Charles Ranhofer’s Italian Coffee Meringues

IMG_2050  Charles Ranhofer, the chef at Delmonico’s in the late 19th century, authored The Epicurean (1894), monumental cookbook that covered not only the elegant French haute cuisine that was an important part of the Delmonico’s experience, but also continental dishes and the “New American” fare, such Alligator Pears (avocados), Alaska-Florida (what we now know as Baked Alaska), and, of course, Lobster Newberg. His massive work included hundreds of menus served at private events for members of “the 400,” as well as instructions for waitstaff to serve multi course meals expeditiously–with as little as 6 minutes per course.

One of the recipes served from the original Epicurean was #3394, Italian Coffee Meringues (Petites Meringues Italiennes Au Cafe).  His instructions (in italics,) are impeccable, if a bit laconic, and clearly written for an experienced pastry cook:

Break seven egg-whites in a basin and beat them on a slow fire with a pound of icing sugar [i.e., superfine sugar] to form into a very light and firm meringue, then add to it one good tablespoonful of coffee essence, mixing it in lightly. Lay this through a pocket on a paper-covered damp board into small meringue shapes and cook in a slack oven. As soon as done fasten them together two by two.

The last line of the recipe is cryptic: we made a French buttercream flavored with a dry anisette to join two meringue halves into a petit four-sized delight. We also added more espresso powder to increase the coffee intensity and took a modern shortcut, using a stand mixer to beat the egg white-sugar mixture into a surprisingly glorious meringue after heating them together until very warm to the touch.  It took a few minutes for the foam to start, but keep beating on high until the mass is room temperature: it will rise into a stable and beautiful froth.

Our interpretation:

For the buttercream, bring 1/2 cup sugar and a few tablespoons of water to the boil in a small saucepan. Cook until it reaches softball stage (235-240 F). Meanwhile, take 4 of the egg yolks and whip them in a stand mixer until very foamy. Drizzle in the softball sugar and continue whipping until the yolks are a light, thick ribbon and the mass has cooled to room temperature.  Cut 8 ounces of room temperature butter into one ounce chunks and add each chunk separately, whipping until smooth.  Add 2 tablespoons anisette, whipping to incorporate.  If the buttercream breaks, rewhip until it comes back together.

The buttercream and meringues are best made the day they are to be served.