I used to side with Pasteur on the whole chance thing, arriving reliably on the laps of the prepared. And while I'm not ready to argue against hard work, blood, sweat, tears, yada yada, I'm beginning to wonder. Maybe even doubt. Because sometimes, a big pile of wonderful just falls from the sky, with no warning, whatsoever.
I'm not talking about what passes for luck, like the fact the kids made it halfway through the parade, before we bailed and made scrambled eggs. Time was, I would have called this a failure, thinking they ought to enjoy the whole thing. Time was, I was young and silly and naive. These days, I measure success on an altogether different scale, wherein showing up is victory; anything after, extra credit. So we knew not to push it, and left while ahead, which would've looked like luck to my unseasoned self. It was really just life, inflected by experience. (Age, if you must. I prefer wisdom.)
I don't mean happy accidents, either, like catching red currants their last week at market, having missed them,
apparently, the three weeks' prior. We scooped up two pints of the
tiny red jewels, ate them out of hand and turned them into curd. It
was good, but not great; their color faded, their pucker dimmed. But
their syrup made for a smashing drink, stirred into seltzer with a
squeeze of lime. Perfect for slurping out on the grass.
I don't even mean Mother Nature's startling abundance, that cucumber that tripled in size just in time to inhale before we left, or this "Charlotte" who took up residence over the kitchen sink. Under ordinary circumstances, I'm not jonesing for spider litters. Wilbur's buddy, if memory serves, delivered something like 532. But sometimes, these things pass for science, or a miracle. And so you wait and watch patiently, three sets of eyes over your shoulder, mindful of the two chrysalises that never came to anything. Maybe you cross your fingers. And toes. And then, just like that, congratulations are in order. Many, many, many, many of them. It felt like good fortune, these sudden yields, but cause and effect is probably more like it.
Even the sun in the sky isn't quite it, though I've been known to act as though it shines (or dims) just for me. Like when Ohio's weather turned wonderful, just before the Fourth. Sunny, mid-seventies, no humidity to speak of, we'd seen enough high summer to hop to it and enjoy. We knew to spread quilts and move stories outside.
Or the way Washington's weather went all brilliant, once we landed, even though summer was last seen last September, by all accounts. How we stumbled into Seattle the day summer began is a grand fluke. How we stumbled into Seattle at all, pure magic.
That's what I'm going with anyway, for the moment. It's inadequate, but I'm not just sure what to call it, that moment I opened my Inbox and saw this: "House available in Seattle in July". Did I mention it's the Inbox I never ever check, the one with four (!) thousand (!!) unopened messages? (And then some.) And this note was just sitting there, smack dab on top, waiting for all the world like it knew I was coming? Magic doesn't really cut it, of course, and I haven't clocked the karma, I'm pretty darn sure. My Sunday attendance doesn't justify the language, but big ol' blessing comes to mind, or grace running rampant. I certainly didn't earn or prepare for such luck. Maybe we can settle on the exquisite kindness of strangers, for now.
I'm not sure what to call this, either, but it's been on my mind a lot, of late. We made it just before leaving Ohio, knowing our rhubarb might be on its last legs. And as if a roof alone weren't enough, our home-away-from-home came with its own lush patch; I've got another pan roasting right now, as I type. It's vacation-easy, and dreamy good.
What is it? You could call it a mini-pavlova, I guess, or, my preference, a nice tidy mess. It's a bit of both, which is to say, a crisp disk of meringue heaped with fruit and chantilly. (Am I alone in thinking vanilla-whipped cream sound endlessly more elegant under the alias 'chantilly'?) It's also not exactly either. Pavlova's are typically big, like a frisbee, with squidgy centers and a yield that serves eight. The meringue in a mess is crisp as the dickens, but it's crumbled and jumbled, boarding-school style. We are now counting angels that don't matter one wit.
What matters is that we made this as an afterthought, one morning between eating breakfast and cleaning up. We didn't make it for company, or even for an evening treat, but just for our own lunch, because it was as easy as all that. (Am I alone in thinking dessert sounds endlessly more respectable under the alias 'lunch'?)
This came together quickly, as we had meringues on hand, which might sound like a feat if you're not in the habit. It took me years to come around to meringues; they sounded so tricky and tasted so gacky. ("Tooth-achingly sweet", my mother would say.) But they're ridiculously easy to put together, two ingredients plus a stand or hand-held mixer. Just beat egg whites and sugar five minutes or so, until they go glossy and hold stiff peaks. Like Mount Rainier in the distance, or an upside-down dog ear.
Then you just spoon and plop, spoon and plop and repeat, and shove in the lowest of ovens for a long while, plus an afternoon or overnight to dry out. (If you still hold meringue anxiety, consider this: how many cookie instructions include "give or take twenty minutes"? Terribly forgiving, these little munchkins.) What you have, in the end, is a crisp snowy disc that holds perfectly for weeks (months, if you can manage). They're sweet, it's true, and I can't much stand them solo, though my kids think they're perfect, all by their lonesome. (Then again, they'll mainline sugar, if I let them.)
If you ask me, meringue's glory lies elsewhere, as the ideal foil for all manner of fruits. Their shattery crunch plays off tender nectarines perfectly, and their unabashed sweet makes tart berries sing. Rhubarb sits squarely between the two, roasted into a slump, teetering toward sour. I might love it best because it shows up first thing, when all else is fast asleep, in earliest Spring. I might also ditch it first when other lovelies come to call. I was determined to get in one more encore this year. You will not be disappointed if you do the same.
