My friend Jen Gardner has co-written a gorgeous recipe book called Meringue, which is all about the featherweight delicacy that turns desserts into works of art. I asked Jen if I could include an excerpt that discusses the history and science of meringue, and she kindly gave me permission.
Egg whites. Sugar. A pinch of cream of tartar or a dash of vinegar. And air.
Meringue. How can something be so simple, so divine, and yet so intimidating at the same time?
We both fell in love with meringue the same way. Though we grew up thousands of miles apart it was the first bite of our mothers’ lemon meringue pie, the fluffy topping still warm from the oven atop sweet lemon curd that made us swoon. But it was years before we fully realized how many different forms meringue could take -- and we were hooked for life. For Linda, it was the addictive meringue gelato at the world famous gelateria Vivoli in Florence; for Jennifer, it was a cloud-light meringue torte, le Vacherin, while living in Paris.
Our paths finally merged at a potluck “feast” at our children’s preschool. We spotted the desserts first -- Linda’s tiny, light-as-cloud meringue cookies flecked with chocolate, and Jennifer’s raspberry meringue tartlets -- amidst the store-bought cakes, cookies and one sad frozen lasagna. As the adults elbowed their toddlers out of the way to get to our desserts, our eyes met, smug smiles in check. It was friendship at first sight.
We always get the same reaction when we serve meringues. It seems that because they are so delicate and look so elegant, everyone -- even our friends who are experienced bakers -- assumes they are difficult to make. Not so. They may look intimidating, but they are actually quite simple to make. Even those with little or no baking experience can quickly master meringue.
Meringue is magical. It is incredibly versatile. It can be spooned onto pies, or piped into any number of beautiful shapes. It can be baked or poached, whipped into silky frostings, or folded into cakes to make them fluffier. It can be combined with ground nuts, chocolate or any number of flavorings. It can be formed into various vessels for Chantilly cream and fresh berries. And that’s just the beginning. We hope that Meringue will encourage you to embrace meringue as we have, and that it inspires you to create heavenly creations of your very own.
CHAPTER 1: ABOUT MERINGUE - A Bit of History
Meringue isn’t just magical. It’s mysterious. No one can quite agree on its origins (and here’s a hint: it wasn’t invented in France). According to the Larousse Gastronomique, The New American Edition of the World’s Greatest Culinary Encyclopedia:
“Some historians of cookery believe that the meringue was invented by a Swiss pastrycook called Gasparini, who practiced his art in the small town of Meiringen (now in East Germany). Others maintain that the word comes from the Polish word marzynka and that the preparation was invented by a chef in the service of King Stanislas I Leszcyński, who later became Duke of Lorraine. The king passed on the recipe to his daughter, Marie, who introduced it to the French. Queen Marie Antoinette had a great liking for meringues and court lore has it that she made them with her own hands at the Trianon, where she is also said to have made vacherins, which are prepared from a similar mixture.”
While most food historians confirm Marie Antoinette’s love of meringues, some say that meringue goes back to a much earlier date… and that it was invented in England, of all places. The earliest documented recipe for a baked “beaten-egg-white-and-sugar confection” is the handwritten recipe for white bisket bread by Lady Elinor Fettiplace in 1604 in Oxfordshire, which later appeared in the cookbook Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book — Elizabethan Country House Cooking.
Historians do agree on this: Until the early 19th century, 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.
We know one thing for certain: meringue is deceptively simple, and once you know the basics, you can create sweet magic with meringue cookies, Pavlovas, pies, tarts -- even marjolaines and dacquoises.
And Some Science...
But first, a note about that magic -- or the science -- of meringue. Exactly how do egg whites turn into voluminous cloud-like confections, anyway? In simple laymen’s terms (as we aren’t scientists), beating an egg white causes the proteins to unfold, after which it recombines into a new structure around air bubbles, creating volume. Adding sugar helps stabilize the beaten egg whites and helps them hold their shape. In the meantime, sugar pulls the water from the egg whites, allowing them to set up better. When meringues are cooked or baked, the steam created by the heat causes the air bubbles to expand even more, creating greater volume.
Adding acid, such as cream of tartar or vinegar, slows coagulation so that more air can be added, and the whipped egg whites can expand to as much as eight times their original volume.
The Three Stages Of Meringue
Egg whites go through various stages to become meringue: Foamy, soft peaks and stiff peaks. Some cookbooks also reference “medium peaks,” however, as the stage just before stiff peaks is so subtle in its difference, we found that it wasn’t relevant.
Foamy: The egg whites will still be in liquid form, may have a cloudy yellow color, and large bubbles will have formed.
Soft peaks: The egg whites will become snowy white, and as your whisk moves through the meringue, you’ll see ribbons or lines from the wires of the whisk. At this point, with the mixer running, you will slowly being to add sugar, about 1 tablespoon at a time. When you pull your whisk up from the bowl, a peak will form but won’t hold its shape for long.
Stiff peaks: All of the sugar will have been incorporated, and you will continue to beat the meringue until it reaches its full volume. It will now be thick, smooth and glossy. When you lift the whisk from the bowl, the peaks will completely hold their shape.The Three Types of Meringue
Meringue can be eaten in soft or hard form, and can be prepared using three different methods: French, Italian and Swiss.
French Meringue: Fine white sugar is beaten into room temperature egg whites until peaks are stiff and glossy. It is the simplest of the three methods and is used in the majority of the recipes in this book.
Italian Meringue: Made by boiling a sugar syrup, and then whipping it into stiffly beaten egg whites until stiff and glossy. This creates a very stable soft meringue. For those concerned about eating raw eggs, this type of meringue is safe to use without further baking.
Swiss Meringue: Egg whites and sugar are whisked over a double boiler or bain marie to warm them, and then the mixture is whipped with an electric mixer into stiff, glossy peaks. Similar to Italian Meringue, the egg whites in this method are also cooked and safe to eat without further baking.
The Virtues of Meringue
Meringue isn’t just another pretty face in the world of sweets, though. Because they are made with only the whites of eggs, they are low in fat and high in protein. Basic meringue contains no flour or dairy, making it the perfect dessert for those on special gluten-free or lactose-free diets. There are no leavening agents in meringue, so the majority of desserts in this book can be made for Passover as well.
What Are You Waiting For?
Meringues may be the perfect dessert, but they don’t have to look “perfect,” so if that’s what is holding you back, let it go. They’ll taste great, no matter what. If they do crack, so what? Crumble them up and toss them with freshly whipped cream and fruit to create an Eton Mess. Our philosophy is that there are no “mess ups” when it comes to meringue. You’re eating a cloud, after all. That’s perfection enough.
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Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. Come and hear Mark speak at the ALA conference in Chicago on July 1.