Of all the types of recipes out there, baking recipes can be the most cryptic.
After all, how often do you see phrases like, "Have ready 1/4 cup mirepoix in brunoise" in your standard modern cookbook? Or perhaps, "Have ready one chicken en crapaudine..." It's just not gonna happen.
However, baking recipes still use an erudite shorthand that some new bakers find intimidating. How do you temper chocolate (and what the hell is tempering anyway)? How do you cream butter and sugar? What do stiff peaks look like? As a baker, I find these phrases reassuring. An age-old collection of jargon that tells me exactly what to do in a concise way. But to many, these instructions need decoding before they can be useful.
I’m not going to try to tackle all the coded language of baking in one day, but I will start with what is perhaps one of the most confusing bits: whipping and folding egg whites. What are soft peaks versus firm versus stiff peaks? How can you tell if egg whites are overbeaten? How much do you really need to fold in egg whites?
Before you get started, you’ll need to know how to separate eggs. My technique differs from the technique in Joy, in that I prefer to use my hands. The primary reason is because hands are simply more intuitive to use in this case. I simply crack the egg into a bowl and use my fingertips to lift up the yolk and some of the white (the thinnest part of the white will remain in the bowl). I gently let the egg roll from one hand to another with my fingers loosely cupped, allowing egg white to gradually drip into the bowl. Once all the white has fallen away, I transfer the yolk to a separate bowl and repeat the process, keeping 3 separate bowls: one to break the eggs into, one for yolks, and one for whites. That way, if a yolk breaks it is confined to the first bowl and does not contaminate any of the egg whites I have already cleanly separated.
The classic method as described in Joy is as follows. Have 3 bowls ready. Holding an egg in one hand, tap the center of the side of the egg lightly yet sharply on a flat surface, making an even break. Then hold the egg in both hands, with the break on the upper side. Hold it over the center of a small bowl and tip it so that the wider end is down. Hold the edges of the break with your thumbs, and widen the break by pulling the edges apart until the eggshell is broken in half. As you do this, some of the egg white will flow into the bowl underneath, but the yolk and the rest of the egg white will remain in the lower half of the shell. Pour the remaining egg back and forth from one half-shell to the other, letting some more of the white flow into the bowl each time until only the yolk remains in the shell. Put the yolks in the bowl on the left and the whites in the bowl on the right.
Now on to the whipping. Whipping egg whites and folding them into batter is often performed when making chiffon, génoise, or angel food cakes or when lightening up a normal cake recipe.
Before you whip egg whites, wash your mixing bowl with warm, soapy water. You want to be sure that there are no oil or grease particles in your bowl. Even if you haven't used your mixing bowl recently, I recommend washing it. In the kitchen, grease tends to build up almost everywhere.
Dry the bowl thoroughly. Do the same for the whisk. Place the egg whites along with the amount of cream of tartar specified in the recipe in the mixing bowl. Cream of tartar is a byproduct of wine making that is often used when whipping egg whites to stabilize the egg foam and increase the volume of the whites. ¼ to ½ teaspoon of lemon juice may be used instead of cream of tartar.
I like to whip egg whites on medium speed (I use a KitchenAid stand mixer. For handheld mixers, use high speed). I find that they retain their structure better when whipped slower. Begin whipping and watch the egg whites. As you are learning to do this, it’s a good idea to pay close attention to the different phases egg whites go through as they are whipped. At first, they will look frothy, then they begin to thicken from a very soft foam that barely holds its shape.
“Soft peaks” occur when you can lift up the whisk, and the tip of the peak formed by lifting the whisk droops over. At this point, gradually add the sugar called for in the recipe. By gradually, I mean a tablespoon at a time in a thin steady stream. If the sugar is added too fast, the whites may collapse
Continue whipping at medium speed until the egg whites form stiff, glossy peaks. You can see this clearly by lifting up the whisk and holding it horizontally. The egg whites should not droop or fall off the whisk.
Do not overbeat at this stage. If you beat the egg whites until they are dry, they will break down as you fold them into the batter, creating a heavier, denser end product. I stop my mixer frequently as I get close to the stiff peak stage. This way, I can check the consistency of the whites and make sure I don't overbeat them.
As soon as the whites have reached this stage, immediately fold them into your batter. To do this, first add a third of the egg whites to the batter and fold them in gently. This is to lighten the batter initially and prepare it for the rest of the egg whites.
When I use the term "fold," I mean to use a silicone spatula. Gently plunge the spatula down (hold it so that the flat side is facing you--you should be able to see the expanse of the spatula's head) in the center of the mixture. Draw the spatula towards you, scooping a swath of batter along with it. Bring the spatula up the side of the bowl, lift it out, and plunge it down in the center of the batter again. You should see a ribbon of batter left in the wake of the spatula. As you repeat this movement, rotate the bowl, working your way around, always starting in the center, moving to the side of the bowl, and bringing the spatula upwards to mingle the egg whites and batter. As you fold, the position of the spatula will change. When you plunge it down in the center, you want the flat side towards you, meaning that the "sharp" side goes down into the batter first, causing as little deflation of the whites as possible. When you bring the spatula up again, you want the flat side facing up in order to bring up as much batter as possible.
Repeat this movement until the batter is more or less homogenous. It doesn't have to be perfect. You don't want to see large streaks or clumps of egg white, but total and complete incorporation of egg whites is not necessary. You may see some thin, fine stripes of egg white. This is okay.
Immediately transfer the batter to your pan and finish the recipe as instructed.
Once you find your rhythm, this technique is actually very satisfying. It also has a way of making you look very accomplished and professional, so make sure someone is watching you as you do it. It's not very often that we get to feel accomplished and professional.