We can see it now: Clara’s abuela, standing in her cool stone and ceramic kitchen in Córdoba, worn white apron tied around her waist, slowly, ever so slowly, patiently, ever so patiently, pouring a steady, remarkably steady, thin stream of sparkling white sugar into a bowlful of mountainous egg whites. She makes it seem effortless, and in some ways it is, having done it so many times. The glossy whites are spread into tablets and baked, then layered with dulce de leche and slivered almonds. Cold, with a strong espresso, it is the birthday cake we look forward to all year. Slight crunch of meringue, giving way to an airy middle, the buttery almonds, dense dulce and sweet, so sweet, so perfect to christen another year of memories.
With the recent snow and a January birthday to celebrate, out came the box of tattered, handwritten recipes, and we set to work.
Meringue is one those delights that has been overly complicated by opinion, and there seems to be no end to the suggested tactics. Some add a splash of lemon juice or just the tiniest bit of cream of tarter to their glass bowls. Others bake their meringues for an obscenely long amount of time. Some use old eggs, others add their sugar all at once and at the beginning. Each results in a different kind of confection – French, Italian, or, here, loosely, Argentine – but that’s also kind of the point.
We’ve always made meringue the way our much-loved copy of Fanny Farmer dictated, without much thought to eggs or bowls or cook times, and with happy results.
Or so we thought. As we set about whipping up our favorite birthday cake, we had to admit to ourselves that there were a few rules we’d absorbed over many years of practice.
First, avoid humid days, if you can. Humidity will make your beautiful meringue weep and shrink and turn gummy.
Second, use old eggs. In fact, if you can plan ahead, crack open your eggs a day or two in advance, and let the whites sit out at room temperature.
Third, “stiff peak stage” means beautifully glossy whites which cling to the bowl and, when inverted on your head, do not leave you with a mess of sugared hair. (Yes, we always do the inverted bowl test…) However: if your whites start to separate into a syrupy liquid and grainy foam, if they slip from side to side, then you’ve taken them too far.
And fourth, the real secret to meringue: whip your whites in a silver-plated bowl. No glass, and certainly no plastic. Or better still, a copper bowl, if you have one. We recently had the great fortune of coming across a small copper bowl at a remarkable demolition warehouse in New Bedford, MA, where we’d gone in search of old doors and doorknobs with stories to tell for Hinge Figures. At a jaw-dropping $25, we didn’t think twice but scooped it up, despite a suspicious dark stain that the woman at the cashier recommended we rub out with ketchup. (If ketchup can remove stains from copper, what on earth is it doing inside our bodies?) It’s a beautiful addition to the kitchen, and reserved, solely, for egg whites.
It’s hard to explain, but since acquiring copper, our whites are…creamier. Glossier. Almost, even, a little denser. And perfect for this cake. Curious, we turned to the the inimitable Harold McGee, whose The Science and Lore of the Kitchen is a staple in our kitchen, to understand why. Look!
(And isn’t this amazing?)
As for the dulce de leche, we can’t advise you to make it from scratch, having not tried it (yet) ourselves. But we will advise you to use real dulce, if you can find it, though boiled sweetened condensed milk will work in a pinch.
This cake is best made in advance, at least a day if not more. Some time in the fridge and the hard meringue starts to absorb moisture from the dulce, softening ever so slightly. The result is more balanced, flavors melding, textures perfected. And serve it very cold, with touch of something very bitter.
(And don’t throw out your yolks! Make ice cream!)
torta de merengue.
for the meringue
5 large egg whites
white sugar — to taste, we generally add two tablespoons per egg white
splash of vanilla extract
1. Preheat the oven to 250° F. Unless your oven is insanely accurate (ours is not), use an oven thermometer.
2. Place the egg whites in a metal (copper if you have it, see note above) bowl. The bowl should be spotless – traces of grease or detergent will interfere with foaming. Whip whites, on high, until they begin to form soft peaks. If you’re using a handheld mixer, make large sweeping circles as you go, moving the beaters close to the surface of the whites every few circles. If your stand mixer does that fancy double trick where it spins on the shaft and also traces a curlicue path from the center to the edge of the bowl, use it here.
3. Add just the tiniest splash of vanilla (more and you’ll end up with brown meringues…) and very very slowly sprinkle in sugar by the tablespoon, continuing to whip, until the whites are thick and glossy, cling to the sides of the bowl and hold stiff peaks. As a general rule, we add about two tablespoons of sugar per white, but you’ll want to taste it periodically so the sweetness is to your liking (blah blah raw egg blah blah taste it.) For this cake, err on the side of slightly less sweet, as the dulce de leche is sweet enough for the lot of it.
4. Line two baking sheets with parchment. Trace three rectangles between the two sheets – ours are roughly 9” x 5″ (the size of one our cookbooks, and an Argentinean one by chance, too). You want at least three layers of meringue, but four smaller layers, for a regally tall cake, works just as well. Using a spatula, carefully spread the meringue out to form the rectangles, being sure to keep the layers as even as possible (the corners are particular culprits for being too thin.)
Note: for prettier, or at least more consistent layers, fill a pastry bag with the meringue and pipe the rectangles, starting from the perimeter and moving inward in a continuous, ahem, rectangular spiral.
5. Slip the baking sheets into the oven and bake for 1 hour. Do not open the oven door no matter how sorely you’re tempted (torture in our Brooklyn apartment where our exceedingly old oven is not, alas, outfitted with a convenient viewing window and light.)
6. When the hour’s up, turn the oven off – do not open it, seriously – and let the meringue cool off as the oven does. If you have the time, leave them there for six hours at least. We usually bake our meringue before going to sleep, and leave them there overnight.
to assemble the cake
dulce de leche
Lay the first slab of meringue on your serving platter. Spread evenly with dulce de leche, and sprinkle with almonds. Repeat with the second layer of meringue, dulce and almonds, then top off the cake with the third layer of meringue. Cover with plastic wrap, and store in the refrigerator for 24 hours, or more, if possible, until you’re ready to serve.