They seemed too delicate to bake in a wood fired oven.
“Surely they will melt,” I thought as I pushed the baking tray of delicate meringues into the hot wood fired oven. I was participating as an apprentice for the day in the kitchen of The Halfway House Inn at Black Creek Pioneer Village and learning to bake as if in the 1860’s. (Read the previous blog entry for the full story.)
My Black Creek experience took me down a rabbit hole of food history as I learned about a delicate sweet that I would not suspect to have existed in the 1860’s.
Amy Scott, an experienced interpretive staff, guided me through a full morning of baking. When we finished our hearty breads, rolls and cakes, Amy surprised me by announcing that we would make meringues.
Meringues are considered a French specialty by many, and a recipe appeared in a cookbook written by Francois Massialot as early as 1692. I found a recipe in a 1925 cookbook entitled French Home Cooking by Claire de Pratz. It describes the simple but exacting process of beating eggs and sugar and dropping tablespoons of the mixture on papered baking sheets to be cooked for about 50 minutes.
Even earlier in 1602, an English receipt book by Lady Elinor Fettiplace includes a recipe called “White Biskit Bread” that fits the description of a Swiss style meringue. Her receipt (recipe) calls for one and a half pounds of sugar, a handful of flour and twelve beaten egg whites. But with some digging, I learned that one claim states that the confectionary originated in a village in Switzerland – Meiringen. Italy has also laid claim to the world of meringue.
The recipe used by the interpretive staff at Black Creek Pioneer Village originates from a cookbook named Gentility and Economy Combined by George Read that dates back to 1850. He names meringues “Nelson’s Buttons”.
Amy broke two egg whites into a bowl and handed me a whisk. She told me that we would be beating those eggs for awhile because it was going to take a lot of beating to turn these whites into fluff by hand.
We took turns and when some white peaks appeared, I learned that we would gradually add confectionary sugar a tiny bit at a time and continue to beat and beat. The success of our meringues depended on a thorough beating.
Adding some red colouring gave them a pink tint and peppermint extract the subtle flavour.
Wrangling the meringue mixture into a piping bag was not easy and then we squeezed out Nelson’s buttons onto the papered baking sheets. Making them a uniform size and shape took some practice.
We baked them in the wood oven for just short of an hour, which proved a bit too long but baking in a wood oven is not an exacting science. The result was divine bites of sweetness.
It was rewarding to master a baking skill that dates back to the 1600’s in England and Switzerland. Below is a recipe to try for Nelson’s Buttons shared by Black Creek Pioneer Village.
Read, George. Gentility and Economy Combined. London: Thomas Dean and Son, 1850, p. 84 [section 2].
PEPPERMINT DROPS, ANOTHER WAY.
Mix a pound of powdered and sifted loaf sugar with the whites of three or four eggs; add ten or twelve drops of the oil of peppermint, beat them up well, and drop them out on writing paper, with a small pipe and bag attached to it, the same as for Savoy biscuits.
NELSON’S BUTTONS, are a large sort of peppermint drops, and coloured on the top. Make as the last, and drop them on paper.
Modern Equivalent Peppermint Drops
2 Cups 5-10 Drops
3 Cups 10-12 Drops OR: 1 tsp
Superfine White Sugar, Egg Whites, Oil of Peppermint OR:
Peppermint Extract OPTIONAL: Pink Food Colouring
500 ml 3ml- 10-12 Drops OR:
5 ml 5-10 Drops
Whisk egg whites (in a copper bowl if available) until they form stiff peaks. Slowly whisk sugar into whites until entirely incorporated. Add peppermint flavouring and food colouring and blend in well. Pipe the mixture onto paper-lined sheets, about 1 inch apart.
Bake in a slow oven (275° F) for 35-40 minutes (put into bake oven after bread and cookies have been baked, for 40-50 minutes), until lightly browned and the bottoms will come off the paper without breaking. Yields about 60 buttons.