x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

When the soft peaks won't come, don't blame the eggs

Baking is a mysterious business – especially when it comes to making the perfect pavlova.

Last week, I was invited to a potluck dinner my friends had organised.

I have a few award-winning dishes up my sleeve. There is the teriyaki salmon braised in soy sauce, Dijon mustard and dill. Another dish is the classic Iraqi dolma. But they are getting old and familiar.

At almost 30 years of age and with a strong affinity to gastronomy, I have not dared or had the courage to make cupcakes, cakes or any sweet items. Strange, right?

An Australian friend makes a great pavlova, a meringue-based crust covered in fresh fruit - named after the Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova.

My friend's pavlova is the single most sought-after item at her dinner parties. It is the dessert that makes every cook jealous and green with envy.

It is so popular that guests will run to take a slice as dinner is served for fear that there will not be any left by the time they are finished with the main course.

After months of begging her for the recipe, I finally got her to confide her secret ingredients.

I thought to myself: "How hard could this be?" I had seen her making it time and time again. It seemed so easy and effortless that I could make it with my eyes closed.

My issue with baking began in the sixth grade, during home economics class. It was a miracle how I passed that class.

The lesson was on cupcakes. Our teacher had partnered us up in teams of two. A baking test was set to begin.

The recipe was easy, but my clumsiness got in the way.

I will spare you the ingredients and get right to the point. We were supposed to put in 500 grams of flour and one tablespoon of baking soda. Unfortunately, I mixed up the two. I put one tablespoon of flour and 500 grams of baking soda.

Making matters worse, my partner decided it would be a good idea to put it in the microwave to preview our creation. Who does that? We did. I never owned a microwave so I was not exactly sure how it worked.

She spooned our batch into the paper cup and placed it on a non-microwaveable plate.

Before we knew it, there was an explosion, the noise of glass breaking, the microwave on fire, the fire alarm sounding across the school and the smell of smoke in the nearby classrooms.

Luckily, we managed to extinguish the fire before the brigade arrived.

It was an embarrassing fiasco. All the kids in the nearby classroom came to inquire as to what was the cause of all the smoke.

Once the chaos subsided my teacher decided to taste the remaining batch in the bowl.

She kept saying: "It's salty. I don't get why it's so salty."

I did not have the heart to tell her the truth. The event had prevented me from baking for life. Until last week, that is.

My friend's pavlova recipe calls for "six large egg whites at room temperature, one and a half cups of caster sugar, two tablespoons of corn flour, one tablespoon of white vinegar and half a tablespoon of vanilla". For the topping: "whipped cream, berries, mango and banana".

I separated the egg whites to beat them until there were soft peaks.

But the soft peaks never came. I pulled out the electric beater but that didn't help.

Convinced it must be the eggs, I told myself there were peaks and that I simply could not see them. I added the sugar and then lined it up in the baking sheet.

The first batch saw a lopsided architectural building in my oven. The meringue was supposed to rise more symmetrically.

I tried a second batch; this time it rose and then cracked in half.

I decided to leave it in the oven for an hour, as the recipe said, and wait for the outcome.

It was soggy and hardly the meringue crust that my friend usually makes so easily.

Almost 20 years later, and another failed attempt at baking, I guess I better stick to writing.

 

HAlSayegh@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @hadeelalsayegh