Italian Meringue

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A meringue is a preparation made out of egg white whipped with sugar, and can be used as a base or an ingredient in several recipes.
There are different types of meringue: the simplest method is the so-call French meringue, where the eggs whites are simply whipped with caster sugar until stiff. This meringue can then be baked to make, for instance, nests.
A good rule when making a meringue is that the weight of the sugar should be twice the weight of the egg whites, or, if you don’t want to weigh the whites, 60 grams of sugar per white is a good approximation

The method I will talk about now is the most complex, but also the one that will give you the most stable, glossy and thick result: the Italian meringue.
This is a cooked meringue and will need a sugar thermometer because it is made with a light caramel that needs to be at 121 C to be added to the egg whites.
It requires a lot of whisking and is a bit of hard work, unless you have a planetary mixer.

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INGREDIENTS
Egg whites
White sugar (60 g per egg white, or twice the weight of the whites)
Glucose (optional)

EQUIPMENT NEEDED:
Sugar thermometer
Silicon Brush
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This is the whole process:

  1. Put the sugar in a heavy bottomed pan, add just enough water to cover and add the glucose if using
  2. Attach the thermometer to the side of the pan and bring the syrup to the boil
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  3. Brush the sides of the pan with a silicon brush dipped in water, to prevent the sugar crystals from sticking and then burn
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  4. When the syrup has reached 110 C, start whisking the eggs with an electric mixer or in the planetary, and whisk until stiff peaks form
  5. When the syrup reaches 121 C, slowly pour it on the whites, whisking on high speed until all the syrup has been incorporated. Be careful that the stream of caramel does not hit the whisk or it might splatter, and caramel gives nasty burns!. You will see that the egg whites grow in volume and become glossy and shiny
  6. Keep whisking on low speed until the meringue is at room temperature (about 10 minutes)

This meringue is much more stable than an ordinary one and can be stored in the fridge, in an airtight container, for up to two days; furthermore, as the hot sugar will cook the egg whites, it can be safely eaten without further cooking.

Creme Anglaise (Light Pouring Custard)

Custard, in common language, indicates a series of egg-based creams, that can have different degrees of thickness and can be prepared using different aromas.

Thicker custards are prepared with the addition of starch (flour or corn flour usually) and, in that case, they should be called pastry cream (creme patissiere in French).

Strictly speaking, custard refers to what the French call Creme Anglaise (English cream), which is what I am going to explain: now we will see the process to create the most basic light pouring custard, using only egg yolks, sugar, milk and vanilla. The ingredients can then be changed to suit our specific needs (replacing the milk, or part of it, with cream to make it richer, or using another aroma instead of vanilla for example), but mastering this process you will get consistent results whatever ingredients you have chosen

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Ingredients:

Egg yolks
Caster sugar
Milk
Vanilla Pod
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  1. Cut the vanilla pod in half lengthwise and scrap the seeds that are inside using a teaspoon
  2. Add the vanilla seeds to the milk and heat it up
  3. As you are heating the milk, whisk the yolks and sugar together using a hand or and electric whisk until the mixture looks pale and fluffy
  4. Add the hot milk to the yolk and sugar mixture, little by little, stirring constantly to incorporate the milk
  5. When all the milk has been added, put it back in the pan and heat gently, stirring continuously
  6. The custard is ready when it covers the back of a wooden spoon (if you check the temperature using a probe, it should be 63C, which is also the temperature that will  kill all the harmful bacteria that might be in the egg)
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That was a very synthetic way to put it, that might be useful for somebody who already knows how to do it and needs a quick reminder, but that information would not be sufficient for a novice, therefore I’m adding some more info and tips to ensure that the process is understood in depth.

Regarding the vanilla pod, it is quite expensive, so, alternatively, you can use vanilla extract, even though the result will not be exactly the same.

TIP: do not discard the pod after scraping the seeds: if you put it in a jar with plain sugar, you will obtain a vanilla-scented sugar.

Be very careful when you pour the milk into the mixture: if you pour it all at once, the heat will cook the yolks and they will scramble. Pour it very slowly, at least at the beginning, whisking continuously to make sure that the hot milk is dispersed quickly into the mixture; keep whisking until all the milk has been incorporated.

