Crisp, sweet, festive, and fun. Meringue mushrooms are a classic trompe l'oeil sweet. Use them to garnish a traditional Yule log cake, add them to a cookie tray, or package them in little produce baskets wrapped in cellophane like real mushrooms and give them as gifts. They keep well for many weeks, even months if stored airtight. They never fail to amaze and delight.
Preheat the oven to 200°F. Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven.
In a clean dry bowl with an electric mixer, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar on medium speed until soft peaks form when the beaters are lifted. On high speed, gradually add 1/2 cup of the sugar about a tablespoon at a time. The mixture should stand in stiff peaks when the beaters are lifted. Use a rubber spatula to fold in the remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Scrape the meringue into a large pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch plain tip. Pipe pointed "kisses" about 1 inch high to make "stems" on parchment-lined cookie sheets. Do not worry if the tips bend over or sag. Pipe domes to make mushroom "caps."
To pipe mushroom stems:
Always pipe the mushroom stems first, while the meringue is still stiff enough to stand high. Hold the bag perpendicular to the cookie sheet, with the tip openening a fraction of an inch away from the sheet. Start squeezing gently, without moving the bag at first (to form a wide base for the stem), then raise the bag as you squeeze. Continue to raise tha bag after you've stopped squeezing, to form a tall point. It's OK if the tip bends over.
To pipe mushroom caps:
Hold your pastry bag completely perpendicular to the cookie sheet and as far from the sheet as the height of your intended dome--1/2 inch from the sheet that will be 1/2 inch tall, 3/4 inch above the sheet for a dome 3/4 inch tall--regardless of the diameter. Hold the bag perfectly still while you are squeezing the bag; do not move it up and down or around. Squeeze until the meringue fills the space between the baking sheet and the pastry tip--and keep squeezing if you want a wider diamter. When you stop squeezing, don't move the bag. When no more meringue is coming out, don't lift the bag up. Instead, move it in a tiny circle and then sideways away from the dome--still without squeezing. If you still end up with a pointy top, you can smooth it out with a wet finger. Sieve a light dusting of cocoa over the caps and stems and fan them or blow on them vigorously to blur the cocoa and give the mushrooms an authentic look.
To bake and assemble the mushrooms:
Bake 2 hours until crisp and completely dry. Rotate the pans from top to bottom and from front to back halfway through the baking time to ensure even baking. If not assembling immediately, store caps and stems airtight as soon as they are cool to prevent them from becoming moist and sticky.
Place the chocolate in a small bowl set directly in a wide skillet of barely simmering water. Immediately turn off the heat and stir the chocolate until melted and smooth. Use a sharp knife to cut 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch off of the tip of each stem to create a flat surface. Spread a generous coat of melted chocolate over the flat side of several mushroom caps. Allow the chocolate to set partially before attaching the cut surface of the stems. Repeat until all of the mushrooms are assembled. Set aside the assembled mushrooms until the chocolate has hardened and the caps and stems are "glued" together. To prevent them from becoming sticky, put them in an airtight container as soon as they are cool. May be stored airtight for 3 to 4 weeks.
Coffee Meringue Mushrooms: Stir 1-1/2 tsp. instant coffee or espresso powder into the portion of sugar that is gradually beaten into the egg whites.
Chestnut Meringue Mushrooms: Mix 3 Tbs. chestnut flour with the 1/4 cup of the sugar that is folded in at the end.
Photo: Deborah Jones