As I was beating eggs for the Low-fat Coconut Tres Leches cake I made a couple of weeks ago, I had an insurmountable urge to make meringue cookies. I’d never made them before, but watching the emergence of the foamy, shiny, voluminous mass of egg whites was just so fun that I knew there needed to be more egg white projects. Thus began a two-week process of meringue making – seven batches in all (which REALLY seems excessive in retrospect). The results ranged from wonderfully successful, yet meringue-sweet wafers and cookies, followed by tasty, fairly decently textured, bizarre looking cookies and finally much less sweet but tragically deflated meringue um…disasters? But it was quite a fun process, and as long as you paced your meringue cookie intake, a couple of the recipes I came up with were quite good.

For all of the batches I made, I primarily used erythritol, with a small amount or even no sugar. And since the erythritol is granulated, it seemed to work exactly the same as sugar. As I’ve mentioned before, erythritol is a sugar alcohol, has nearly zero calories, doesn’t promote tooth decay, and is a zero on the glycemic index. It’s more expensive than sugar, but for any application where it works well, I use it.

My first two batches were probably the ones with the best texture. I used a recipe on OurShareOfCrazy as a basis for ratios and procedure (I picked that one because I was fascinated with the colors in the picture.). For my first variation, I decided to make try making chocolate chile flavored cookies. The first time, I added all of the chocolate at once, before I added any of the erythritol. The resulting ‘batter’ was very liquidy. I laughed as I dropped it onto a cookie sheet and it spread, but the end result had the proper texture for meringue, and in a way, I kind of preferred it. Since meringue cookies are so sweet, the thinner shape actually worked really well, because each bite was smaller and thinner. I made a second batch adding the chocolate in gradually after adding the erythritol, and those had the standard meringue cookie shape.

Chocolate Chili Meringue Wafers

Chocolate Chile Meringue Wafers

Meringue cookies have to be one of the easiest things I’ve ever made. There are hardly any ingredients – the basis is egg whites, sugar, and cream of tartar. That’s it. Then you add flavorings and perhaps food coloring, then bake them slowly and let them cool and dry out. The only real skill involved is separating the eggs. That is important however – you definitely don’t want any yellow in the whites, because that will interfere with the whites getting nice and airy. Another important thing (which I found out the hard way) is you can’t use those egg whites that come in the cartons all nice and separated for you (and pasteurized to boot). The problem with these is the pasteurization takes them to a temperature where the eggs start to cook, and this prevents them from forming a stable meringue.

Low-Fat/Low-Calorie Meringue Cookie Ingredients

Low-Fat/Low-Calorie Chocolate Chile Meringue Cookie Ingredients

Another thing that is essential to a stable meringue is sugar (or erythritol). It’s a chemical thing (I know now). But since I’d rather experiment than research, I went on the assumption that the erythritol’s granular nature served to break up the egg and add air, and that was really all it did. So it seemed logical to me that if I could find something else of a similar texture, perhaps I could drastically reduce the amount of erythritol used (I was really looking for a way to reduce how sweet the cookies were). So I thought I’d try grinding some freeze-dried fruit into powder (not exactly as sharp and large as sugar granules, but clearly my thought process wasn’t exactly water-tight on this adventure), and using that in place of some of the erythritol. For the pineapple I only used a few tablespoons of sugar, and I added coconut extract to make it piña colada flavored. The resulting product was flat with a completely incorrect texture. (The tray that didn’t burn slightly was tasty, though, so I ate those). With the cranberries, since they are very tart, I did use about half the amount of erythritol of the first two batches. They actually puffed up and remained stable, but the ground cranberry was dense enough that the cookies were just, well, kind of weirdly textured. Those all got eaten, too.

Freeze-Dried Pineapple and Cranberry

Freeze-Dried Pineapple and Cranberry

So what actually happens when you make meringue is that as you beat the eggs, which adds air, tiny bubbles coated in protein are formed. On their own, they wouldn’t remain stable, which is why you add cream of tartar, an acid that encourages the proteins in the bubble coating to bind together. The sugar (erythritol) that you then add acts as another binder, sticking the bubbles together. The reason it’s essential not to have any yolk in the mix is that the yolks contain fat, which interferes with the way the proteins line up, and prohibits them from gaining volume. Which brings us to a really handy tip I read while researching this. If you get a bit of yellow in the egg whites, or a bit of eggshell, instead of fishing it out with your fingers, which naturally have oil on them, use a clean eggshell half. It works remarkably well!

