14 December 2010

14 December - Halcyon Days; Floating Island Pudding; Chocolate Meringues

Traditionally, the Halcyon Days begin today and continue through the 28th of December - which means smooth sailing, at least in the Mediterranean.

Alcyone was a Greek maiden, daughter of King Aeolus of Thessaly, married to Ceyx, the half-divine son of Eosphoros (the Morning Star).  They were so happy in their marriage, that she called him Zeus and he called her Hera, which angered the original owners of those names, the king and queen of the gods.  One story says that Zeus launched a thunderbolt at the ship which carried Ceyx and sank it; in her grief, Alcyone threw herself into the sea, and both were changed into aquatic birds: the kingfisher (halcyon) and the gannet (ceyx).  Another omits the shipwreck and merely says that the two were turned into birds for their impiety.

It was said that during the nesting period of the kingfisher, the seas remain calm.  This is supposed to take place a week before and a week after the Winter Solstice, as the kingfisher builds her nest and lays her eggs.  This in its turn gave rise to the artistic vision of the bird serenely riding the calm waters on her QE2 nursery.

I suppose that Bird's Nest Soup is the most apropos item on the menu, but as I don't like it, you are on your own for it.  Maybe a FLOATING ISLAND PUDDING, instead:

First make your custard.  Divide 6 cold eggs.  As 4 egg whites will be used for the meringues, separate 4 eggs, yolks in one bowl, whites in another.  Then divide the remaining 2 eggs, yolks with their fellows, whites in a third bowl.  You will have a bowl with 6 yolks, a bowl with 4 whites, and a bowl with 2 whites.  Set the whites aside, but do not chill.

Heat 2 cups of milk in the top part of a double boiler.  Heat water in the lower part of the double boiler to boiling.  Mix the 6 yolks with 3 tablespoons of sugar and a dash of salt (mix thoroughly, but don't beat).  When bubbles appear around the edge of the milk, pour a little of it (about 1/2 cup) into the egg mixture and blend well.  Pour this into the milk.  Place the top part of the double boiler over the boiling water in the lower part.  Cook, stirring continuously, until thick enough to coat a metal spoon.  Remove from heat; mix in 1 teaspoon of vanilla.  Pour into a shallow serving dish and chill.

Now for the meringue islands.  Fill a skillet with about 1 to 1-1/2 inches of water and bring to a simmer.  Beat the 4 egg whites (which should be at room temperature now) in a deep bowl with an electric mixer until fluffy, then gradually beat in a pinch of salt and six tablespoons of sugar.  Continue beating until meringue stands up in stiff peaks.  Carefully drop tablespoonfuls of the meringue in the simmering water, one at a time.  When they are set (about 2 -3 minutes), carefully lift them out of the water with a slotted spoon, and place on top of the chilled custard, so that they resemble islands in a custard sea.  Chill before serving.

You can use the other 2 egg whites in CHOCOLATE MERINGUES, by beating the whites with 1/8 teaspoon of salt until stiff.  Add 1/2 cup of sugar, one tablespoon at a time, beating for 2 minutes after each addition; mixture should be very stiff.  Stir in 1 teaspoon of vanilla and fold in 1 cup of chocolate pieces (I like really dark, bitter, chocolate; choose your own preference).

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F (make sure the oven is fully preheated before baking).  Line cookie sheets with brown paper (I cut up paper bags; you can also use ungreased cookie sheets), and drop meringue mixture onto them by teaspoonfuls.  It is optional, but I like to top mine with a bit of cut-up maraschino cherry; red and green are suitable for this time of year.  Bake for about 25 minutes.  Remove and cool.  This will make 2 to 3 dozen, depending on the size of your teaspoonfuls, but they melt in the mouth like true meringues and can be addicting.

I hope the seas of your life are calm right now.