Crystal Cave and Trees of Sequoia

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A day after we made it back down the mountain from this  Pear Lake excursion and after a good night’s sleep, we returned to the park for a tour of Crystal Cave. I was really looking forward to this for two reasons: 1. checking out caves is exciting and 2. it would be nice and cool inside, chilly even. The group was large (50 people) and the cave was massive. There was more than enough room for everyone with plenty of space to spare. The downside was there were far too many people to be able to enjoy the tour and getting photos without heads and random strangers in the background proved to be challenging but worth it.

Once inside, this subterranian world will take your breath away. To start, this marble cave has streams meandering throughout it’s rooms and glistening walls of polished rock. If you’re lucky, you might see a newt or two in the stream.There are also stalactites suspended from the ceiling and stalagmites stacked up from the ground and are a true site to see. There is so much texture and natural ornate decor that could only be shaped slowly by time. This is a place that you must see for yourself since the photos don’t even come close to showing a fraction of what it has to offer.

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After the cave tour we headed to another part of the park to see the magnificent sequoias. There was more walking but this time on a path all the way down to the General Sherman Tree. Along the way we passed numerous other huge trees and meandering walking routes. You could spend almost a whole day down there climbing up and down the hills and around the trees, like an ant. Consider yourself warned, this is selfie stick land so you’ll be dodging those all the way down.

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Pear Lake

We just returned from a rigorous backpacking trip that was my first introduction to extreme outdoors adventure (I am inexperienced in backpacking and much of outdoor activity, so this was extreme for me). While I recover, K will tell you all about it here:

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I’d been wanting to do a backpacking trip for some time now. I asked S if she’d be interested in going to Sequoia to see some big trees, hike to an alpine lake and do some easy fishing. She grudgingly accepted and the planning began.

Pear lake is located at over 9000 feet and surrounded by cliffs. The water is unbelievably clear and fed by snow that melts off of the many peaks surrounding the lake.

The hike to the lake itself is an arduous 6.7 miles. There is over a 2000 foot elevation gain and you feel every inch. Once at the top its a breathtaking site. You’re surrounded by massive granite peaks, fish that breach the water as they go for their next meal and ancient foxtail pines that can live for thousands of years.

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Our plan was to stay for two nights but this was not to be as the weather turned foul mid-day the following day. As we were rushing to pack up our gear it started haling. There was no way we’d make through the day, much less the night. The decision had been made and it was a mad dash in the rain to get 6.7 miles down from the back country to the trail-head.

The more time that passes between me the trip, the more I think it was worth every second. It was such a great experience to be in a place most people would never visit or see with their own eyes. My good friend Frank said something about his visit to Macchu Picchu a while back which was, “I’ve never seen a photograph which does it justice.” I agree and can say the same thing about Pear Lake.

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Cocoa Nib Macarons with Bourbon Vanilla Buttercream

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It’s been a while since I’ve had macarons and I am especially missing the fabulous Pierre Herme kind from this trip. I haven’t found anything remotely close in my part of town so I decided to make my own. At least this way I could get the flavors I wanted, go a little crazy with experimentation, and fix that craving. Done and done.

Since the cocoa nibs worked out so well in this recipe, I decided they would make a reappearance here in the macaron shells. They really intensify the chcocolate flavor and pair especially well with… bourbon! Yes, indeed chocolate+ vanilla+ bourbon = pure satisfaction.

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Macarons

Recipe adapted from I Love Macarons by Hisako Ogita

Yield: 2 dozen

2/3 cup ground almonds

1 ½ cups powdered sugar

2 tablespoons cocoa powder

3 large egg whites at room temperature (aged for at least 24 hrs)

5 tablespoons granulated sugar

2 tablespoons cocoa nibs

 

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a food processor, grind almonds, powdered sugar, and cocoa powder to a fine powder. Sift through a fine mesh sieve. Set aside.

In a stainless steel mixing bowl, beat the egg whites on high speed until frothy. Add the granulated sugar and continue beating until the whites turn glossy and stiff peaks form.

Add the almond flour mixture all at once and fold to combine with a rubber spatula. Scoop batter from the bottom and fold over the top. Continue until the batter is smooth, but do not over mix. Test a small amount, the size of a quarter by dropping onto a plate. If the batter spreads nicely and does not have a peak, it is ready. If there is a stiff peak, continue folding the batter for a few more turns.

