Meringues are one of those things that seem impossibly “French” with an effortless elan (def: distinctive style or flair). Sorry for the pretension, but I have been dying to use the word elan since I learned it in a crossword puzzle in 1996, but it really does sum up meringues for me. A distinctive style or flair.
The French really do find the most incredible and amazing things to do with eggs (think soufflé, mayonnaise and of course meringues). A good meringue should be light as air, crisp on the outside and just a touch chewy on the inside). Also, fat free - and who can argue with a fat free dessert these days.
The secret ingredient
The secret ingredient in meringues is acid. This can be in the form of vinegar, cream of tartar or even lemon juice. When the egg white is beaten the slimy egg transforms into a fluffy foam. The addition of acid stabilises the foam and prevents it from losing air once it has been whipped. Salt also has a stabilising effect so add in a pinch of salt as well for good measure.
Separating your eggs
Separate your eggs carefully, it is imperative that there isn’t any yolk (or shell) in your mixture. If you do get a tiny bit of yolk in the mix, use an egg shell to scoop it out, it will slip right in there.
Ratio of egg to sugar
The ratio of sugar to egg is really all there is to this recipe, all you need is two parts sugar to one part egg white by weight. So if you have 30g of egg white, you need 60g of sugar. 30g of egg white is about equal to one egg white.
Copper bowl and a balloon whisk (who actually has that at home?)
The traditional (read: French) method of whipping up the meringue was to use a copper bowl and a balloon whisk (an impossibly large round-shaped whisk). Copper bowls were always tarnishing a bright green and needed cleaning and polishing with salt and lemon juice, but who has time for that? Modern day equivalent is a glass or metal bowl (avoid plastic if possible, as it can get a bit of a greasy residue that can prevent your egg whites from whipping) and an electric mixer (either hand-held or a stand mixer). Make sure your bowl and beaters are clean and dry before you start to ensure best results. A whisk can be used, it just takes a bit longer (and a bit more effort).
Stale eggs… really?
Fresh eggs have a higher percentage of water but as they age some of the moisture evaporates through the shell, leaving a higher percentage of protein in the egg. So use up your slightly older eggs for this, you will have a firmer whip in the egg white as a result of the increased albumin, and less chance of weeping and beading.
Types of sugar
Any type of sugar can be used to make meringues. The most common are granulated sugar and castor sugar. Both give a traditional meringue, granulated sugar giving a slightly grainier texture as it dissolves more slowly, and may need a bit of extra beating to break up the grains. Icing sugar can also be used, this gives a very “white” result. But, why not experiment with other interesting sugars to create unusual variants, such as demerara, treacle sugar or muscavado? As long as you measure the sugar by weight, you can simply substitute one sugar for another.
Beating the eggs
To start the process, beat the egg whites to stiff peaks, adding in your pinch of cream of tartar and salt at this stage. Then, start adding in the sugar a little at a time (usually by dividing the sugar into three parts, but if you are mixing a large volume you might need to do it in more additions). Beat well between each addition and you should notice the mixture becoming glossy and it should keep its shape, if it seems to be going flat it might need more beating. It is possible to overbeat the mixture and it will also go flat, so once you reach the point you are trying to achieve, stop beating.
Baking paper or rice paper?
Line your tray with non-stick liner, baking paper or rice paper. This will help to get them off the tray more easily. If you are using rice paper, the paper is edible and will remain stuck to the bottom of the meringue. Non-stick cooking spray is not enough to prevent them from sticking, so if you don’t have baking paper, grease the tray and then sprinkle flour over it.
When shaping your meringues you can pipe them out using a piping bag, or simply spoon them out for a more rustic shape.
Bake the meringues at a low temperature, 100° C or 110°C, with the fan on for about 1 ½ hours. Check that they are done by tapping the underneath of the meringue to hear if it sounds hollow. Then you can turn the oven off and leave them to dry out a bit more in the oven as it cools down.
If you increase the oven temperature this will shorten the cooking time and create a meringue that is softer and gooier in the centre and it may brown the outside slightly to a pale coffee colour.
Meringues can be stored in an airtight container for a few weeks if they are well dried.
Weeping and beading
Meringues may weep or form beads of moisture that then dry out in the oven. Both of these problems are caused by too much moisture in the mixture or the sugar not beaten in well enough.
Egg yolks and freezing whites
Egg whites can be frozen for use later. Place them in an airtight container and freeze for up to three months. Use up egg yolks in lemon curd, ice cream or custards.
Pavlova, meringue variations and uses
Pavlova is a variation on a meringue. The chief differences are that it has the addition of a small amount of corn flour to help stabilise the mixture and it is baked at a higher temperature, causing the meringue to colour slightly to a pale ivory-pink, and the inside to stay foamy and soft.
Pavlovas are usually baked in large discs, and the original was shaped with a spoon to look like the tutu of Anna Pavlova, the famous Russian ballerina.
Meringues lend themselves well to variations, and form the base for many other recipes (like macarons). Nuts, fruit, essences and other flavours can be added to the basic meringue mixture to make flavoured meringues and the final products can be sandwiched with chocolate, butter icing or cream. And if things don’t turn out quite as expected there is always that old nugget… Eton Mess!
For the perfect meringue recipe, click here
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