Every weekend or so, the strong summer heat of the high desert drives us out of town.
Lake Tahoe’s ever-cold waters and the neighboring Sierras’ abundant hiking trails provide shade, cool, and diverse landscapes. Landscapes so gorgeous that they inspire writers to write, artists to paint, photographers to snap, and bakers to bake . . .
The weekend we did the Eagle Falls nature trail at Emerald Bay, I came back home with an idea for a light and delicate meringue cake, the soft whisper of the mountain breeze still in my ears.
Baked meringue sounds just like it, you know.
As rugged as it is, you can’t deny this place a touch of whimsy. The jagged mountain line that soars above the bay looks like a plethora of turrets atop a fortified castle wall. A staircase of uneven granite rocks winds itself up to where the entrance door to this castle may or may not be ajar. Few would get to it; most would be held captive halfway by the breath-taking views of the bay.
With plenty of twisted trees, moss-covered boulders, patches of poison ivy (or what looks like poison ivy), and a foggy waterfall, this part of Emerald Bay could’ve easily set the stage for a movie like Maleficent.
And then there’s this breeze. As if the keeper of the place, it promptly arrives to greet you at the bottom of the steps and takes its time to show you up and around. With a rustle of the dense foliage, a whistle in the hollow of an old tree, a murmur among the tops of the alpines, it narrates the story of this enchanted little place.
Like a good old English butler, you know . . .
So the cake would be all meringue—three thin layers of airy meringue, with each layer slathered with milky buttercream frosting. A handful of salted pistachios would break the sweetness of meringue; fresh strawberries would tone down the richness of the frosting and adorn the top of the cake. A row of meringue kisses hugged by a simple ruffle border along the sides would make a whimsical finish.
I had it all sketched in my mind.
However, the cake didn’t see the execution until a week later—and for good reason. That week, I met Peter Kelly and learned about his Eggs n’ Quackers farm. Peter stopped by the bakery to share the goodness of his flock, and I was lucky to go home with a dozen of big and beautiful duck eggs.
Duck eggs for baking? Seriously??
I was eager to start the experimenting.
After aging the eggs for a week or so, I finally baked my meringue cake.
It took just six whites to fill up my 4 ½ -quart stand mixer bowl with voluminous peaks of a snowy white and gorgeously glossy meringue.
It didn’t take any more or less time to make it than it would to whip a traditional one. If anything, the whites seemed quite malleable but produced a stable meringue that didn’t give in an inch of its volume as I folded a bunch of nuts into it.
The cake turned out fantastic. Light and airy like the mountain breeze that stirred it and the duck egg whites that whipped it up, with the tasty crunch of pistachios and the melt-in-your-mouth silky buttercream.
And it was so pretty to look at, too! I honestly didn’t want to slice it. However, my family made it clear that they were not going to judge the cake by its looks alone and took the knife into their own hands.
As I made this cake two more times that same week, I felt so very appreciative of our nature and its bountiful offerings that move and inspire us in so many ways . . .
Thank you, Peter!
Recipe for Olga’s Original Strawberry-Pistachio Meringue Cake*
For the meringue:
1. 6 duck egg whites, at room temperature
2. ½ teaspoon cream of tartar
3. 1 ¾ cups (385 g) ultrafine pure cane sugar, divided
4. 1/3 cup (50 g) salted pistachios
5. 2 tablespoons cornstarch, sifted
For the buttercream frosting:
1. 2 sticks and 1 ½ tablespoons (250 g) good quality unsalted butter, softened
2. ¾ cup (85 g) powdered sugar, sifted
3. 1 duck egg, at room temperature
4. ¼ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
5. 8 tablespoons condensed milk
For the garnish:
1. 1 lb (455 g) fresh strawberries, washed and dried
2. 1/3 (50 g) cup coarsely chopped salted pistachios, optional
1. Cover two large baking sheets with parchment paper. Draw 2 (8-inch) circles on one of them. Draw another 8-inch circle and 17 (1 7/8-inch) circles on the other. Set aside.
2. Process 1/3 cup pistachios, cornstarch, and ¼ cup sugar in a food processor until pistachios are finely ground. Keep aside.
3. Preheat oven to 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Prepare a large pastry bag fitted with a ½-inch plain tip or a plain coupler; set aside.
4. Beat eggs whites and cream of tartar at medium speed with an electric mixer until foamy. Gradually add 1 ½ cups sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating at high speed until mixture is glossy and stiff peaks form.
5. Transfer about 2 cups of meringue to prepared pastry bag and pipe round kisses onto small circles drawn on parchment paper.
6. Add half of pistachio mixture to remaining meringue, gently folding just until combined. Repeat procedure with other half.
7. Divide meringue between 3 (8-inch) circles, carefully spooning mixture onto parchment paper and spreading to cover each circle completely.
8. Bake for 1 hour, turning baking sheets after 30 minutes. Turn oven off, leaving meringues to dry completely, about 2 to 2 ½ hours. Meringues are ready when they can easily be lifted from paper without sticking to fingers.
9. To make buttercream frosting, beat butter at medium speed until creamy. Add powdered sugar, vanilla extract, and egg and continue beating until mixture is fluffy, and egg is fully incorporated. Gradually add condensed milk, one tablespoon at a time, beating at high speed until blended and smooth after each addition.
10. To assemble cake, spread buttercream frosting between layers, on top and sides of cake. Sprinkle coarsely chopped pistachios on top of buttercream frosting between layers.
Decorate top with halved strawberries and sides with meringue kisses. Pipe a buttercream border around top of cake, if desired.
11. Serve immediately or chill up to 2 hours. Cut with a sharp knife dipped into cold water.
1. * developed at an altitude of 4500 feet above sea level
2. For more info on how to whip the perfect meringue, go here.