Fill a pastry fitted with a medium size tip with batter. Squeeze the batter onto the prepared parchment lined sheetpan forming 1” circles and spacing at least ½” apart. When the pan is full (you will have 2 separate batches and repeat this process twice), rap gently on the countertop to release any air pockets. Sprinkle cocoa nibs on top of the piped batter. *The second batch will be plain and not have cocoa nibs.

Let sit for 1 hour at room temperature.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake macarons for 12- 18 minutes until slightly crisp on top. The tops should not wiggle when pressed slightly. If they wiggle, reduce oven temperature to 300 degrees and continue baking for 2 more minutes or until they are slightly firmer.

Place the sheetpan on a cooling rack for 10 minutes.

 

Vanilla Bourbon Buttercream

Recipe adapted from Cook’s Country

Yield: 3 cups

1 vanilla bean, scraped

2 tablespoons milk or heavy cream

Pinch of table salt

2 ½ cup powdered sugar

2 ½ sticks (9 oz) unsalted butter, softened

2 tablespoons bourbon

In a standing mixer fitted with the whip attachment, beat butter at medium-high speed until smooth, about 20 seconds. Add powdered sugar and salt; beat at medium-low speed until most of the sugar is moistened, about 45 seconds. Scrape down bowl and beat at medium speed until mixture is fully combined, scrape bowl and add the vanilla seeds, milk, and bourbon and beat until incorporated. Increase speed to medium-high and beat until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes.

Assembly:

Sandwich the buttercream between one plain macaron shell and a cocoa nib topped shell. Continue until all shells are filled. Place in an air tight container and let rest in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours or overnight to let the flavors meld. Bring to room temperature before enjoying.

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Shrimp and Chive Gyoza

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Anytime we go out to eat at a Japanese restaurant, I always order gyoza which are dumplings filled with a combination of meat and vegetables and then steamed and fried. Alternatively, they are also made with edamame or a vegetarian filling. In my family, we make it with shrimp and sometimes pork. I really like the shrimp version and have tweaked the recipe to make it my own although gyoza can be filled with anything you want.

Something I’ve never tried before now was making my own gyoza wrappers. Usually, we just buy the premade wrappers and call it a day. Not this time. I really wanted a thicker and more chewy wrapper that would crisp up nicely in the pan. If you get a craving for crisp gyoza that are soft and chewy inside, these are the ones to try. The wrappers and dipping sauce can be made the day before. Once you get started, it goes quickly and the gyoza cook up in no time.

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Shrimp and Chive Gyoza

Yield: 12 gyoza

Filling

6 oz shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 clove garlic, minced

¼ teaspoon fresh ginger, grated

2 tablespoons chopped chives

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon sake

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

¼ teaspoon cornstarch

Coarsely chop the shrimp into chunks. Place in a bowl and add all other ingredients. Mix to combine

Wrappers

3 ½ oz all-purpose flour

2 oz hot water

¼ teaspoon table salt

Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl and mix with chopsticks until dough is shaggy. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth. If dough is too dry, add more hot water, a teaspoon at a time. Form into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and rest for 30 minutes (or overnight). After dough has rested, roll into a cylinder approximately 1 ½ ” thick. Cut in half and wrap the other half in plastic. Slice the first half into six equal pieces. Place cut sides facing up on your work surface. Working with one piece at a time, roll into a 3 ½” circle with a rolling pin. When all six pieces are rolled out, repeat with the other half.

Assemble the gyoza

Place a scant tablespoon of shrimp filling into the center of the dough. Using your finger, moisten half of the diameter with water and fold the dough in half so that the dry half meets with the wet half- begin pleating one side and gently press to the opposite side to seal. Place onto a parchment lined baking pan. There will be unused shrimp filling which can be save for later use.

In a large non-stick pan, arrange the gyoza in a circle formation. Add 1 ½ teaspoons toasted sesame oil and just enough water to cover the bottom of the pan. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and continue cooking, until the water has evaporated and the gyoza have browned on the bottom. Remove from heat. Place a large platter face down on the pan and quickly invert, releasing the gyoza. Serve immediately with dipping sauce.

Dipping Sauce

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

Chili oil to taste

Combine all ingredients and set aside.

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Clams in Miso Ginger Broth

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This past weekend we stopped by our local seafood shop and picked up quite a variety consisting of whole fish, shrimp, shellfish, and fish ribs. It was quite a haul. This time, I thought we would try something new and since I really don’t cook clams it was the perfect thing to begin with. We wanted something light in texture with a delicate flavor. I was thinking of an aromatic broth and narrowed it down to miso and ginger- miso for subtle depth of flavor and ginger to brighten it up. Since clams are naturally salty, it is best not to add additional salt to the recipe and it is also why I kept the miso on the watery side. You just want a hint of miso. The broth will be briny and a touch salty on its own once the flavors meld. This dish comes together very quickly and makes for an easy lunch or light starter.

