousse. I do remember increasing the quantity of mousse, thinking Hermé's recipe was too stingy...


So along with my pride at having mastered the form, the chocolate ruffles, and the shiny glaze of this cake, comes the humbling lesson that the first iteration tasted better than the last. Despite three years' worth of practice, I don't know if the next time I make this cake it will come out right. Argh!

Process photos (click on any to enlarge)

Chocolate ruffles with white chocolate decorations, as on the cover of Bittersweet (see my video for making chocolate ruffles here):

Meringues before baking (the small ones are left-over meringue batter)

The chocolate and butter mixed together

Folding in the whipped egg whites is done with a whisk

The cake is assembled in a ring form lined with plastic (rhodoïde, or acetate I believe it's called)

Once the cake is fully chilled, you can patch up any holes with left-over mousse.

To wrap the cake in chocolate, cover a strip of plastic (rhodoïde or acetate or in this case shelf-liner. Which is thicker and easier to use than rhodoïde, but this particular one left a pattern on the chocolate, even though of course I used the smooth side). Then wrap the strip of plastic with the melted chocolate around the cake, blocking the end with a piece of parchment paper so you can remove the plastic.

Then decorate with the chocolate ruffles

Recipe: Meringue d'automne
Source: Pierre Hermé, Larousse du chocolat

(I increased the proportions of the meringue and of the mousse)

- 8 egg whites
- 400g sugar
- 2 vanilla pods or 2 tspn vanilla extract

- 400g 70% chocolate
- 417g soft butter
- 5 egg yolks
- 5 tablespoons chocolate sauce (see below)
- 10 egg whites
- 33g sugar

Chocolate sauce
(This makes half a liter of sauce, too much for this recipe)
- 130g 70% chocolate
- 250ml (or grams) water
- 70g sugar
- 125ml (or about the same in grams) thick crème fraiche, or heavy cream

(I don't remember but I think I increased this quantity)
- 100g sauce (see above)
- 100g 70% chocolate
- 80ml "crème fraiche liquide" or heavy cream
- 20g soft butter

Preheat the oven to 120°C.
Scrape the seeds out of the vanilla bean and reserve. Whip the egg whites at medium speed with an electric beater and very gradually, from the beginning, add half the sugar, then the vanilla seeds. Fold in the rest of the sugar carefully so as not to deflate the meringues.
Pipe (using a number 10 plain tip) the meringues into three spirals of 22 cm diameter on parchment-lined baking sheets.
Put the sheets in the oven, keeping the oven door propped open with a wooden spoon. Bake for 30 minutes at 120°C, then lower the temperature to 100°C and bake for one and a half hour more. Turn the oven off and let the meringues dry out with door propped slightly open for 2 or 3 hours. Cool on a rack.

Chocolate sauce
Chop the chocolate in small pieces. Put it in a saucepan with a thick bottom along with the water, the sugar and the cream. Mix together well with a wooden spoon.
Without ceasing to stir, bring the sauce to boiling point on a medium heat. Lower the heat and let the sauce cook while stirring continuously until the sauce becomes smooth and coats the back of the spoon. Remove from the heat.

Chop the chocolate into small pieces and melt it gently. With an electric beater, whip the butter. Incorporate the chocolate in three parts (it should be warm but not hot, about 40°C).
In a bowl mix the egg yolks with the chocolate sauce, and mix this into the butter-chocolate mixture.
Whip the egg whites into soft peaks, adding the sugar little by little. Fold in 1/3 of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture then mix the rest in carefully (use a whisk I would recommend).

Assembling the cake
Place the first meringue disk on a cardboard circle.
(I recommend placing the cardboard within a cake ring lined with plastic wrap, acetate or parchment paper, and piping the mousse around the edges for a nice cylindrical shape. See process photos below.)
Spread a first layer of chocolate mousse, gently press the second meringue disk on top, spread with mousse, add the last meringue disk, then spread top and sides with remaining mousse.
(If you used the method I recommend above you don't need to worry about the sides, though save a little mousse for touching up any holes you may not have filled along the sides of the cake.)
Place in the fridge for two hours.

1) Either wrap the cake in melted chocolate and decorate with ruffles, see process photos below or read my first post on the subject.

2) Or, as per Hermé's original recipe, place cake on a rack over parchment paper and pour glaze over the top, refraining from touching the glaze too much with a spatula. Store the cake in the refrigerator but remove from the fridge one hour before serving.

Chop the chocolate.
Bring the cream to a boil in a saucepan with a thick bottom.
Remove the saucepan from the heat. Add a small amount (about 1/4 or 1/5?) of the chocolate and mix it very slowly with a spatula, starting from the center and stirring towards the sides of the saucepan. Continue adding the rest of the chocolate in several small batches and stirring as described above.

(All this caution is important, as otherwise the emulsion can break, which happened to me. If it happens to you, you can use the "mayonnaise method" described by Alice Medrich to save a ganache... If I remember correctly you heat up two TB of cream, then slowly trickle in your seperated ganache as you stir continuously and carefully).

Let the sauce cool to below 60°C.
At this point, add the butter that has been cut into small pieces, stirring as little as possible, then the chocolate sauce, also stirring as little as possible. The mixture should be homogenous.

Use the glaze between 35 and 40°C, pouring it onto the cake. If it has cooled too much, warm it up very gently in a warm-water bath, or in a microwave oven, without stirring.

(This glaze is a nuisance to make, but it tastes good and most important stays shiny even when the cake is stored in the fridge.)