Test Kitchen tip: Peppercorns 101 (and a recipe)

Test Kitchen tip: Peppercorns 101 (and a recipe)
Peppercorns 101 (Al Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Sure, it's a common table spice now, but did you know that pepper was once extremely expensive? It was of the most valued items during the time of the spice trade.

Peppercorns come in a variety of colors, and each spices and flavors food in its own way:


Black peppercorns (Piper nigrum) are the most common type of peppercorn. The spice is actually a dried berry. The berries are picked when they are just turning red but still underripe, then dried until the skin shrivels and darkens.

White peppercorns come from the same species, P. nigrum, but the berry is ripened and the skin removed before drying. It is often used in place of black pepper in light-colored foods and sauces so it won't be visually noticed but can still lend some pungency.

Green peppercorns also come from the same soft, underripe P. nigrum. They are preserved through artificial drying or in water, vinegar or brine. Green peppercorns tend to lend a fresh, green flavor as well as some pungency. If the peppercorns are preserved just as they begin to turn red, they may be called "red pepper," though these are not the same as pink peppercorns.

Pink (or red) peppercorns are actually fruits from a different tree (Schinus terebinthifolius). Generally sweeter and more aromatic than p. nigrum, the peppercorns are often used as a decoration or garnish on a plated dish.

Peppercorns can be found whole, cracked, ground and powdered. For the freshest and most intense flavor, buy peppercorns whole and grind right before using.

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Total time: 50 minutes, plus 2 1/2 hours baking time | Makes about 3 dozen meringues

Note: Adapted from "Dessert FourPlay" by Johnny Iuzzini and Roy Finamore.

1/2 cup egg whites (about 4 large), at room temperature

1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

10 tablespoons sugar, divided

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 cup powdered sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons crushed pink peppercorns

2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons cacao nibs

1. Heat the oven to 150 degrees.

2. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment and, using a pen, trace 20 (2-inch) circles onto each sheet (your final count will depend on the volume of your meringue; you may not fill all of the circles). Turn the parchment over so the ink won't bleed into the meringues.

3. Place the egg whites and cream of tartar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (alternatively, this can be done in a large bowl with a hand mixer). With the mixer on low, beat the whites gently just until frothy, about 2 minutes.

4. With the mixer still on low, gently sprinkle in 4 tablespoons of the sugar. Continue to beat until the whites start to thicken to a meringue but are still shy of having soft peaks, about 10 minutes.

5. Sprinkle over 4 more tablespoons sugar and keep beating until the meringue forms medium-firm peaks (they should not be stiff), another 10 minutes.

6. Sprinkle over the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and continue to beat until the meringue is glossy and smooth and almost stiff, 6 to 8 minutes.

7. Sift one-third each of the cocoa powder and powdered sugar over the meringue and gently fold them in. Continue until all of the cocoa and sugar have been incorporated. Gently fold in the peppercorns and cacao nibs.

8. Transfer the meringue to a pastry bag fitted with a large round tip (about one-half inch in diameter). Pipe the meringue onto each of the circles. To do this, hold the pastry tip about one-half inch over the center of each circle and pipe the meringue, pressing until it spreads to the edge of the circle. Lift the pastry tip slightly and cut the pressure, forming a "peak" over the center of each meringue. Continue until all of the meringues have been piped.

9. Place the meringues in the oven and bake until they have formed a hard shell, about 2 1/2 hours. Rotate pans every hour for even baking.

10. Cool the meringues completely, then store in an airtight container in a dry, cool place. The meringues will keep for up to two days.

Each of 36 servings: 23 calories; 1 gram protein; 5 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 0 fat; 0 cholesterol; 6 mg. sodium.

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