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Clams in Miso Ginger Broth

Yield: 2 appetizer portions or 1 serving as a main

1 dozen fresh clams, rinsed well

1 ½ cup water

1 ½ teaspoon red miso paste

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 small knob of fresh ginger, peeled and quartered

1 tablespoon sake

2 tablespoons dried wakame (seaweed)

1 tablespoon butter

1 scallion, sliced thin

In a medium sized skillet, bring the water to a boil and add miso paste. Stir with a wooden spoon until miso is dissolved. Add the garlic and ginger and cover, reduce to a simmer for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and let garlic and ginger steep an additional 5 minutes. Remove garlic and ginger, discard. Add the sake and wakame and bring to a boil. Add the clams, cover and cook, shaking the skillet occasionally until clams open up. Add the butter as soon as the first clam opens, and continue shaking the skillet to melt and distribute the butter. Remove clams as they open and place into a serving bowl. Pour cooking liquid over clams and garnish with scallions. Enjoy immediately.

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Chicken and Herb Dumplings

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Chichen and dumplings… just like mom used to never make. What can I say, I love this dish for all of its comforting qualities- soft, shredded chicken, vegetables, and light puffy dumplings bobbing in a tasty soup. For someone who did not grow up eating bowls of this delicious soup,  I sure can say I’ve made up for what I missed out on. There’s a restaurant in town that used to have this on their regular menu and despite having other almost equally tempting offerings, I always chose the chicken and dumplings. No matter how much I may want to try something new, if chicken and dumplings in on any menu, guess what I’m eating? Always. Unless there’s chicken pot pie on the same menu. In that case, I want both.

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I found a recipe that works for me and you know how I love to prepare part of the dish in advance. The night before, I prepared the chicken and stock. I put bone in chicken pieces into the slow cooker with celery, peppercorns, garlic, half an onion, and a dash of salt. Cover the entire thing with plenty of water and cook for 6 hours. Remove, let cool, and transfer to a container and refrigerate over night. The next day, all I had to do was put it all together to make the soup and whip up the dumplings.

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Chicken and Herb Dumplings

adapted from Serious Eats

Yield: 4-6 servings

For the soup:

3 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 ½ quarts chicken broth

1 large onion, finely sliced

2 medium carrots, medium dice

3 ribs celery, medium dice

1 pound cooked chicken torn into bite size portions

Ground black pepper to taste

Heat the butter in a large Dutch oven or saucepan over medium-high heat until melted. Add flour and cook, stirring constantly, until pale golden brown, about 3 minutes. Slowly whisk in broth. Add onions, carrots, and celery. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened, about 10 minutes. Stir in chicken, peas, and season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat.

For the dumplings:

3 tablespoons butter, melted

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 ½ cups thawed frozen peas

¼ cup minced fresh parsley

½ teaspoon baking powder

2 tablespoons minced fresh chives

½ cup buttermilk

1 egg

¾ teaspoons Kosher salt

In a medium size bowl, combine the butter with flour, baking powder, chives, parsley, and ¾ teaspoon kosher salt. Combine the buttermilk and eggs in a separate bowl. Pour buttermilk mixture over flour mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until it forms a shaggy dough.

Return the soup to a simmer. Using a tablespoon measure, drop dumpling dough in 1-inch balls into soup. Cover and cook until dumplings have puffed and feel firm to touch and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 15 minutes. Garnish with additional parsley and serve immediately.

Original recipe can be found here.

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Classic Chocolate Layer Cake

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This past week I had an itch I could not scratch, a craving that could not be satisfied. No amount of cookies or sweet cereal was even coming close. Every once in a while I get mean cravings for a classic chocolate layer cake. No frills, no fancy fillings, just chocolate on chocolate. Truth be told, I have fond memories of supermarket chocolate cake- the garishly decorated ones with crisco-like frosting. I am not even embarrassed to admit that.

I used to love it and up until recently, really enjoyed the indulgence. However, I found this recipe which evokes the same sweet memories of soft sponge-like chocolate cake and decadent, rich frosting (but 100x better). Hands down, this is the cake recipe for me. It’s easy and relatively quick, especially if you bake the cakes the night before. This way, all you have to do is whip up the frosting and assemble the next day.

