Martha’s Cookies

This recipe comes to us via a military wife. Military wives, throughout history, have had to have recipes that adapt to many different situations. Sometimes they are be in a place where they could get all of their favorite ingredients, sometimes not. Their recipes have had to work with wherever they were when it was time to cook. (A big shout of love to all of you awesome military wives, especially you, Mom!)

This recipe comes to us from a Virginia military wife that knew all about doing the familiar “bag drag” to a new station. (That’s “baggage dragging”, part of military moving slang, for all of you civilians out there.) In fact, this military wife would load up wagons full of produce from her farm and haul it all to her husband’s winter encampment to help feed the troops. That military encampment was Valley Forge and that military wife was named Martha Dandridge Custis Washington.

Image courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery

Now, to be perfectly honest, I can’t say that Martha actually made these cookies herself. As we all know, Martha was a very wealthy woman with many slaves and servants. She may have never set foot in her own Mt. Vernon kitchen for all we know. However, this meringue cookie recipe has been called “Martha Washington Cookies” for generations in Virginia. Given the simplicity of the ingredients list, it would certainly serve a military wife well when she had to entertain on the move.

If you have never made a meringue before, don’t be intimidated. This recipe is an EXCELLENT way to learn the basic technique and how the chemistry works. It is very, very difficult to mess this recipe up. If you can pour, flip a switch and spoon things out of a bowl, then you can do it! Take a look…

Ingredients

  • 2 egg whites
  • 1/4 teaspoon / 1.25 mL salt
  • 2/3 cup / 157 mL brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons / 7.5 mL vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups / 355 mL pecan halves, broken into small pieces

Directions

Pre-heat your oven to 250 degrees F/120 degrees C/ Gas Mark 1/2. We are going to bake these cookies low and slow. Grease 2 cookie sheets (I use butter) and set them aside.

(All of these photos are all from my new camera and I’m still learning/playing with the detailed-yet-fabulous lighting features.)

Next, crack and separate your egg whites. I use this dinky little egg separater whenever I am low on eggs or patience, because I am not so adept at using the shells to get the yolks out.

In a large bowl (I’m using the bowl of my stand mixer), pour in your salt…

…then add your 2 egg whites…

…and now beat the egg white and salt mix on a low setting of your stand mixer (or hand mixer, for those of you who are old school) until this little mix is foamy.

When I first taught Mr. CARO (my husband) how to make this recipe, the word “foamy” caused some worry. “How will I know when it’s ‘foamy’? Is there a time measurement or something?” So, I will tell you what I told him, just in case you are thinking the same thing.

“Mix until foamy.” is all we’ve got, but then again, really old recipes don’t come with detailed instructions. The older the recipes are, the luckier you are if they even come with exact measurements. (If you have a great-grandmother or aunt who cooked by measuring all ingredients in her palm, you know what I mean.) This recipe was made by people (“slaves” in those days) who weren’t even allow to learn to read. Trust the recipe and watch the mix being mixed. Just watch it. You know what “foamy” looks like. A little like soapy water collected at the bottom of your sink. Like this:

Now that we have successfully reached foamy, we are going to add in our sugar. Before I add in the brown sugar, I like to break it up from its measuring shape into something that pours easier. I just use a fork to crumble it well.

Turning your mixer back onto a low setting, slowly add your sugar to the egg mix.

Then add your vanilla extract…

…until everything is well combined. This mixture should now look like a melted caramel color, like this:

This is your basic batter, but now we are going to put chemistry to work for us to triple the quantity of the batter. By folding in air as the batter is rapidly beaten, the egg proteins will stretch. The sugar and salt help the batter hold the air in the mix, making it lighter and fluffier.

To do this, set your mixer speed to medium high… (here’s my speed setting)…

…and beat the mix for about 10 minutes.

Yep. 10 minutes.

I timed it for you with my mixer. (This is the part of the recipe where we thank our lucky stars that we have electric appliances. Imagine what it would be like to beat this mixer by hand. Ugh. ) As the batter is beaten, it will start to change color, becoming lighter and lighter the longer it is beaten. Here it is at around 4 minutes:

It’s already much lighter in color. Just keep it going until you reach 10 minutes.