Coconut Lime Meringue

Coconut Lime Meringue

My other successful variations were coconut lime and key lime coconut meringue cookies. Coconut lime because with regular limes, the coconut flavor really stood out. With key limes, the same amount of coconut was less prevalent, so key lime coconut. For the final batch I made, I reduced the erythritol a bit, and although the texture was a bit lighter and broke up more easily, I was pleased with the fact that they weren’t as sweet.

Chocolate Chile Meringue Cookies
makes 18-22

4 egg whites
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
2/3 c erythritol (or sugar)*
2 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp ground cayenne
1/4 c unsweetened cocoa

* Zsweet, which I use, claims to be the same sweetness as sugar. Some erythritol is less sweet than the same amount of sugar, so be sure to check the kind you are using and adjust if necessary – I don’t think extra erythritol will hurt the texture at all.

Preheat oven to 225 degrees (250 at high altitude). Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Using a mixer on medium speed, beat egg whites until foamy. Add cream of tartar. On medium high speed, beat until firm peaks form (softer peaks at high altitude). For thin wafers, add all cocoa at this point and beat well – don’t add it yet for more traditional cookies. Add erythritol and sugar 1 Tbsp at a time, continuing to beat at medium high speed. Add vanilla and cayenne and beat well. For puffier cookies, now add the cocoa 1 Tbsp at a time and continue to beat.

Drop batter onto baking sheets into 18-24 even blobs. Bake for 45-60 minutes until texture is set. Turn oven off and leave baking sheets in, allowing cookies to cool competely.

Coconut Lime Meringue Cookies
makes 18-22

4 egg whites
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
3/4 c erythritol (or sugar)*
2+1/2 Tbsp lime juice
1 tsp coconut extract
2 drops green, 2 drops yellow food coloring (optional)

* Zsweet, which I use, claims to be the same sweetness as sugar. Some erythritol is less sweet than the same amount of sugar, so be sure to check the kind you are using and adjust if necessary – I don’t think extra erythritol will hurt the texture at all.

Preheat oven to 225 degrees (250 at high altitude). Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Using a mixer on medium speed, beat egg whites until foamy. Add cream of tartar. On medium high speed beat until firm peaks form (softer peaks at high altitude). Add erythritol and sugar 1 Tbsp at a time, continuing to beat at medium high speed. Add lime, coconut extract, and food coloring and beat well.

Drop batter onto baking sheets into 18-24 even blobs. Bake for 45-60 minutes until texture is set. Turn oven off and leave baking sheets in, allowing cookies to cool completely.

Key Lime Coconut Meringue Cookies

Key Lime Coconut Meringue Cookies

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After a many-week delay, here’s the recipe for the dish I made with beans, rice, leeks, pepper, and espresso balsamic vinegar during my Week of Eating Real Food. I didn’t actually have a specific plan (or any plan, for that matter) when I started making this dish, but I wanted to use some of the heirloom beans and brown rice I’d cooked ahead of time, and I’d bought some leeks and red pepper for the week, so I just went with it.

As an aside, I’ve really become enamored of leeks over the past several years. I love using them as an alternative to onions, and sometime last year discovered that they are absolutely outstanding caramelized. Their only shortcoming in my mind is that they are the dirtiest little vegetables I’ve ever worked with. While cleaning them you’d almost swear that the dirt was playing a game of hide-and-seek. But rest assured, they are worth the extra cleaning annoyance.

What I do to prepare them is chop the top (all the thick green part) and root ends off, then rinse them, taking the layers at the top end and sort of bending them back a little under the water, since this is where the dirt hides. If you have a particularly dirty leek, you may have to pull back an inch or so to rinse out all the dirt – and it can be hiding between every single layer. (This always makes me happy that I buy organic vegetables whenever I can – I feel much better knowing that this dirt is from an organic farm rather than one that uses chemical pesticides). To chop them, I cut them in half lengthwise, remove the inner ‘core’ (about 1/2 the layers), cut the outer parts lengthwise again, and then slice the cores and outer parts into 1/2 inch pieces.

Trimmed Leeks

Trimmed Leeks

So back to the dish. I decided to caramelize the leeks and pepper, but when it came time to start deglazing the pan, instead of just using normal balsamic vinegar, I decided I’d try my much-adored Espresso Balsamic Vinegar from Oliverde. I was a little uncertain how it would turn out, but it was actually quite good!

If you’re pressed for time, you could easily use canned beans and quick-cooking rice for this.