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Chocolate Layer Cake

from Cook’s Country

Yield: 1-  9”cake, 2 layers

1 ½ cups (7 ½ oz) all- purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

1 ¼ cups boiling water

4 oz unsweetened chocolate, chopped

½ cup (1 ½ oz) Dutch processed cocoa powder

1 teaspoon instant espresso powder

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1 ½ cups packed ( 10 ½ oz) light brown sugar

3 large eggs, room temperature

½ cup sour cream, room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter and flour two 9-inch or three 8-inch round cake pans lined with parchment. Whisk flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt together in a bowl. In a second bowl, whisk boiling water, chocolate, coaoa, and espresso powder together until smooth.

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and sugar on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat until combined. Add sour cream and vanilla and mix until incorporated.

Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with chocolate mixture in 2 additions, scraping down the bowl as needed. Give batter a final stir by hand.

Divide batter evenly between prepared prepared pans and smooth tops with a rubber spatula. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean (a few crumbs are prefect, just not wet), 15-20 minutes (for 8-inch pans) or 25- 30 minutes (for 9-inch pans), rotating halfway through baking.

Let cakes* cool in pans on wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove cakes from pans, discard parchment, and let cool completely on rack, about 2 hours.

Chocolate Frosting

from Cook’s Country

Yield: 4 cups enough for 1 two layer cake or 24 cupcakes

2 ½ sticks unsalted butter, room temperature

2 ¾ cup powdered sugar

¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 cup semisweet chocolate chips, melted and slightly cooled

2 tablespoons milk

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Pinch of table salt

1 1/2 cups cocoa nibs

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat butter until fluffy, about 30 seconds. On low speed, add sugar, 1 cup at a time and cocoa powder and mix to combine. Beat in melted chocolate and increase speed to high, beating until pale fluffy, about 1 minute.

Reduce speed to medium-low and add milk, vanilla, and salt. Increase speed to high and beat until fluffy, 30 more seconds.

*Cakes can be baked a day in advance. When cooled completely, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. The next day, trim the tops to achieve a flat surface and begin assembling and frosting the layers. To apply the cocoa nibs, hold the cake in one hand, tilt slightly and grab a nandful of nibs and press gently into the lower third of the bottom layer.

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Hawaiian Style Poke

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Poke has always been around at family gatherings and everyday meals. It is so common in Hawaii that you can buy it by the pound at the market in the deli section. There are a multitude of varieties of poke that include octopus and shellfish. If you’re new to poke, in its most basic form, it is a raw fish appetizer, cubed into bite size pieces and marinaded in shoyu, sesame oil, and accompanied with fresh seaweed.

My favorite way to enjoy poke is in a simple preparation using ingredients above and adding a dash of yuzu zest to brighten it up. The fish should be the star of this dish and I prefer not to muddy the flavors with too many aditional ingredients. Although poke is usually enjoyed as is, sometimes I will spoon it over rice if I want to make it into a light meal. Either way is delicious. Make sure you get the best fish you can get your hands on which is preferably sushi grade and fresh caught.

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Poke

Yield: 4 as an appetizer

½ pound Bluefin tuna, sliced into ½” cubes

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 ¼ teaspoons light shoyu

½ teaspoon yuzu zest

Small handful fresh seaweed

½ teaspoon white sesame seeds

Combine all ingredients into a mixing bowl and gently mix together. Serve poke chilled and enjoy immediately.

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Lemon Basil Cakes with Rhubarb Compote

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Rhubarb is one of those vegetables that I’ve never come around to trying, until now. Previously, I knew about rhubarb pies, rhubarb and strawberry compotes for topping ice cream, and rhubarb jam. While these all sound fine, they never piqued my interest because: 1) I’m loyal to chocolate and 2) I’m not usually a fan of cooked fruit. Both are good reasons but lately I’ve been feeling like shaking things up and getting out of my comfort zone. Too much of the same can be boring. So, I went all out and paired the rhubarb compote with a basil and lemon cake which to me just screams spring. One bite and the bright flavors combined with the slight tartness of rhubarb and the buttery cake made for a remarkable new dessert.

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Lemon Basil Financiers

Yield: 16

½ cup plus 5 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 cup sliced almonds

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 ½ cups plus 2 tablespoons powdered sugar; additional for dusting

2 tablespoons honey

5 egg whites

7 fresh basil leaves, chopped fine

Zest of one lemon

2 tablespoons melted butter or non-stick cooking spray

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (convection) and place the oven rack in the middle.

Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Simmer until browned bits begin to form. Continue to simmer, frequently scraping up browned bits at bottom of pan, until fragrant and dark brown but not burnt, 6–7 minutes. Scrape butter and all browned bits into a medium bowl. Let cool for 3–4 minutes.

Place almonds and flour in a food processor until nuts are finely ground. Transfer to a medium bowl; whisk in 1 1/2 cups plus 2 Tbsp. powdered sugar. Add egg whites; mix until smooth. Fold in honey, basil, and lemon zest.

Fold browned butter into batter. Cover and chill overnight and up to two days.

Coat savarin molds or a donut pan with melted butter or non-stick spray. Fill a disposable pastry bag with batter and pipe into coated molds filling to ¾.

Bake until cakes are just golden brown and cooked through, 18- 20 minutes. Let cool in pan for 10 minutes. Remove cakes from pan and place onto a cooling rack.

 

Rhubarb Compote

Adapted From Chez Panisse Fruit by Alice Waters

1 pound rhubarb

Juice of 1 orange plus zest

½ cup sugar

1 vanilla bean, scraped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Rinse and dry rhubarb. Cut off 1” from the bottom and any leaves. Cut lengthwise into 1/3” strips and crosswise into ½” pieces.

Grate the zest from the orange into a non-reactive baking dish and add 3 tablespoons of its juice. Add the rhubarb, sugar, and vanilla and toss everything together to coat the rhubarb.

Cover with foil and bake for 25 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for an additional 5 minutes or until a knife slides easily into the rhubarb.

 

Assemble the cakes:

With a small spoon, scoop rhubarb compote into the center well of each cake. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and garnish with a basil leaf. This dessert should be served warm or at room temperature.

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Meringue Cookies: Pistachio and Vanilla

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Santa Ana winds and dry air is not a news worthy event, except serving as a reminder for me to take my allergy meds. Nevertheless, I was overjoyed at this weather pattern as of late. Surely you must be wondering what on earth this has to do with food. Let’s get to it.

I love meringues, the completely crispy and light as air type. Only thing is, they need a very dry environment as moisture of any kind is the enemy of meringues. The absolute devil. I had to take advantage of this dry day before the weather went back to its normal humidity and make a batch of meringue cookies. They are easy and quick to put together, but do take a long time to dry out in the oven. With a little patience and almost half a day you will be enjoying these lettle gems which are crisp and crunchy through and through, with no trace of wet or sticky insides here. An absolute delight.

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glossy meringue with a stiff peak that holds its shape

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piped and ready for the oven

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Meringue Cookies (Pistachio & Vanilla)

Yield: 60- 70 kisses, approximately 1 ½” wide

¾ cup powdered sugar

½ cup superfine sugar

Pinch fine sea salt

4 egg whites, room temperature*

½ teaspoon cream of tartar

¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

Purple gel food color

Small brush with fine tip

¼ teaspoon pistachio extract

Green gel food color

Small brush with fine tip

2 disposable piping bags

* It is best to “age” the whites by leaving them partially covered on the countertop in a cool room overnight. This will let some of the moisture evaporate and help with obtaining a more voluminous meringue.

Prepare the piping bags:

Load two disposable piping bags fitted with large start tips (Ateco #8 or similar). Working with one color at a time, paint stripes using the gel color beginning on the inside of the bag as far down toward the tip as you can reach and up to ¾ of the way up the bag. Make as many stripes as you desire.

Preheat the oven to 175 degrees Fahrenheit. Adjust two oven racks to the top and bottom third of the oven.

Sift together the powdered sugar, superfine sugar and salt in a medium size bowl.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, add the egg whites and cream of tartar. With the whip attachment, begin beating the whites on medium setting until they become foamy (like bubble bath). Slowly add the powdered sugar mixture and increase the speed to high. Continue whipping until the whites become very glossy and stiff peaks form. Test the meringue by removing the whip and inverting it so that the meringue tip points upward. It should hold a peak. If not, continue whipping until stiff.

Separate the meringue into two medium size bowls and add ¼ teaspoon of vanilla extract into one bowl of meringue and ¼ teaspoon pistachio extract into the other bowl. Mix gently with a rubber spatula to incorporate the extract. Place into prepared piping bags and begin piping, leaving a finger width between each kiss.

Bake for 3-4 hours until meringue is crisp and not sticky. I test them by feel as well as gently lifting up from the parchment. If they lift without too much coaxing and the bottoms release fairly easily, they are almost ready. At this point, turn the oven off and close the door. Let meringues cool in the oven for an additional hour. Remove from the oven, let come to room temperature and immediately enjoy or store in an airtight container.

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