Instead of returning it to the pan, the (still) uncooked cream can be cooked in a bain-marie (a bowl placed over a pan of hot water). This is what I actually suggest if you are inexperienced, as it is a bit more time consuming but reduces the risk of scrambling the eggs. This is how you should do it:

  • Heat the water in the pan, making sure it doesn’t boil
  • Make sure that there is no direct contact between the hot water and the bowl
  • I suggest that you use a metal bowl rather than a glass or ceramic one, since metal is a much better conductor of heat and your custard will be ready more quickly
  • I know I’m repeating myself, but stir it continuously until it’s ready and you can take it off the heat

Pan di Spagna (Italian sponge base)

Chocolate Pand di Spagna

Pan di Spagna is the most popular sponge base in Italy, a success that is hardly surprising as it is very light in texture and neutral in flavour, so that it can be used pretty much with anything. Growing up in Italy, I’ve always known it, and when I saw the recipe for the first time I was surprised by the fact that no yeast is used. In fact, only three ingredients are needed, eggs, sugar and flour, and it is the correct manipulation of the ingredients that makes it rise and become so soft.
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Ingredients:

5 eggs
150g white sugar
150g plain flour (or, preferably, 75g flour and 75g cornstarch)
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The reason why this sponge works without yeast is due to a property of eggs, that have the capacity of incorporating air when whisked (this capacity is obvious also when making a meringue, that uses only the egg whites, for example).
Therefore, the eggs are whisked with the sugar until they reach the desired consistency (see below), and then the flour is incorporated, being careful that the volume of the mixture is reduced as little as possible. Imagine that like a structure with microscopic air bubbles, a bit like a sponge, but fluid: the heat, during baking, will make the air expand, thus making the cake raise; at the same time the heat will cook the eggs and the flour, making them hard enough to hold that shape.

See below the process. I suggest that you line the baking tray and sift the flour beforehand if you are using an electric hand whisk, whilst you can do it while whisking if using a planetary mixer:

  1. Preheat the oven at 180C
  2. Line a baking tray with baking parchment
  3. Sift the flour and starch together or (this is quicker) whisk them with a hand whisk (it will have the same effect as sifting)
  4. Using a planetary mixer or an electric whisk, work the eggs with the sugar until it forms ribbons. It takes 10 to 15 minutes, so quite a bit of work but it’s worth it. This step is very important and needs some considerations:
    – If using an electric hand whisk, work like a planetary would, moving it in a circle, it will be quicker
    -In Italian we say that the mix is ready when it ‘writes’, i.e., when you lift the whisk (after switching off!), the mix that falls leaves a trail on the surface

    This is the sort of trail that the mix should leave on the surface when you lift the whisk

    This is the sort of trail that the mix should leave on the surface when you lift the whisk

  5. When the mix ‘writes’, we are ready to incorporate the flour; this is a critical step, as you need to be fast and light handed at the same time. Some chefs even suggest that you use your hands but I think it’s way too messy and use a wooden spoon or -even better- a silicon spatula. Throw the flour/ cornstarch into the mix all at once and fold it in with quick upward strokes; the mix will lose some volume but your goal here is to keep as much volume as possible
  6. When all the flour has been incorporated, put the mix in the baking tray that has previously been lined, and bake without opening the oven for at least 20 minutes
  7. Cooking time can vary, but it is around 30 minutes; to check if it’s ready, insert a cocktail stick in the middle: the sponge is ready when it comes out clean
  8. Do not take out of the oven immediately or it will collapse: turn it off and let it cool down inside for at least 15 minutes

After that the base is normally sliced and used for assembling a cake

VARIATIONS:

LEMON:
The good thing of pan di Spagna is its neutral flavour that makes it suitable for virtually any type of cream; however, someone (me included to be honest) might find it boring: to add a bit of freshness, add the filtered juice of half lemon to the eggs and sugar before you start whisking.
IMPORTANT: add it before you start whisking, if you add it at the end it will ruin it!