Brown Rice and Heirloom Beans with Caramelized Leeks and Red Pepper Deglazed with Espresso Balsamic Vinegar
serves 2-4

1+1/2 c cooked beans (I used Spanish Tolosna beans*)
1+1/2 c cooked brown rice
1 tsp olive oil
2 lg or 3 med leeks, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
vegetable (or chicken) stock
espresso balsamic vinegar **
salt to taste

* Good substitutes would be cranberry, red kidney, pinto, or azuki beans.
** You can use a good quality balsamic vinegar if you don’t have espresso balsamic

Heat 1 tsp of olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet, then add the leeks and peppers.

Leeks and Peppers Before Caramelization

Leeks and Peppers Before Caramelization

Cook until the leeks and peppers become very soft, deglazing the pan whenever the vegetables start to stick, alternating between using 1 tsp of espresso balsamic vinegar and 1 tsp of stock.

Caramelized Leeks and Pepper

Caramelized Leeks and Pepper

Add the brown rice, the beans, 2 Tbsp of stock and combine well. Taste and add salt and/or more vinegar to your taste. Continue to cook just until everything is heated through.

Brown Rice and Heirloom Beans with Caramelized Leeks and Pepper Deglazed with Espresso Balsamic Vinegar

Brown Rice and Heirloom Beans with Caramelized Leeks and Red Pepper Deglazed with Espresso Balsamic Vinegar

After attending a food media event at Cuba Cuba, I was inspired to try to make some tres leches cake at home. But I thought I’d make coconut tres leches just for an added twist. I referred to a few recipes online, but definitely wanted to make mine much lower in fat and calories, since most recipes call for sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, whole milk, and even heavy cream. By using evaporated skim milk and light coconut milk (which I was delighted to find at Whole Foods with only recognizable ingredients on the labels), as well as skim milk, a reduced amount of egg yolks, and mainly erythritol for sweetener, I was able to make some completely delicious cake, with only about 1/3 of the calories and 1/4 of the fat of some tres leches recipes.

But then there’s the homely aspect of my cake making endeavors. Baking at altitude can be quite a challenge (and we’re at about 5430 feet here). I make a lot of quick breads, which are pretty forgiving, so I’ve been lulled into a false sense of baking-at-altitude competence over the years. It turns out that cakes are quite a different thing. (I don’t think I’d actually made a cake-cake since I’d lived in Colorado (which has been a long time). At any rate, if I did, it would have been at least 15 years ago, and therefore from a box with nice high-altitude adjustments printed on the side.) So, I had two different ‘not exactly what I was going for’ cake results while working on this recipe.

I made a 1/2 cake recipe both times. The first time I baked the cake in a large bread pan, confident that would better guarantee an even cake than a 9 x 9 cake pan. Things looked good for a while, until the middle of the cake fell, and I ended up with a nice canyon. (This symptom is quite common at high altitudes (I read after the fact) – with lower pressure and lower moisture the cake rises too fast, and the structure is compromised). But I carried on, and the result was fantastic tasting, albeit rather unevenly shaped.

Cake for Tres Leches - With Added Canyon Feature

Cake for Tres Leches – With Added Canyon Feature

The next time I thought I had a brilliant idea when I decided I would make individual cupcakes instead of one cake. Surely they would rise more evenly, and would have the added bonus of being individually sized automatically. That may have worked fine except for two issues. One, I should have made 14 cupcakes instead of trying to cram everything into 12. That probably would have let me avoid the magnificently spreading cake overflow which resulted in very wide flat-topped cupcakes.

Flat-Topped Tres Leches Cupcakes

Flat-Topped Tres Leches Cupcakes

Second, despite coating the muffin pan with a thin layer of butter and flouring all of the cups, there was some massive stickage. The process of removing them from the pan consisted of freeing and then popping the tops, and then excavating the bottoms from the muffin pan.

Poorly Prepared Pan Aftermath

Poorly Prepared Pan Aftermath

So plan B (C, I guess, since B was trying the cupcakes) was to invert the cupcakes in a large pan prior to poking them with a skewer and pouring the milk over them.

Plan B

Plan B – Inverted Cupcakes

For the milk mixture, since sweetened condensed milk is thicker than light coconut milk, I reduced the evaporated milk and coconut milk just a bit. I’m not sure it really made much of a difference, but since I did it the first time, I did it the second time as well.

I think the sunken cake in the bread pan was the better form to work with, so that’s what the following recipe uses.

