Quite a few recipes are labeled “puffs” in seventeenth and eighteenth-century recipe books. Last month, I was (wistfully) looking through the notes that I took on Clark Library manuscript fMS.1975.003 during my residential fellowship last summer and realized that a recipe for puffs that I’d flagged looked markedly like modern recipes for meringues. The instructions describe whipping egg whites and sugar until “light and stif” and baking the puffs on sheets of paper. In my non-historical baking life, I love making Yotam Ottolenghi’s gorgeous, giant rosewater and pistachio meringues and I knew I needed to give this recipe a try.
“Lemmon” or “Chocolett Puffs” uses the alchemy of eggs and sugar to showcase imported citrus and chocolate. The original recipe begins with instructions for lemon-flavored puffs, but then includes an option to make a chocolate variation in a note at the end. Like the recipe for “The Ice Cream” that I tested this summer, this recipe for puffs is from Elisabeth Hawar’s late-seventeenth-century London manuscript. The contents of this manuscript coincide with a drop in commodity prices for sugar, citrus, and chocolate. This was due to an increase in cultivation on plantations in the Americas worked by enslaved African laborers. Lower prices made these luxury items more accessible to middle-class consumers in England. (Read more about these commodities via the links.)
To Make Lemmon Puffs
Take a pound of Double refined shugar sarted very fine
2 Large Lemmons, scrape the Rhind of them very small &
rub it well into the sugar, then beat up the whites of
3 eggs with a twigg, and as the froath rises putt it into
the shugar, by a litle att a time, rub it up the side of
the bason till you find it light and stif enough to
drop, or sc[xx]e it upon papers, then sett them
into the Oven
aftr after bread bake them pale.
Chocolett puffs are the same only putt in Chocolett
instead of Lemmons as much as you think fitt
a litle serves.
One can do amazing things with whipped egg whites and sugar. As I stood in my kitchen with my hand-held electric mixer, I was grateful that I didn’t need to use a twig to beat my egg whites as the original recipe instructs. That said, I did find that the proportions of eggs whites and sugar needed to be adjusted to achieve the stiff peaks that I knew I needed to produce a luscious meringue – crisp on the outside and soft in the middle. After some trial and error, I ended up liking the texture best with six egg whites to a full pound of sugar. Feel free to experiment with fewer egg whites – the original recipe calls for three – and let me know how it goes!
This recipe made about two dozen puffs.
2 cups sugar (1 lb)
6 egg whites
cocoa nibs, finely ground, or cocoa powder
Preheat oven to 225F. Line three baking sheets with parchment paper.
Separate the eggs and place the whites in a large bowl. Beat until just frothy with mixer.
Slowly add the sugar to the eggs. You can do this in batches or maintain a slow stream with a mixer running.
Beat until the mixture is glossy and will hold a stiff peak on a spoon or beater. The time this takes will vary widely depending on your eggs and sugar and the temperature and humidity of your kitchen. When in doubt, keep beating. Given the amount of sugar in this meringue, it is very unlikely that you will over-mix the meringues.
When you have achieved stiff peaks, add the flavoring.
For lemon meringues: Zest two lemons. Add most of the zest to the mix. Sprinkle the remaining zest over the top of the meringues.
For chocolate meringues: Grind 2T cocoa nibs. Cocoa powder should be a reasonable substitute here. Add most of the ground cocoa nibs to the mix. Sprinkle the ground cocoa nibs over the top of the meringues.
For a batch that is half lemon and half chocolate: Divide the meringue mix into two bowls. Use the zest of 1 lemon to flavor and decorate meringues from one bowl and 1T ground cocoa nibs to flavor and decorate meringues from the other.
Dollop meringues onto the paper-covered baking sheets. Leave space in between for expansion. Sprinkle with zest or cocoa nibs.
Bake for 1 hour and 20 minutes until the meringues are hard on the outside and still soft in the center. Remove from the baking sheets and allow to cool completely. Meringues can be stored in an air-tight container for a few days.
Crunchy and yielding, these meringues have a delightful texture. The flavors are subtle: the citrus zest is first a smell and then a faint taste; the cocoa nibs add a nutty chocolate flavor that varies bite-to-bite. When I shared these with friends, I was asked if rosewater was one of the flavorings because of the floral smell of the citrus. I might increase the flavorings next time, but sometimes a subtle delight is best.