Ides of March

Tomorrow is the ides of March, the very ides that were Julius Caesar’s undoing.  For those of you that don’t know what “ides” means (which until recently included me), it is the 15th of March, May, July or October and the 13th day of any other month in the ancient Roman calendar.  And if Julius had listened to Brutus’ warning to “Beware the Ides of March”, he could perhaps, have averted disaster.  Alas!

Kitchen disasters can befall on any day, but most of them can also be avoided if the cook is forewarned.  A little common sense can go a long way in helping out as well.  Many of you are familiar with The Peterkin Papers, a lovely book of stories by Lucretia Peabody Hale, written in 1904 about a family that suffers a series of minor disasters from which they can’t figure out how to recover; i.e., Mrs. Peterkin accidentally puts salt instead of sugar in her coffee.  The entire family gets in on the remedy suggestions, none of which help. Many humorous attempts are made to remedy the situation.   Finally, they decide to call on the Lady from Philadelphia (she knows how to solve everything) who immediately solves the problem for them.  Throw the coffee out and start over.

Although amusing, most remedies for kitchen disasters are easy IF you know them.  Unfortunately, common sense isn’t always that common.  Here are some typical problems that new (and sometimes old) cooks experience and the remedies:

Meringue is famous for being difficult to make successfully, even though there are only three or four ingredients.  The reason is that eggs are tricky; to make meringue you must increase the volume and give structure to the whites.  If there is even a speck of egg yolk in the whites, or a trace of grease in the bowl, they will not rise to the occasion.  The greatest volume is achieved when the whites are at room temperature before you beat them.  The sugar must be added very gradually to dissolve it, or else you will have a grainy product that may cause the meringue to weep when you bake it. Too much sugar of any kind will also cause it to weep.  If you can find it, superfine sugar is the best product to use.  Use ¼ teaspoon salt for each cup of egg whites which will help increase the volume, but too much will decrease it.  Cream of tartar is often added to stabilize the whites so they will not reach that dry, overbeaten stage.  The timing of sugar addition is also vital.  Beat the egg whites into a soft foam and then add 1 teaspoon of sugar.  Continue to beat the egg whites, adding 1 tablespoon of sugar at a time until a thick foam is formed.  While the last of the sugar is being added and the beating continues, the meringue will be glossy and soft and rounded peaks will form when the beater is lifted gently from the mixture.  Finally, the whites become stiff, the mass is moist and smooth and pointed peaks stand up when the whisk is withdrawn.  The meringue is finished.

Or you can use this never-fail recipe that my mother gave me:

Never Fail Meringue

2 T. sugar
1 T. cornstarch
½ cup water

Combine and cook in the microwave until thick.  Cool

3 egg whites
1/8 tsp. salt
6 Tbs. sugar

Add cooled cornstarch mixture to egg whites in beater bowl with salt and beat until soft peaks begin to form.  Add 6 T. sugar, one T at a time, until meringue is stiff and glossy.

Bake atop pie for 10 minutes at 350 degrees F.

Many cooks, beginners and experienced alike, often remark that there is a gremlin (or leprechaun?) in their kitchens at times that cause proven recipes, prepared as always to fail.  The weather just may be the culprit.  The Kitchen Companion by Polly Clingerman gives us a rundown:

Blame It on the Weather

On a humid or very hot day yeast doughs are hard to knead, rise too fast and lose elasticity.

Candy made on a hot, humid day won’t set.  You need a room temperature of 60 to 68 degrees and low humidity to make chocolates, fudge, nougats, fondant, hard candy and divinity.

Jam and jelly won’t jell on a rainy day or in high humidity.

Meringues made in damp weather fall and come out limp.

Noodle and pasta doughs are difficult for beginners to make on rainy days.

Puff pastry and brioche doughs need cold, dry weather.  In a hot, humid room, the butter gets too soft, the dough becomes greasy and so does the finished baked pastry.

Mayonnaise won’t thicken if made during a thunder storm.  Heat and high humidity make mayo heavy and greasy.

If you’re cooking tomorrow, you won’t have to worry and remember–if you accidentally put salt instead of sugar in your coffee, throw it out and pour a fresh cup.

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