As I was leaving work last Friday, I felt even more compelled than usual to bake over the weekend. There was no particular event to bring dessert to, and no one was expecting any treats from me. My desire to make something was all about the process; I craved the presence and focus that would be required as I’d stand in the kitchen. I wanted to get lost in sweet fragrances and to have messy, sticky hands — to feel in awe of the magic of transforming various ingredients into a new, independent creation.
When I finally thought about what I wanted to bake, I knew it had to be something pretty. Something that required some decorating time. Something that ushered in a little much-needed brightness. Something spring-like that would hint of summer’s imminence. Something, say, reminiscent of my favorite iced drink that might evoke the stunning crimson flowers it’s brewed from: beloved hibiscus. The answer was flower-shaped meringues sweetened with delicate hibiscus syrup. Enhanced with citrus zest and sprinkled with bright green pistachios, my weekend creation proved to be a fulfilling, therapeutic creative process with a delicious and adorable outcome. Here’s the recipe.
Hibiscus Pistachio Meringues (makes about 125 meringues)
¾ cup boiling water
¾ cup dried hibiscus petals, divided
3 ounces shelled pistachio nuts
1 lemon or lime
1 tablespoon clear corn syrup
¾ cup + 1 tablespoon sugar
3 egg whites (about 3/8 cup)
red food coloring* or beet powder, optional
salt for sprinkling (if nuts are unsalted)
In a heatproof container, pour boiling water over 1/2 cup of the hibiscus flowers. Cover and let brew for 10 minutes. Strain and measure out 1/3 cup brewed tea. Set aside. Use a mortar and pestle or spice grinder to finely crush the remaining 1/4 cup dried hibiscus petals. Sift or sieve them into a container, then measure out a heaping teaspoon; set aside.
Adjust oven racks to evenly spaced positions with plenty of space in between. Preheat oven to 200 F. Line three baking sheets with parchment. Fit a large pastry bag with a medium plain round tip, such as #10. Zest the lemon or lime; set zest aside. Crush the pistachios to make about ½ cup crushed; set aside.
In a small saucepan, whisk together the brewed hibiscus tea with ¾ cup sugar and corn syrup. Fit with a candy thermometer; set pan aside. With an electric mixer (preferably free standing), beat egg whites on high until frothy and white. Add 1 tablespoon sugar; keep beating until medium/stiff peaks begin to form. Meanwhile, bring the sugar mixture to a boil over medium heat. As soon as mixture hits 230 F (“thread stage” in candy-maker lingo), slowly pour it into the egg whites with mixer on medium. Turn to high, and let it beat until bowl is barely warm and meringue looks glossy and thick (about 6-8 minutes). For a pink tint, add a drop of red food coloring or a teaspoon of sifted beet powder. At the last minute, toss in the ground hibiscus and citrus zest, turning mixer off just when evenly distributed. (At this point, the egg whites are actually cooked; feel free to taste the meringue and/or simply use it as a delicious frosting.)
Quickly transfer meringue into pastry bag and pipe it onto prepared baking sheets to make 1.75 – 2” diameter meringues. I made 5-petaled flowers to echo the hibiscus flower, but any shape will do. Dip finger or small spoon in water, pushing an indention into the center of each meringue. Fill each center with a pinch of crushed pistachios (using your ¼ teaspoon measure can help). You’ll have some extra pistachios to use as you please. If your pistachios are unsalted, lightly sprinkle meringues with a bit of salt. Bake for a total of 60 minutes: After 30 minutes, switch cookie sheets from top to bottom racks and vice versa. Bake for another 30 minutes, turn off oven, and let meringues cool for 45 minutes in closed oven. Remove from oven and transfer to an airtight container. Store at room temperature away from moisture.
I’ve come to profess that these meringues are a delight to all five senses. Feather-light between your fingertips, their scent is tart and refreshing. The sound of their crispy crunch is music to the ears, and they melt in your mouth with harmonious hints of citrus, salt, and nutty warmth at once. A nod to the flower that inspired them, these treats offer an soft echo of hibiscus’ beauty and tang. Indeed, they make a lovely spring gift — in this case, both for the baker and for those with whom she might find to share them.
Maybe next time… The hibiscus flavor from the syrup is rather mild; if you prefer a stronger punch of its tang, look for powdered hibiscus petals at a local health food store, spice shop, or online, and add a spoonful to the meringue while whipping. If you’re not in the decorating mood or don’t have a pastry bag, feel free to pile the meringue on the parchment instead of piping it; use two spoons — one to scrape the other — to make little meringue mountains. Similarly, the nuts can be folded into the batter rather than sprinkled on top; add them gently just before divvying out the meringue. Aside from lemon or lime, one of my favorite additions to hibiscus iced tea is fresh peppermint leaves; a few minced teaspoons would be a fine addition here. Likewise, cinnamon hibiscus tea is known to be wondrous, and I’m sure a teaspoon or two of ground cinnamon would taste great in this batter. Finally, if you live in a humid area like I do, consider adding a desiccant packet (perhaps borrowed from your vitamin bottle) to the container of your stored meringues to keep stickiness at bay.
*Avoid coloring that contains any type of oil (meringue’s structural enemy).