For general ratios and preparation, I referred to a recipe in Bon Apétit

Coconut Tres Leches
makes 8 servings

3/4 c flour (I used white whole wheat)
1+1/2 tsp baking powder (use 1/8 to 1/4 tsp less at high altitudes)
1/4 tsp cinnamon
4 egg whites
8 Tbsp erythritol (if using all sugar, cut this to 6 Tbsp)
4 Tbsp sugar
2 egg yolks
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp coconut extract
1/4 c skim milk
1+1/2 c fat free evaporated milk
1 c light coconut milk
1+1/2 Tbsp erythritol (or 1 Tbsp sugar)
1/2 tsp coconut extract

Preheat oven to 350°. (Try 375° at high altitudes). Butter and flour a large bread pan, being sure that the flour coats the entire pan.

Mix the flour, baking powder, and cinnamon together, and then set aside.

Using a mixer, beat the egg whites in a large bowl until firm peaks form. (Softer peaks for high altitude). Gradually beat in the sugar and erythritol. Add the egg yolks in two batches, beating well after each. Add the vanilla and 1 tsp coconut extract, and beat again. Add the flour and milk in five steps, and mixing well by hand after each step: flour, milk, flour, milk, flour. Pour the batter into the pan and smooth the top.

Bake for 25 minutes. Reduce the heat by 25° and continue baking until the cake is golden brown and the middle springs back when pressed, 10-20 minutes more. (It didn’t take that long for mine).

While the cake is baking, combine the evaporated milk, coconut milk, 1+1/2 Tbsp erythritol, and 1/2 tsp coconut extract, then cook in a saucepan on low heat, stirring often, until slightly reduced (about 15-20 minutes). You just want a low simmer while it’s cooking, so adjust the heat as necessary.

When the cake is done, remove it from the oven, and cool in the pan for 15 minutes. Then remove the cake from the pan and place on a cooling rack set on large baking sheet or in a large pan.

Poke holes all over the top of the cake with a skewer. Slowly drizzle about 1/3 of the milk mixture all over the cake. Wait until the milk soaks in, and then drizzle another 1/3 over the cake. Place a large inverted plate on top of the cake, then turn it over so the cake is on top of the plate. Drizzle the remaining milk over the cake.

Store any left over cake in the fridge. (I actually preferred it chilled, so put it in there before I served it.)

This past week a group of food bloggers/writers/media members were treated to some rather substantial samples of the food at Boulder’s Cuba Cuba Sandwicheria. The small order-at-the-counter restaurant is managed and co-owned by Cuban-born, Miami-raised Lourdes Sanchez, formerly of The Cream Puffery (a now defunct pastry shop/eatery near Liquor Mart, which my husband and I visited on occasion). Cuba Cuba Sandwicheria is associated with Cuba Cuba in Denver, and will be opening a new branch in the City Set development in Glendale this summer.

Lourdes was a very gracious host, bringing out a variety of sides, sandwiches, and a dessert I was a little devastated to find out wasn’t on the standard menu (but is a recurring special, fortunately). Many of the recipes for the food served at Cuba Cuba Sandwicheria are tweaked versions of family recipes, with the exception of Grandma’s flan, which needed no modification.

Veggie Empanadas And Croquetas

Veggie Empanadas And Croquetas

We started out with delicious Veggie Empanadas and Croquetas, but the Beef Empanadas that followed were my favorite of all the sides. I’m not a big red meat eater, but this was just too good not to fall for. The beef filling, while not spicy (Cuban food is generally not as spicy-hot as many other Latin American or Caribbean foods), was a wonderfully flavorful complement to the crispy pastry.

Boulder Cuban Sandwich

Boulder Cuban Sandwich

Next was the vegetarian Boulder Cuban Sandwich, served with a side of garlic mojo, also quite tasty.

The Cubano

The Cubano

The Cubano sandwich, with pork, ham and cheese led me to eat a bit more than I had intended to. There was something rather addictive about this one. Lourdes indicated that the authentic Cuban bread is an important factor in their sandwiches, and the pork they marinate overnight and then slow cook doesn’t hurt, either!

The Ceiling at Cuba Cuba Sandwicheria - Because it's Cool

The Ceiling at Cuba Cuba Sandwicheria – Because it’s Cool

Cuba Cuba Sandwicheria also serves pork, beef, chicken, seafood, and vegetable plates with rice and beans, as well as other sides such as sweet plantains (which are fantastic), plantain chips, and Cuban fries. Their beverage selection is fairly extensive for a smaller establishment, with Cuban sodas, beer, mojitos and sangria, fountain drinks and several Cuban espresso drinks.

