Leiths School of Food and Wine
6 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
978 184949 550 9
Peter Cassidy

From the crisp meringue discs of the Vacherin to the mallow centred Pavlova, meringue is the perfect accompaniment to fruit and creamy fillings, much loved by adults and children alike. A perfect partner for British soft fruit, the meringue traditionally makes an appearance during the summer months, but swap the berries for chocolate, bottled or poached fruit in season and it becomes a firm year-round favourite.

Types and uses of meringue

SWISS MERINGUE This is the easiest type of meringue to master and the one most often made at home. It is commonly used for traditional teatime meringues. Egg whites are whisked to stiff peaks, caster sugar is incorporated and the resulting meringue is cooked until it is crisp and dry throughout.

With the addition of a little cornflour and acidity in the form of vinegar or lemon juice, the centre of Swiss meringue will remain soft and mallowy, as in a classic Pavlova. This mallowy centre is perfectly complemented by a topping of fruit and cream.

Swiss meringue can be piped or spooned onto baking sheets lined with baking parchment in a variety of shapes and sizes. Once cooked, it tends to soften quickly on contact with a moist filling, so ideally you should assemble a Swiss meringue pudding no more than half an hour before serving, to keep it crisp. Swiss meringue mixture is not very stable, so make it, shape it and bake it straight away.

ITALIAN MERINGUE A little more complex than Swiss meringue, this is made using granulated sugar in the form of a sugar syrup that is poured over the stiff whisked egg whites, cooking them as the hot syrup is whisked in. Italian meringue is very crisp and dry once baked but, when uncooked, the soft mixture is used in ice cream and mousse recipes to give them airy volume, stability and sweetness. Italian meringue mixture is more stable than Swiss meringue and so can be left for an hour or so before being piped or shaped.

MERINGUE CUITE For this, the liquid whites are whisked with icing sugar over heat, to cook and thicken the egg whites, resulting in a dry and chalky-textured cooked meringue. Meringue cuite mixture is the most stable of all meringues and is the best type for piping into intricate patterns and designs, as it holds its shape well even once cooked. The uncooked meringue is so stable that it can be kept, covered, in the fridge for 24 hours before being piped or shaped and baked.

Making meringues

All of the types of meringue described above work by trapping thousands of tiny air bubbles into the egg whites as they are whisked. Whisked egg whites create rather an unstable foam, so to make sure they whisk up well and don’t collapse, always use a scrupulously clean bowl to whisk them in.

Traditionally cooks would wipe out a copper bowl with lemon juice and salt to clean the oxidised surface, then the egg whites react with that cleaned copper as they are whisked, producing the best possible volume and stability in the whisked whites. As not many home cooks now have a copper bowl, and whisking by hand with a balloon whisk is exhausting to most of us, we suggest using a clean metal or glass bowl, and a hand-held electric whisk.

China bowls are also fine but plastic bowls tend to trap fat and other impurities in any scratches and it is these that can prevent the egg whites whisking to the necessary stiffness and volume. A stand-alone kitchen mixer is ideal for making meringues, allowing the cook a free hand with which to add sugar, etc.

When making meringues, the ratio of egg whites to sugar is generally 1:2 by weight. So for a meringue made using 100g egg whites you would need 200g sugar. The weights given in our recipes assume you will use medium-sized eggs, where each white will weigh between 25 and 30g (once separated from the yolk and shell).

Unusually, the freshest whites are not the best for making meringues. When the whites have become more of a thick liquid than a gel mass, they break down and trap the air bubbles more easily. So save leftover whites when other recipes require just the yolks and freeze them in small pots labelled with the number of whites they contain. Defrost overnight in the fridge before using them. When using very fresh egg whites, add a pinch of salt to help them break down.

You can now buy cartons of pasteurised egg whites, which means you don’t have to find a use for all those leftover yolks when you make meringues. We find they work well, but take a little longer to whisk up than whites from fresh eggs.

Whisking egg whites

Egg whites must be whisked in clean bowls just before you need to use them; if left to sit for any length of time they will separate and begin to collapse.

Egg whites are whisked to different extents for different purposes, so it helps to recognise the consistency at the various stages. For meringues, they are whisked until stiff. For most other puddings, egg whites are whisked to a similar texture to the mixture which they are to be combined with.

As you start to whisk the egg whites they will increase in volume, becoming white and foamy. Continue to whisk and the whites will become paler and progressively stiffer, passing through the following recognisable stages.

SOFT PEAK STAGE As the whites are whisked and stiffen, test them by lifting the balloon whisk vertically, then turning the whisk upside down. If the whites cling to the whisk and start to create a ‘peak’, but the peak falls over on itself, the egg whites have reached the soft peak stage.

MEDIUM PEAK STAGE For firmer whites, whisk for a little longer then test again by lifting the whisk; the whites will cling to the whisk and, as it is pulled up vertically and turned upside down, they will start to fall over onto themselves, then stop halfway. This is the stage used for soufflés and mousses.

STIFF PEAK STAGE Continue to whisk and the whites will become very stiff. When tested the peak will hold its vertical position. This is the stiff peak consistency required for meringue. At this stage there is still some elasticity in the whites. Avoid over-whisking, or they will lose this and break on the whisk.

Shaping meringues

Meringues should be piped (or spooned) onto baking sheets lined with non-stick baking parchment.

If the meringue is to be piped, put it into a piping bag fitted with a 1–2cm plain or fluted nozzle. Pipe a small dot of meringue onto each corner of the baking sheet before positioning the baking parchment; this will anchor the parchment and make piping easier.

PIPING MERINGUES Using a piping bag fitted with a plain nozzle, pipe 3 squeezes of the bag on top of each other to shape these simple ‘beehive’ meringues.

INDIVIDUAL VACHERINS Using a piping bag fitted with a plain or fluted nozzle, pipe tight coils of meringue, about 10cm in diameter.

Once cooked, lift the vacherins from the baking parchment. They will be released easily if they are cooked through.

Baking meringues

Meringues are essentially just a network of bubbles surrounded by sugar and held together with egg whites, so the oven temperature needs to be kept very low, as sugar burns so easily. The normal temperature for cooking meringues of all kinds is between 120°C and 140°C. What also works well is to start meringues cooking in the evening and then turn the oven off and leave them overnight; they will cook and dry out in the residual oven heat. This also applies to Agas or similar ovens – leave meringues in the warming oven overnight to dry and crisp.

To achieve perfectly white meringues, you need to cook them in an electric oven. In a gas oven, meringues – being porous – act as a filter and take on some colour from the gas itself, but this is harmless to eat. If you are using a gas oven, cook meringues on the lowest shelf.

Meringues should be cooked on non-stick baking parchment (or silicone paper) and not greaseproof paper, to which they stick fast when cooked. While greaseproof paper can be lightly greased, this grease can cause the meringue mixture to lose air and collapse and so is not ideal.

To test when meringues are ready, try peeling the baking parchment from the bottom of the meringue; it should come away cleanly and easily.

Storing meringues

When the weather is wet and the air is damp, meringues will absorb moisture and become soft, so wrap them well as soon as they have cooled completely after baking.

Meringues can be made well in advance, which makes them the perfect choice when entertaining for large numbers. Wrapped well in cling film or sealed in an airtight tin or plastic box, they can be made up to a week in advance.

Meringues assembled with sweetened cream can be frozen (although they do lose some crispness), so this is a good use for leftover meringues after a party.

Recipes in this Chapter

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