Friday, July 20, 2012

All About Eggs

Yesterday was The Hubs’ birthday, so of course we celebrated with The Birthday Cake–topped with Happy Birthday Frosting.  It’s a family tradition that has made its way from my family of origin into the Foodie family, and I hope it sticks around, because I really love that frosting.  It’s basically just a marshmallow cloud in which to wrap your favorite cake–and, as far as I’m concerned, you can’t go wrong with a marshmallow cloud.

You can, however, go wrong when it comes to separating eggs, beating egg whites into a meringue, and creating said marshmallow cloud.  Egg whites are finicky.  But I’ve learned a few tricks over the years that can make your experience with eggs a little easier.  For instance:

  1. Buy your eggs a few days in advance of when you want to make a meringue.  Slightly older egg whites are thinner and more easily whipped than the thicker whites of very fresh eggs.
  2. Chances are, you learned to crack an egg against the side of a bowl or counter.  Doing this, however, is a bad idea–it forces small pieces of eggshell into the egg, and it separates those small pieces from the egg’s internal membrane (which looks like a piece of plastic wrap.)  This isn’t a tragedy, of course, because you can always fish out the eggshells with a spoon–if you notice them.  But a better technique is to rap the egg lightly against a flat surface, like a counter top.  This will produce a horizontal crack in the shell.  Use your fingers to separate the egg along this line.  Notice that the shell will remain in two large pieces, without the risk of smaller shards that might end up in your food.
  3. Separate the egg white from the egg yolk by cracking the egg into your hand and holding the yolk gently, letting the white drip through your (very clean) fingers.  Yes, it’s a little icky–but, thank goodness, your hands are washable.   Tossing the egg yolk between the two halves of the shell invites disaster, because the sharp edge of the egg shell can easily puncture the yolk–and, if you’re making a meringue, one tiny drop of fat from an egg yolk can keep the egg whites from foaming up to their full potential.
  4. Let the egg whites come to room temperature–about 30 minutes should do the trick.  Whole eggs will take much longer to warm up, and it’s not safe to let them sit out that long.  Room temperature egg whites are looser, which allows them to whip faster and collect more air, which gives you a fuller meringue.
  5. While the whites are warming up, wash your bowl and beaters.  Even if they’re clean, wash them again–and avoid plastic mixing bowls, which can hang on to the residue of oils and fats you’ve used in the past.  Then dry everything completely.
  6. Most recipes will tell you not to add sugar to a meringue until the egg whites have been whipped to soft peaks.  That’s excellent advice, 99% of the time.  With Happy Birthday Frosting, however, you really need to add the sugar early on, to denature the egg whites before adding the boiling water to the mixture.  Otherwise, you’ll end up with poached egg whites rather than a marshmallow cloud.

Every single time I make Happy Birthday Frosting, I think I’ve messed it up.  The egg whites always look too watery.  That will never turn into a meringue, I tell myself.  But it almost always does, these days.  It isn’t difficult, but it’s really delicious.  In addition to making a great topping for a birthday cake, it also makes an excellent filling for sandwich cookies or whoopie pies–as long as you’re sure they’ll be eaten quickly, since this frosting doesn’t hold up for more than about 36 hours.  And remember, since it contains an egg white, the frosting (and anything it’s on top of or in between) needs to be stored in the refrigerator, not on a counter top.

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