It occurred to me that, for over a year, the photo header on my blog has been a group of airy and fat meringues, one of my favourite sugar concoctions, but I never talked about them in these pages. So here is my meringue history and culinary lesson.
Meringue was most likely first made in France around the late 1600’s. The first recorded recipe can be traced to Francois Massialot’s cookbook of 1692. In English, the word made its entrance in the early 1700’s, sometimes called “white biskit bread” or “pets”. “Pets”, which lovingly translates to “fart” in French, is still the name of choice for slow baked meringues in the Loire Valley.
In the Pastry kitchen, there are 3 different kinds of meringues:
French, the most common one, made of 1 part egg whites to 2 parts of sugar. It gets baked until completely dried up;
Italian, made by adding hot syrup to the egg whites and typically not baked all the way through and used for desserts such as Baked Alaska;
Swiss, whereby egg whites and sugar are heated on a bain marie before being whipped.
I always find it miraculous that only two ingredients can produce so many variations and so delicious at that. Making meringue is extremely easy although more things than a cook can think of can go wrong. If the egg whites are not beaten to perfection (over or under beaten) you might find sticky puddles of sugar forming in or around it. If the sugar is not completely dissolved it will create pockets of sugar inside the meringue, making it unpleasant to the palate. Or, worse, it will make the meringue feel like sand under your teeth. Baking meringues in an oven that is too hot will leave you with yellowish meringues.
There are a few tricks to a perfect meringue:
- Make sure the bowl you are using to whip the egg whites and sugar in is perfectly clean as any fat residue will prevent the expansion of the albumen
- Ditto for the sugar. No foreign bits and pieces in it
- Using room temperature egg whites is not strictly necessary but it helps and, above all,
- the eggs need to be very fresh. You can tell an older egg when the white is very clear and thin.
To make just plain meringues start with half a cup of egg whites and 1 cup of fine white sugar. Place the egg whites in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and start whipping on medium speed. In a steady stream add the sugar. Add a 1/4 ts of cream of tartar and keep on whipping on high until the meringue reaches stiff peak. And what the hell does that mean? Recipes always talk about glossy, soft peaks, stiff ones…Well, in this case, if you were to take the whisk out of the bowl and shook it vigorously, the meringue will not detach easily. It should look glossy and compact – if it is dull or has holes in it, you overwhipped.
Next, placethe meringue in a pastry bag fitted with a star tip or simply use a spoon for a more free form cookie. Pipe it on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper (or silpat) and immediately put in a 210 to 250F oven. If your oven is electric, leave the door slightly ajar during the baking process. Bake for approx 90 minutes. You will know they are done when, sliding a spatula or a knife underneath the meringues, they will detach easily.
Switch the oven off and leave them to further dry, with the oven door slightly open. In an air tight container, they will keep for a couple of weeks, provided they are not exposed to any humidity. The applications are endless. Dip the tops in dark chocolate for a fat-free cookie. Use them for a Pavlova, an Eton Mess, as a base for any fruit concoction, sprinkled on puddings….
PS. The photo, incidentally, was taken in Venice. Two of those giant meringues subsequently dissolved in my tummy.