CHOCOLATE:
Depending on what you are using it for, a chocolate pan di Spagna will be more suitable than a plain one: simply mix 50g of cocoa powder with 50g of flour and 50g of corn starch (some recipes say 75g of cocoa with 75g of flour/corn starch, but I tried and the proportion I gave you works better for me)

Prawns & prawn stock

First, a consideration on prawns/shrimps and whether you should buy them fresh or frozen. I say this because prawns are an exception to the general rule that we should always buy fresh ingredients and the difference between fresh and frozen ones is not so big. Furthermore, most of the prawns you buy is frozen at sea and shipped to us because fresh shrimp has a very short shelf-life. When you buy it ‘fresh’, unless you know the fishmonger and can trust what he says, it is likely to be defrosted (maybe even a couple of days before), rather than fresh. Therefore I suggest that you buy the frozen ones and defrost them just before use.

Unless, like I said, you can source the fresh ones from a trusted supplier. Do not buy precooked ones!

If using frozen prawns, you can defrost them quickly placing them in a bowl filled with cold water. Some suggest putting them in a bowl under running water, allowing overflowing as it is faster.

A second consideration is whole shrimps vs tails. In the UK you will mainly find prawn tails. They are quicker and easier to use, but don’t have much flavour. Back home (I’m from Sardinia), prawns are normally cooked whole and the head is actually considered the part with most flavour, and rightly so; I remember making a dish once, back home, using only the tails and being told off because I had discarded the heads; since that person definitely had a point, I took that complaint very seriously and started to think how I could keep the flavour without forcing my guest to shell their prawns as they are eating (which can be quite awkward).
This is why I started making a stock with the heads and shells and adding it to the dish, in order to offer the practicality of serving the tails but keeping the flavour of the whole thing

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This is how to shell the prawns (obviously you will need to defrost them as above if using frozen ones):

  1. Remove the head
  2. Remove the shell, leaving only the last bit as it will look nice in your presentation
  3. Using a sharp knife, make a shallow cut at the back of the tail and extract the vein (usually it’s black, it might be transparent)
  4. Cover and chill until ready to use

NOTE: what the recipes usually call ‘vein’ is actually the intestine of the prawn; it’s not harmful to eat, but it might be a bit gritty. Furthermore, that incision, when the tail is cooked, will create a nice ‘butterflied’ look

Now let’s make the stock with the heads and shells; a prawns stock can be made in many different ways (and you will find many different recipes), but I find that this process gives a better taste and texture.

NOTE: I’m indicating 1/2 litre of water for 12 large or 16 medium prawns, you can make a proportion based on how many prawns you are cooking:

1) Heat 1 tablespoon of olive or rapeseed oil in a pan
2) Add the prawns shells and heads and cook until they turn red

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3) Add 1/2 litre of water, bring to the boil, add 1 tbsp. tomato paste and 1 tsp. anchovy paste
4) Simmer for 15 minutes, skimming the surface
5) Take the pan with the shells off the fire, and blend (using a hand blender)
6) Passing it through a fine sieve lined with muslin, transfer to a clean pan or any suitable container if not using immediately

A consideration on seasoning: I have not forgotten the salt, but I will normally use thiis stock for other preparations, and it’s likely to be reduced further depending on what I’m doing, so the salt should be added whilst preparing the final dish.

How to chop an onion

Onion is one of those versatile ingredients that you will use in a incredible number of dishes, and yet, it is astounding to see how most people – even people who can consider themselves good cooks – do not know how to chop them properly. Using this technique, you will be able to chop it as thin as you like, and this is the technique that professional chefs use; I learnt it from a pro myself and, after learning it, I suddenly realised how messy and inaccurate I had been until then.

The first thing to consider when doing it is the root. Roots are the base, the foundation, and chopping an onion is no exception.

First thing, trim both ends of the onion, but, on the root side, make sure you only get rid of the outside threads, whilst the inner part of the root should be kept intact, as it will hold the onion together.

Then, cut the onion lengthways, dividing the root in two equal parts, and peel the two halves. Then, with the flat side down and the root end pointing outwards, cut vertically  getting as close to the root as you can, but leaving it intact to hold the onion together.

Once done, make horizontal cuts across the vertical cuts holding the onion firmly to allow a clean cut.

I normally chop a whole onion and keep what I don’t use immediately in an airtight container in the fridge. It will last up to a week, and it’s much more convenient than chopping only the quantity you need each time