Do you make New Year’s resolutions? I usually don’t, but this year is going to be a big one for me, so I thought I’d psych myself up. My resolution is to show the meringue who’s boss.
Let me explain.
Some years ago, I landed a job as the staff food stylist at a great magazine. Very exciting. Also a bit surprising, because I had no real experience as a food stylist. The people there believed in me (and I’m still grateful to them). But I was less sure of myself.
One of my first big photo shoots involved four gorgeous and insanely complicated cakes by the supremely talented pastry chef Rebecca Rather. Because it was a big shoot—for the cover—and the cakes were so tricky, the magazine had hired a more seasoned stylist to work with me.
But then, of course, a week or so before the big day, the other stylist cancelled. I’ve never been so terrified—or so thrilled. I was excited for the chance to show my new employers that I could rise to the occasion, but secretly I felt nauseous thinking about those cakes—especially the coconut cake slathered in curlicues of toasted meringue. Thinking about it gave me cold sweats.
Meringue can be a cruel mistress. She’s all snowy white, beautiful, and billowy at first glance. But when you get to know her a bit better, you find that she’s mean, sticky, and finicky. She gets fussy in humidity. Her weeping is legendary. And she slumps when she’s not treated with the utmost care. So why does anyone bother? Because when she’s in a good mood, she’s delicious, sweet, light, and airy perfection. She looks lovely swirled atop a cake, cupcake, or pie. And, like marshmallow, she takes very well to toasting.
I spent the week leading up to the photo shoot drawing diagrams, doing research, making plans and to-do lists, testing recipes. I made meringues and frosted overturned bowls, practicing swoops. I baked layers and layers of cake, trying to get my stockpile of cakes higher than the high number of mistakes I was sure to make. And of course I kept most of this to myself. I wanted everyone to think I was cool as a cucumber. Smooth as buttercream. In fact I was anything but.
On the day of, as is the way of the universe, I couldn’t get the meringue to stiffen up. Every time I put it on, it slid right off the cake and into a puddle at the base. Over and over again. I saw my entire month-long career as a food stylist flash before my eyes. I felt hot and small. I wanted to give up. But I didn’t. Actually I couldn’t.
I rolled up my sleeves, got all up on that meringue, and showed it who was boss. My assistant and I made batches and batches of meringue, trying different techniques with the sugar temperature and the egg whites. With a hotter sugar syrup and a tricky new camera angle we eventually got a beautiful shot. Now it’s one of my favorite shots of all time.
This week I made my own version of that cake – tender coconut cupcakes filled with a luscious coconut cream and topped with meringue. These cupcakes are a symbol of my new year’s resolution. Show the meringue who’s boss. Attack challenges without reserve. Make it happen. Success is there for the taking. Happiness is within reach. Happy 2014. It’s going to be a good one!
Coconut Cream Cupcakes
Don’t worry. This meringue is easy to make. It’s best if made just before toasting and serving. A dollop of whipped cream or any simple buttercream would be lovely too.
Makes 12 cupcakes
For the cupcakes:
1 1/2 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup coconut oil, solid
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 cups coconut milk
1/2 cup whole milk
1 cup sweetened flaked coconut, toasted
For the coconut cream:
3 large egg yolks (save the whites for the meringue)
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup coconut milk
3/4 cup whole milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
For the meringue topping:
3 large egg whites
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 c water
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Make the cupcakes: Preheat oven 350°. Line a 12-cup muffin pan with cupcake liners. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. In a 2-cup glass measuring cup, mix together coconut milk and milk. In a large bowl, beat coconut oil and sugar until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Beat in vanilla and eggs. Add flour mixture, alternating with additions of the coconut milk mixture, and beat just until combined. Stir in flaked coconut. Transfer batter to prepared pan and bake cupcakes until puffed and light golden, about 24 minutes. Transfer cupcakes to a rack to cool completely.
2. Make the coconut cream: In a small saucepan, whisk together egg yolks, sugar, and cornstarch until smooth. Slowly whisk in coconut milk, milk, vanilla, and salt. Cook the mixture, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, over medium heat until it thickens and coats the back of the spoon. (You should be able to draw a clean line through the cream on the spoon.) Let cool completely. (Throw a piece of plastic wrap over the cream, touching the cream, so that it doesn’t form a skin in the refrigerator.)
3. Assemble the cucpakes: Using a paring knife, cut a small circle out of the center of each cupcake. Dig a deeper hole if you’d like more cream in each cupcake but don't cut through to the bottom, or just cut off the bottom part off the top piece you cut out. Save the tops. Fill each hole with some cream and top with the reserved cake.
4. Make the meringue: In a large bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment) place egg whites. With the mixer on medium, beat until just frothy. In a small saucepot fitted with a candy thermometer, heat sugar and water to 230°F. While beating the egg whites, pour the sugar syrup into the bowl in a thin stream. Continue to beat the mixture until the meringue forms stiff peaks. Beat in vanilla.
5. Top each cupcake with some meringue. Have fun with swoops. Using a kitchen torch, lightly brown the tops of each cupcake.