High Country Baking: Pecan meringues contain all the elements of a perfect cookie
High altitudes make cookies spread in the pan, cakes fall, and few baked goods turn out as they do at sea level. This twice-monthly column presents recipes and tips that make baking in the mountains successful.
What’s the secret to a good cookie? A crunchy, crisp exterior paired with a soft, chewy center … it’s a match made in heaven. This one is flavored by pecans and enhanced by brown sugar, nutmeg and a thin drizzle of chocolate. They aren’t your everyday cookie-jar sweets; their subtle taste and delicate texture make them more refined and sophisticated. Serve them alone, with coffee, or as an accompaniment to sweetened fruit or a creamy dessert (ice cream, gelato, custards).
Three tips are critical to this cookie’s success: (1) Egg whites require a completely fat-free environment to thicken properly. Make sure there isn’t even a speck of yolk in your egg white, use a clean stainless steel or glass mixing bowl and avoid plastic utensils: plastic is porous and can hold fat from previous uses even after washing. Consider rubbing your equipment with mild vinegar (I use rice vinegar) to assure all fat residue is removed and then rinsing it in water and drying it before starting the recipe. (2) An egg white that’s not extremely fresh will whip more easily than one straight out of the hen house, so use an older one if you can. And, if it’s at room temperature or even a little warmer before you start whipping, it will develop volume faster. Take your time as you bring it to stiff peaks. In the reduced air pressure found at high altitudes, egg whites can expand too quickly and collapse when the sugar is added or if too much of it is added at a time. (3) Use fresh, soft brown sugar, because anything less will result in a grainy texture.
If you want a more elegant cookie, make them smaller, create teaspoon-sized mounds of batter and reduce the baking time accordingly.
Works at any altitude
Bake on a shiny metal cookie sheet
Yields 13 three-inch cookies
1 large egg white, room temperature
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ cup packed soft light brown sugar
1 ½ cups finely-chopped toasted pecans
Chocolate Drizzle, optional
1 ½ ounces dark chocolate
Generous ¼ teaspoon mild vegetable oil
1. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees, with a rack in the center position: Line your cookie sheet with parchment paper. Set the prepared pan aside.
2. Place the room-temperature egg white in a squeaky-clean glass or metal mixing bowl: Using an electric mixer with clean beaters, beat at a low speed until it’s froth with nothing visible but foam. Slowly increase your mixer speed to medium-high and beat until stiff peaks form. Sprinkle on the nutmeg and salt and beat again, at medium-high speed, until they’re fully blended; the egg white should still form stiff peaks. Sprinkle on the brown sugar, about a teaspoon at a time, and beat after each addition for at least 15-20 seconds, until it’s completely incorporated. You don’t want the egg white to deflate. The mixture will thicken and get shiny as the sugar is added.
3. With a very clean large metal spoon or rubber/silicone spatula, fold in the chopped pecans until they’re evenly distributed: Do this gently to avoid deflating the egg mixture. Use two spoons to make tablespoon-size mounds on the prepared cookie sheet, spacing them a little more than an inch apart.
4. Bake until the meringues are dry, hold their shape when pressed gently, and no longer stick to the pan liner: Check by very gently trying to lift one off the parchment paper; if it sticks to the paper the cookies aren’t done. Baking time is usually 40-45 minutes. To prevent the cookies from developing cracks, don’t open the oven door until near the end of the baking time. Cool the cookies, on the pan, on a rack. Once cool, use a metal spatula to carefully remove them from the pan. Add the chocolate drizzle or store them, in an airtight container, in a cool dry place, for a week or freeze them for a month.
5. To make the chocolate drizzle, if using: Finely chop the dark chocolate and, in a small microwave-safe bowl, heat in the microwave at a low temperature for 1-2 minutes, checking frequently, until only small lumps remain. Stir until smooth. Add the vegetable oil and stir until smooth and shiny. Drizzle over the cooled cookies.
Vera Dawson is a high-elevation baking instructor and author of three high-altitude cookbooks (available at The Bookworm in Edwards, Next Page Bookstore in Frisco, and Breck Books in Breckenridge). She became a full-time Frisco resident in 1991 and has been developing and adjusting recipes so that they work at our altitude ever since. Contact her at email@example.com.