But as we teeter toward the crush of peak season, feel free to substitute or swap out with abandon. Meringue plus fresh fruit is the sweater set of summer's table. Don a cloud of chantilly and you've just added pearls, the perfect yum from the Fourth through Labor Day. And if you're connecting the dots here — That shelf life! That versatility! — you'll see you've tucked a dessert ace up your sleeve. Keep a tin of meringues, and you've a pie crust in your back pocket. Except, you know, without all the crumbs. Call it easy, or organized, or devilishly clever; your pick. You'll call it delicious, any which way.
A FINE MESS (Meringue, Rhubarb, Whipped Cream)
If you've no rhubarb, don't hesitate to try this with other fruits: strawberries or nectarines, sprinkled with sugar and set to sit (macerate) 15 minutes. As to the meringues, I've been known to crunkle a few store-bought poofs over the fruit and cream, but I always regret it. Pale shadows, they are.
Adapted from Mark Bittman, How to Cook Everything
Yields 8-10 2" meringue discs
There are few kitchen ratios I remember, but this is among them — meringues are nothing more than 1 egg white : 1/4 cup sugar. I often ad hoc meringues, whenever I have extra whites on hand, scaling the recipe up or down based on whatever I've got. I should mention, you could go and get fancy with this, piping it with a star tip or stirring in shaved bits of bittersweet. But that's December busywork; fuss has no place in lazy summer days.
Meringues store in an airtight tin forever. Humidity's their only enemy; beware.
3 egg whites
3/4 cup granulated sugar
Preheat oven to 150° degrees, or the lowest setting your oven allows. 200° or 225° is fine; just begin checking sooner, around 1 - 1 1/2 hours.
In a stand mixer with whisk attachment, beat egg whites and sugar until roughly tripled in volume, shiny, opaque, and able to hold soft peaks, 5-8 minutes.
Line baking sheet with parchment paper. Using two soup spoons, spoon large dollops (2" or so across) onto lined baking tray, an inch or so apart. (Meringues don't spread much, so you need only leave a small margin.) Flatten slightly with spoon, but leave spikes and peaks; they're half the fun. You're simply aiming for roughly the same thickness, for even cooking.
Bake 2 hours at 150° (sooner if hotter, per above), or until meringues are dull white, firm to the touch, and crisp throughout. (Break one in half to check, then call "freebies!") Turn off oven, and leave them there to crisp, all afternoon or overnight, if you like a palest caramel color and flavor (I do). Or, if you prefer the traditional pure white, remove after an hour. Either way, store airtight, once cool, for months, if you can manage.
Roast Rhubarb + Syrup
Adapted from Seven Spoons, Nigella, and my Pantry
Yields 3 cups rhubarb + 1 cup syrup
I'd originally intended to point you to Tara's recipe directly; her words, images and directions are always pitch-perfect. Do check it out, if only to swoon. As it happened, I had no vanilla beans on hand, and so improvised with the orange, which ended up lovely. Also, I forgot to cover the rhubarb, which yielded firmer fruit and a more intense (reduced) syrup. So I'm putting it forth as I made it, below.
Note: The rhubarb and syrup can be prepared up to 5 days ahead. Cover and chill until needed, then bring to room temperature before serving.
2 pounds rhubarb, washed
3/4 - 1 cup granulated sugar
One orange (organic, if possible)
Preheat an oven to 375°
Cut rhubarb into chunks, 2" in length if finger-thin, 1" if chunky-thick. If you have a mix, aim for even mass, overall; the aim is even cooking time. (And if you run into serious stringiness, peel off with your fingers the outer layer that pulls away easily.) Place cut rhubarb into an ovenproof casserole or skillet.
Scrub the orange, then using a vegetable peeler, remove just the orange outer layer of the peel and place in the pan. Slice orange in half, and squeeze juice over rhubarb. Scatter 3/4 cup sugar overall, then toss with fingers to coat. Place in oven, and roast for 35-45 minutes, or until rhubarb is soft when pierced with the tip of a knife, but still holds its shape.
Set a fine-mesh sieve over a medium bowl, then using a slotted spoon, remove rhubarb to sieve (there will still be syrup in the bottom of the pan. Save this; you'll come back to it.) Allow to sit, 10-15 minutes, until syrup has drained into the bowl. (Don't press on solids; they'll cloud the syrup.) Remove rhubarb chunks to a clean bowl, and cover. Pour remaining syrup into sieve, scraping with a rubber spatula to get every last drop, then allow to drain into the bowl.
While the syrup is warm, taste for sweetness, bearing in mind you will want it quite tart to balance the meringues. Add a bit more sugar, if needed, and stir to dissolve. Cover, and chill, until needed.
(Save a little, if you can, to quaff as a drink: Mix a few Tablespoons' rhubarb syrup with a squeeze of lime, then fill a glass with seltzer water and ice cubes to chill. Summer made sippable, and pink, to boot.)
One pint heavy cream, whipped to soft peaks with vanilla and a few Tablespoons' sugar
Place one meringue disc on a plate, heap with rhubarb (generous 1/4 cup), top with whipped cream (ditto), and drizzle generously with rhubarb syrup. Eat, sigh, repeat.