I love this picture on the wall at Cuba Cuba Sandwicheria

I love this picture on the wall at Cuba Cuba Sandwicheria

And then we closed with dessert. We each got a small piece of the creamiest Bread Pudding I’ve ever eaten. I’ve tried many a bread pudding, and I think this ties for top honors with the Chocolate Bread Pudding at Tortugas in Longmont, holder of the title for well over a decade. A gluten-free member of our group was given a piece of Grandma’s flan. Luckily for me, she couldn’t finish it, so I got to try some of it as well. And I couldn’t agree more with Lourdes — it would be pretty hard to improve on its beautiful texture and the taste, which was a sublime caramel. Later in the week, my husband and I got a piece of chocolate Tres Leches to go, and we can attest to that one being outstanding as well.

Bread Pudding

Bread Pudding

I’ve been wanting to make my Eggplant Spinach Lasagna again and take decent pictures now that I have a real camera. The ones I took back when I originally posted the recipe were taken using my cellphone, and were sadly in hues I’m not sure really in nature. I haven’t changed the recipe, so it is included unmodified (except for a note on the tomatoes) below.

Eggplant and Spinach Lasagna Ingredients

Eggplant and Spinach Lasagna Ingredients

Eggplant Spinach Lasagna Assembly - Eggplant Layer

Eggplant Spinach Lasagna Assembly – Eggplant Layer

Eggplant Spinach Lasagna Assembly - Mozzarella and Cottage Cheese Layer

Eggplant Spinach Lasagna Assembly – Mozzarella and Cottage Cheese Layer

Eggplant Spinach Lasagna Assembly - Spinach Layer

Eggplant Spinach Lasagna Assembly – Spinach Layer

Eggplant and Spinach Lasagna
serves 6-8

6-9 lasagna noodles (however many you need for 3 layers in your pan)
1 lb eggplant
12 oz baby spinach
8 oz part-skim mozzarella, grated
16 oz fat-free cottage cheese
3/8 oz pecorino romano, shaved
28 oz crushed tomatoes*
26 oz stewed tomatoes (or just use another 28 oz crushed tomatoes)*
4 Tbsp minced garlic
2 tsp olive oil
1+1/2 tsp Mexican oregano (divided)
1/2 tsp basil
3/4 tsp salt, divided
ground pepper

* I’ve also made this with ~ 42 oz diced tomatoes and 14.5 oz tomato sauce – it just depends on how chunky you want your tomato sauce.

In a large, wide skillet, sauté the minced garlic in the olive oil over low to medium-low heat for a minute or two. Remove 2 tsp of the garlic and set aside. Add the tomatoes, 1 tsp Mexican oregano, the basil, and 1/2 tsp of salt to the garlic. Stir well, and adjust spices to taste. Cook the sauce over medium-low to medium heat until it thickens, 20-30 minutes. (Turn it down if you need to prevent splattering). Once done, set aside. You can continue with the other steps while it’s cooking – just check it fairly often.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Slice the eggplant into rounds about 1/3 inch thick. Spray a couple of cookie sheets with cooking spray, place the eggplant slices on the sheets, brush lightly with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt. (I actually didn’t brush them with olive oil, and they turned out fine – your choice). Bake about 10 minutes (check at 5 minutes) until lightly browned. Turn the pieces and bake for another 2-5 more minutes. Remove and allow to cool. Once cooled, cut into pieces that are about 2″ in size. Set aside. You’ll want the oven at 350 degrees for the lasagna.

Combine the cottage cheese, shaved pecorino romano, 1/2 tsp Mexican oregano, 1/4 tsp salt, and the 2 tsp of garlic. Set aside.

Steam the spinach (or just put it in the microwave, covered for about two minutes), so that it is wilted, but still bright green. Set aside.

Cook the lasagna noodles as per directions. Drain.

Assemble the lasagna in the following, evenly spread out layers:

  • A thin layer of the tomato sauce
  • A single layer of lasagna noodles
  • 1/3 of the tomato sauce
  • 1/2 of the cottage cheese mixture
  • A little less than 1/2 of the mozzarella
  • The eggplant
  • Another layer of lasagna noodles
  • 1/3 of the tomato sauce
  • The spinach
  • The remaining cottage cheese mixture
  • A little less than 1/2 of the mozzarella
  • Another layer of lasagna noodles
  • The remainder of the tomato sauce
  • The remaining mozzarella

Cover loosely, and bake for 35 minutes at 350 degrees. Uncover the lasagna and bake for another 10 minutes.

Eggplant and Spinach Lasagna

Eggplant and Spinach Lasagna

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