While we’re waiting, I’d like to take a moment to salute all the hardworking American women who have ever hauled electric American kitchen appliances to foreign locations and voltage requirements. May your adapters run forever smoothly and your warranties be ever sound, ladies!

Here’s my mixture at 10 minutes and a much lighter cream color:

Now I need to check to make sure I have “stiff peaks” in the batter. This is the key to knowing you have whipped enough air into the batter to make it a meringue. Can you see the little peak of batter in the sticking straight out of the mix in the top left section? Here is another look of a good peak in the I batter pulled up on a spatula:

This peak of batter is holding still, with a stiff point, not dripping back into the bowl. This is how you know the meringue will hold up in the oven.

Now gently fold in the pecans. You want to make sure that you fold in the nuts and not stir them into the batter. If you stir the batter, the motion will break up all those nicely stretched egg proteins, essentially undoing all ten minutes of your mixing.

So, sprinkle some of the nuts onto the batter…

…then fold some batter over the top of the nuts.

Repeat this step until you have all the nuts folded into the batter.

As soon as your batter is complete, use a teaspoon to scoop and drop the batter onto your greased cookie sheets. These cookies do not spread or rise when you bake them, so you can dollop them onto the baking sheet rather close to each other.

If I had used an even teaspoon measurement, I would have an even two cookie sheets full of cookies. However, Mr. CARO likes these cookies a little larger, so my cookies are closer to a large Tablespoon size. I wouldn’t go much larger than that, though, or they won’t bake through evenly.

(Can you see how well-loved my cookie sheets are? It may be time for me to upgrade to some restaurant grade baking sheets, but these sheets have produced hundreds of happy cookies so far.)

When your cookie sheets are ready, pop them both in the oven on two separate racks and set your timer for 30 minutes. When your timer goes off, rotate the sheets 180 degrees and swap their placement on the oven racks. Reset your timer for another 30 minutes.

Important Note: You can’t store meringue batter in the fridge or on the counter. The stretched egg proteins will not hold their shape for long before baking, so you should make just what you can use right away. This recipe is difficult to double because it bakes for a full hour and the batter won’t wait. However, if you are lucky enough to have double ovens, meringue away!

Here are my cookies fresh out of the oven:

They are only slightly more golden and glossy then when they went in the oven, but if you look closely, you’ll see slight cracks in the sides of the cookies. They come off of the baking sheet very easily. You can even remove them with you fingers. And don’t they look pretty on a plate?

Mr. CARO generously volunteered to eat half a cookie so you could see what they look like on the inside. (Such sacrifice!)

The light meringue will almost melt in your mouth and just at the center you’ll taste the caramelized pecan flavor that Virginian’s have loved for centuries. These cookies are especially good with coffee at any hour of the day…if they last past the day you bake them. (I speak from experience.)

So what do you think? Do these flavors sound good to you? Does this easy recipe inspire you to try a meringue cookie? What other recipe techniques are you wanting to try? Leave a comment, especially if you try this recipe, and share your thoughts! And most importantly, if you happen to know a military wife, be sure to thank her for HER service to our country!

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Posted on May 4, 2012, in Food, Recipes. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Hooray for the Military and their selfless Wives! This recipe looks delicious! I’m going to try it!

  2. My maternal Grandma used to tell a story about living in a group house with other wives when Grandpa was in the Navy. She didn’t know what corned beef was, and kept baking and baking a brisket thinking it couldn’t possibly be cooked, since it was still red. Her housemates thought it was quite amusing, especially given her maiden name “Kelly”. (So much for ethnic stereotypes, eh?) Funny stories aside, it’s amazing what military families do for us. Thanks Grandpa, Great-Uncle Bob, Uncle Ted, and Dad! I probably don’t say it enough.

    Thanks for the recipe, I actually have more egg whites than I know what to do with since my in-laws brought me a dozen goose eggs from their farm. Would this count as a valid excuse to purchase a stand mixer?

    • In our experience, one batch of cookies is the only excuse you ever need to invest in a stand mixer. Once you see how a stand mixer allows you make kitchen work so easy, you want to cook more!

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