A sweet blend of stiffly beaten egg whites and sugar, meringue dates back to the sixteenth century. European cooks realized that whisking egg whites with birch twigs (for the lack of a better utensil), created a light, frothy mixture. They used this method to make what they called “snow,” a velvety combination of whipped beaten egg whites and cream.
It was eventually discovered that meringue hardens when baked at a low temperature (or simply left out in the air to dry), changing the texture from silky to one that is pleasantly airy and crispy. In the seventeenth century this was often called “sugar puff,” which was sometimes flavored with caraway seeds, a tradition that continued to evolve with other flavorings, creating a large number of taste combinations. In addition to sugar puffs, nineteenth century cookbooks feature recipes for lemon puffs, orange puffs, almond puffs, curd puffs and chocolate puffs, which I adapted from a recipe found in Anna Maxwell’s journal.
The recipe calls for grated baking chocolate, which gives the cookies a pretty speckled look and really boosts the flavor. However, later recipes often call for unsweetened cocoa, which is a perfectly fine substitution. This is a result of improvements in cocoa processing that occurred throughout the nineteenth century. In 1828 a Dutchman by the name of van Houten patented a way to simplify cacao processing by pressing out most of the fat and alkalizing the dry cocoa that remained. This revolutionized the manufacturing of chocolate, allowing it to assume solid, liquid, and powdered form, paving the way for all kinds of chocolate dessert possibilities. In the decades that followed, recipes for chocolate blancmanges, mousses, creams, cream pies, custards, puddings, soufflés, and syrups began appearing more frequently in period cookbooks. Chocolate puffs are actually one of the earliest chocolate recipes, dating back to the 1700s, featured in cookbooks by Elizabeth Raffald (1769) and Richard Briggs (1792).
Anna’s recipe also contains an ubiquitous nineteenth century measurement – “teacup.” This is one of the challenges in interpreting and adapting historic recipes. Before “standardized” measuring units, cooks used various types of measures. In addition to teacup as a measure, wineglass, dessertspoonful and saltspoonful were often listed as measuring devices in recipes. (We can thank Fannie Farmer for finally standardizing culinary measurements). Since we don’t know what size Anna’s teacups were, I had to improvise by looking at other recipes from the time and similar modern ones. I was able to determine that a teacup is typically about a half a cup in today’s measurements, so I went with one cup of powdered sugar to equal the “2 teacups” in Anna’s recipe, which worked great.
The recipe also says that chocolate puffs are “nice to mix with cake in the basket,” so it is likely Anna served them for tea, perhaps in a silver basket covered with lace, arranged alongside golden sponge and dark, rich fruitcake. The contrasting shades of these treats would have been a lovely presentation.
Here’s Anna’s original recipe:
CHOCOLATE PUFFS, that are nice to mix with cake in the basket, are made by beating to a stiff froth the whites of two eggs; stir in with them, gradually, two teacupfuls of powdered sugar and two tablespoonfuls of corn starch; mix two ounces of chocolate, which you have grated, with the corn starch. Bake these on buttered tins for fifteen minutes in a moderate oven. They should be dropped on the tins from a large spoon.
And here’s my adapted version (I used a stand mixer but feel free to used a hand mixer or mix by hand if you’d like a workout!)
- 2 egg whites (room temperature eggs will whip easier, so for best results separate when cold and then let come to room temperature, about 30 minutes).
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 cup powdered sugar
- 2 ounces baking chocolate
- Pinch of cream of tartar (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 350F.
- Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
- Grate chocolate and mix with cornstarch, set aside.
- Beat egg whites in a stainless steel or glass bowl at a low to medium speed. When the egg white foam increases in volume with smaller bubbles, add the cream of tartar at the side of the bowl if desired (cream of tartar helps to stabilize the eggs and prevent overbeating).
- Increase mixer speed to medium. When the bubbles become smaller and more even in size, increase the mixer speed to medium-high.
- Add sugar slowly in a steady stream at the side of the bowl.
- Increase mixer speed to high and continue beating until the mixture is white, fluffy, firm and still very glossy, like white cake icing.
- Add the chocolate/cornstarch mixture slowly and blend well.
- Drop spoonfuls of meringue on the baking sheets (I use a cookie scoop)
- Bake at 350F for 15 minutes. Cool on baking sheets for about 30 minutes and then transfer to a wire rack.