Friday, July 12, 2013

Mmm - Meringue!

Lemon Blossom Pie
The ingredient list couldn’t be simpler: egg whites, sugar, and cream of tartar or vinegar. The instructions are even more minimal: beat the ingredients until they increase greatly in volume and become thick, smooth, and glossy.
That, in brief, is meringue. And yet consider the many possibilities: crisp little cookies, creamy pie toppings, layered Pavlovas, magical baked Alaska, spreadable frostings. Meringue is an ideal summertime treat—light and fat free, a perfect partner for ripe fruit. And because it’s gluten free and high in protein, it fits into contemporary diet preferences, too.

Meringue Pizza
True, meringue can seem intimidating to novices. So we turned to a couple of meringue enthusiasts for insights and advice into this classic, versatile, and ethereal dessert. Linda K. Jackson and Jennifer Evans Gardner, co-authors of the delightful, lavishly illustrated cookbook Meringue (Gibbs Smith, 2012), are avid amateurs who became meringue experts the old-fashioned way: lots of practice. “You don’t have to be a trained pastry chef to make these wonderful desserts,” insists Linda. Adds Jennifer, who teaches cooking to kids in her Little Feet in the Kitchen classes: “If a 6-year-old can whip up a meringue, so can an adult!”

What Is Meringue?

Blitz Torte
In the most general terms, meringue is simply “a beaten-egg-white-and-sugar confection.” That’s how it was described in a 1604 recipe for Lady Elinor Fettiplace’s “White Biskit Bread” that Linda and Jennifer identify in Meringue as the earliest documented meringue recipe. Yes, the earliest known meringue recipe isn’t French or Swiss or Italian, it’s English!

Meringue probably wasn’t invented in England, however, although its true origins are a mystery. The American edition of Larousse Gastronomique, the authoritative culinary encyclopedia, gives several unproved theories: It may have been invented by a Swiss pastry chef who worked in Meiringen (now in East Germany), or by a Polish chef who gave it the name marzynka. The recipe found its way to the French court during the reign of Marie Antoinette, who reportedly enjoyed making meringues herself. Until the early 19th century, Linda Jackson and Jennifer Gardner tell us, meringues cooked in the oven were shaped with a spoon: “It was the great French pastry chef Antoine Carême who first used a piping (pastry) bag.”

Chocolate-Dipped Almond Meringues
As for how meringue achieves its volume, the answer is protein—specifically, the protein in egg whites, which unfolds as the whites are beaten and recombines around air bubbles. “Adding acid, such as cream of tartar or vinegar,” write Linda and Jennifer, “slows coagulation so that more air can be added.” And the sugar? It “helps stabilize the beaten egg whites and helps them hold their shape.” It also pulls the water from the egg whites, which allows them to set up better.

Getting Started

Here’s what you’ll need to get started with meringue:
    Brown Sugar Meringue Crisps
  • Eggs. Be sure to separate them when they’re cold and beat them when they’re at room temperature for maximum volume, say Linda and Jennifer. The best way to separate eggs? Linda likes an inexpensive plastic separator she’s had for years; you can also use a slotted spoon or your bare (clean) hands—just crack an egg into one hand and let the white slip through your fingers into a clean, dry bowl.
  • Sugar. We prefer C&H® Pure Cane Baker’s Sugar because its ultrafine granules blend and dissolve easily, creating a smooth meringue. In some recipes, though, C&H® Golden Brown Sugar adds a lovely rich flavor. Caution: Don’t use a sugar substitute! “It will give your meringues a rubbery texture,” says Jennifer Gardner.
  • Cream of tartar or vinegar. Adding a bit of acid helps stabilize the mixture and give it more volume.
  • Metal bowls. Copper is the deluxe choice, but it’s expensive and fussy. Linda and Jennifer recommend stainless steel: “Plastic bowls can harbor traces of oil and fat and aluminum bowls can turn egg whites gray.”
  • Standing electric mixer. Use a whisk attachment for best results. A handheld electric mixer is a good substitute—“but I don’t recommend beating by hand with a whisk,” says Linda—it just takes too long.

MarjolaineChoose a dry day to make meringue: the sugar in the recipe will draw moisture from the air and turn your meringue soggy and sticky. Be aware of moisture from your dishwasher or washing machine, too, warn Linda and Jennifer.

So Many Meringues!

Coffee Parfait
“Our biggest surprise when researching the book was how diverse meringue is and what we could do with it,” Jennifer Gardner told us. Here are some classic recipes to try:

Soft, billowy, and spooned on top. Our tangy Lemon Blossom Pie is a perfect example. So is our Lemon Meringue Cake—a gorgeous layer cake filled with lemon curd and topped with meringue—and fruit-and-nut-garnished Blitz Torte.

Meringue crust. Meringue plays a supporting role in the witty and yummy Meringue Pizza featured in Meringue: The “crust” is meringue, raspberry curd is the “sauce,” and sliced strawberries are the “pepperoni.” For a refreshing treat, whip up individual servings of Coffee Parfait spooned into meringue shells, or bake a batch of Strawberry Meringue Dessert Squares with a secret ingredient in the meringue base: crushed saltine crackers.

Peanut Butter Clouds
Bite size. Call them kisses or cookies, they’re a burst of flavor that crunches, then melts, in your mouth. Linda Jackson and Jennifer Gardner introduced us to these elegant Chocolate-Dipped Almond Meringues—just one piece makes a satisfying mini-dessert—and to Brown Sugar Meringue Crisps, piped with a basketweave tip to give them the look of potato chips. Other flavor-filled favorites: Pecan Kisses, Light Chocolate Meringue Kisses, and Alice Medrich’s ethereal Peanut Butter Clouds.

Creative confections. Once you feel confident with meringue, the sky’s the limit! Our sorbet-filled Tip of Alaska uses two types of meringue, soft and crisp; it’s browned in a broiler or with a blowtorch. For the spectacular confection known as Marjolaine, you’ll need a jelly-roll pan, two cups of hazelnuts, and our coffee-fortified chocolate sauce.

Meringue decorations. Use meringue to make holiday ornaments or sugared flowers, leaves, or fruit—beautiful and edible! (For decorative purposes, it’s OK to use packaged egg whites.)

More Meringue Magic

Tip of Alaska
  • “Egg whites freeze beautifully,” says Linda Jackson. You can freeze them individually in ice cube trays, then bring them back to room temperature when you’re ready to whip up a meringue.
  • Despite your best efforts, did your meringues get chewy or sticky? Re-crisp them in a 200° oven for about 10 minutes.
  • If you have a food dehydrator, you can “bake” meringues in it. You’ll use less energy and free up your oven for other tasks.
  • What to do with the leftover egg yolks? “Make crème brulée or lemon curd!” says Jennifer.
Quick tip: Always use real sugar, not a sugar substitute, in meringues. And use fresh, not packaged, egg whites: pasteurization prevents egg whites from achieving full volume. For more meringue tips, see our special section, “How to Make the Perfect Meringue.”

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