At its best, cooking is a magic trick. Clearly you can make something amazing with a beautiful, organic, lovingly massaged pork butt, but using fancy raw materials means everyone expects mind-blowing results. It’s so much more satisfying when you start with something unprepossessing. If you’re a magician making a tiger jump through a flaming hoop, it’s way better if you know that tiger started life as two raw, jelloid egg whites in a metal bowl.
Luckily for all of us, two egg whites and half a cup of sugar will net you almost two dozen startlingly chic little pure-white light-as-air cookies with all of the natural architectural sophistication of the majestic iceberg. You don’t even have to pipe anything.
These cookies are labelled “the forgotten cookies” in my aunt’s cookbook because you’re meant to leave them in a warm oven overnight, but I think of them more as “oh shit, I have forgotten that I need to produce something for the bake sale/dinner party/ritual sacrifice and I am out of nearly everything that could possibly be used to make a baked good.”
The alchemical witchcraft that takes place when you whip air into egg whites could make anyone into a conspiracy theorist. But meringue is not a conspiracy. It is a miracle dessert that exists to save your ass when you need to produce something exquisite without gluten or dairy.
These cookies are a mid-century American staple, but they’re a classic for a reason. A delicate, shattering shell of airy meringue conceals a tender, almost-gooey chocolate interior studded with chopped, toasted walnuts. All you have to do is dump some goo off a spoon and leave it alone for 12 hours. Simple.
More importantly, where grocery store meringues often taste like foam packing peanuts, these homemade meringues are not just crisp-tender and meltingly light but can also be stuffed with as much dark chocolate and chopped walnuts as you can stand. Because meringue is mostly air, it floats to the outer edges of the cookie, concealing the soft, molten insides. In my family we call these cookies Ghosties, because they’re white and abstract-looking and they vanish almost immediately.
If you talk to someone who has actually been to pastry school, they will probably tell you all kinds of things about meringue to do with humidity and bake temperature and textural composition or whatever. I know meringue is supposed to be a certain way, but as soon as someone tells me what that way is it immediately dribbles out of my brain. It’s unrememberable.
Meringues are supposed to crack, or not crack, or be chewy, or dry and crumbly. I don’t know, and frankly I don’t care. I’ve made these chewy, I’ve made ‘em dry, I’ve had them ooze caramel goo from the bottom for unfathomable reasons, and they were always tremendously good.
The thing I love most in the world is when things that look extremely chic and fancy take almost no effort. I want as many bonus points as I can possibly get, with the least possible amount of work. These cookies will make you look good, and they’ll make it look like you did it on purpose.
I’m offering you two alternatives: Ghosties Classic and Grownup Ghosties.
Grownup Ghosties came to be when I realized too late in the process that I didn’t have chocolate chips in the house, but I did have a bar of dark chocolate. Chopping the chocolate gives these more of a stracciatella-esque cookies-and-cream vibe, leaving you with a fine dusting of dark chocolate speckling the whole meringue. It’s very delicious, and more all-around chocolatey than the Classic version, which has more of a stark, black-and-white contrast between meringue exterior and chocolate interior. I also put a little bit of cinnamon in the Grownup version because it is good and I decided I liked it. Choose your own adventure, I couldn’t possibly pick a favorite.
Yield: Depends how big you make ‘em. About 2 dozen bite-size, or 1 dozen 3-bite chunkers
Time: Half an hour, and then overnight. Or two hours if you’re taking your life in your hands.
2 egg whites (Put the extra yolks in your next omelette, or use them to make pudding.)
½ cup sugar
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp cream of tartar (you don’t NEED need this – cream of tartar helps stabilize the whites and keep them fluffy, but I’ve made these just fine without)
For Ghosties Classic:
2/3c semisweet chocolate chips
½ cup chopped toasted walnuts (you don’t absolutely have to toast them, but like, you should)
For Grownup Ghosties:
1 bar dark chocolate (60-70%), chopped (like 3.5 or 4oz? 100g)
½ cup chopped toasted walnuts
¼ tsp cinnamon
If you can’t do nuts, these do equally well with cornflakes for crunch instead.
- Preheat your oven to 350/180 and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
- Toast your walnuts, and chop your chocolate (if you need to). Don’t forget to measure out the cinnamon (again, if you want.)
- Separate your egg whites: it’s easiest to separate them from the yolks with your hands. It feels weird, but it gives you the most control and you don’t have to worry about breaking the yolk on the sharp edge of the shell. If you get yolk in your white you have to start over – meringues won’t work if there’s any fat in the bowl or on your whisks
- Get your pristine egg whites into a large metal bowl, or the bowl of your stand mixer. Whisk on medium-high until they’re frothy, then add salt and cream of tartar (if you’re using it)
- Keep whisking until the meringue reaches soft peaks. It’ll be fully white, more foamy than frothy, but not yet stiff or glossy. When you lift up a beater, the meringue will flop over like a Santa hat.
- At this point, shake the sugar over the meringue little by little, whisking as you go. Incorporating it gradually lets the sugar dissolve without making the meringue grainy.
- When all the sugar is in, keep whisking until the meringue is stiff and glossy. You should be able to leave well-defined trails in the meringue with your beaters, and when you lift them up the peaks should pretty much stay standing up. Meringue can be tricky, but it’s better to have things be a little underbeaten rather than over. There’s no coming back from overbeaten meringue, which will be dry and clumpy. The good news is, if you mess up it’s only two eggs and some sugar.
- Fold in your add-ins – scatter them lightly over the top of the meringue, and fold them in gently with a metal spoon or a stiff spatula. Don’t use a wooden spoon – you really want to slice right through as you fold. Also, make sure your walnuts are all the way cool – don’t put hot nuts in the meringue.
- When everything’s well combined, gently drop ghosties by the spoonful onto your prepared baking sheets. Take a scoop of meringue, and gently noodge it off the spoon with a finger so that it plops gently onto the baking sheet. Do not do this from a height. Delicacy is the name of the game, here, or else they’ll deflate. They’ll expand a little, but not much, so give them some room to grow.
- Place baking sheets in the hot oven and turn off the heat immediately. Leave them overnight, or for at least 8 hours. Put a post-it note on the oven door so you don’t accidentally preheat anything with the cookies still inside.
BUT KATIE I DON’T HAVE 8 HOURS I HAVE TO BE AT THE DEMON CLEANSING TODAY RIGHT NOW!!!
You can also preheat your oven to 225f/107c and bake the meringues gently for 1 – 1 ½ hours, but I think this makes them weirdly sticky.