Meringues are that almost etherial confection that can either come out beautifully or end in frustration for many a baker.
On top of a pie, as a base or crust, or in bite-sized form, in actuality, they’re easy and fun to make. They can make a dessert look elegant or festive. And mostly, especially for those of us with a sweet tooth, delicious.
There are three basic types of meringue: Italian, French, and Swiss.
The Italian Meringue consists of boiling syrup poured slowly into beaten egg whites. This produces a meringue that is more stable and can be used in a variety of desserts without a danger of it breaking down or collapsing. Because boiling sugar is added to the whites, no further cooking is needed. (If you want to see an example of Italian Meringue, check out my blog post from May 31,2012: “Key Lime Pie”.)
French Meringue is the most commonly used meringue in home kitchens. It consists of either granulated or powdered sugar slowly added to egg whites and beaten until stiff.
Swiss Meringue consists of the egg whites beaten over a bain-marie or a very slow simmering double boiler to warm the egg whites and sugar together. Whisk until the sugar is dissolved and the egg whites are warm. The whites are then removed from the heat and beaten until they have a dense, marshmallow-like consistency.
The history of the meringue is a bit of a murky one. The first known reference to meringues is found in Francois Massialot’s 1692 cookbook, Nouvelle instruction pour les confitures, les liqueurs et les fruits (Instruction for new jams and fruit liqueurs). The first reference to meringues in England is from 1706 in a translation of Massialot’s book.
Two earlier 17th Century English recipe books give instructions for confections that are recognizable as meringue, though called “white biskit bread” in the book of recipes started in 1604 by Lady Elinor Fettiplace of Appleton in Berkshire (now in Oxfordshire), and called “pets” in the manuscript of collected recipes written by Lady Rachel Fane of Kent.
Slowly baked meringues are still referred to as “pets” (meaning farts in French) in the Loire region of France due to their light and fluffy texture.
(some information from www.wikipedia.org)
There are several important things to remember when making a meringue:
1. Make sure your eggs are separated properly. The egg whites must be free of yolk. Even a small amount of fat in egg whites will prevent them from reaching their full volume and may cause them to collapse.
2. Make sure your egg whites are at room temperature. This allows the proteins of the whites to relax and loosen. The volume of the egg whites is not only contingent on no fat, but also the breakdown of hydrogen bonds in the protein. A warmer temperature helps to create this.
3. Make sure the utensils you use are clean, free of any fat (including any oily residue), and room temperature. Avoid using plastic bowls or utensils; they tend to hold on to oils.
4. Do not overbeat the whites. You’ll know you’ve done this if the whites begin to separate, look dry, and you see liquid (albumen) pooling at the bottom of the bowl. There are supposedly methods for saving the whites, but I’ve never found one that works. Just start over.
5. When adding the sugar (or any dry ingredients), it has to be done slowly and gradually. If you add all of the sugar at once, it won’t dissolve properly and the egg whites and will attract moisture. Moisture is the ruination of a meringue.
A note about the cocoa powder: M. Herme uses exclusively the Valrhona Dutch-processed cocoa powder. He calls for it in this recipe. I did use the Dutch-processed cocoa (what I have at home is Hershey’s) and I like it; in fact, I prefer it. Dutch-processed cocoa is readily available, but, if you have natural cocoa powder, you should be fine.
Natural Cocoa Powder is made with all of the cocoa butter is removed from the cocoa liquor leaving a dry cake that is then ground down to a fine powder that’s bitter and acidic. Its natural acidity is used to help activate baking soda in recipes. It’s only used in cooked or baked desserts.
Dutch Process Cocoa Powder is natural powder that’s been treated with a small amount of alkaline to reduce the cocoa’s natural acidity. The process makes the powder darker and gives it a more mellow flavor.
Now. On to the recipe.
This recipe is based on a recipe from the great book Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Herme by Dorie Greenspan (Little, Brown; 2001). While it is a wonderful recipe, I did make a couple of changes.
1. M. Herme calls for Valrhona cocoa powder. While I like Valrhona and use it occasionally, it is expensive ($13.99/lb. at Central Market). Plus, not it’s not available to everyone. You can use any type of Dutch-process cocoa you like in this recipe.
2. He does have a step in his original recipe saying to dust the raw meringues with powdered sugar and cocoa before putting in the oven to dry. I did that. I found it to be an unnecessary step. When I took my meringues out of the oven, I had to take a soft pastry brush and brush off the excess sugar and cocoa. So, I left it out of the recipe I’m showing you.
3. His original recipe doesn’t include cream of tartar. I added it because it helps to add to the stability of the whites and helps to produce a stiffer peak.
1 c. powdered sugar
3 tbsp. Dutch-process cocoa
4 egg whites, room temperature
1/4 tsp. cream of tartar
7 tbsp. granulated sugar, separated into 2 ea. 3-1/2 tbsp.
1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 250F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set them aside. Fit a large pastry bag with a plain 1/2″ – 3/4″ tip – you want a large tip so you can pipe generous meringue kisses. (If you don’t have a large enough tip or a pastry bag, skip the pastry bag and use a zipper-lock plastic bag. Seal the bag and then snip off a corner so that it creates a “tip” that’s just the right size.)
2. Sift together the powdered sugar and cocoa and set aside.
3. In a clean, dry mixer bowl with a clean, dry whisk attachment in place, whip the egg whites on high speed until they form soft peaks.
Still whipping on high, gradually add the first half of the granulated sugar.and continue to beat until the whites are glossy and form stiff peaks.
Reduce the mixer speed to medium-low and gradually beat in the remaining half of the granulated sugar.
4. Remove the bowl from the mixer and, working with a large rubber spatula, gradually fold in the sifted powdered sugar and cocoa mixture.
Work quickly but delicately, and don’t be discouraged when your beautifully airy meringue deflates a little; it’s inevitable.
5. Working with half the batter at a time, gently spoon half the batter into the pastry bag.
Pipe out rounds roughly 1-1/2″ – 2″ in diameter, finishing with a peak in the center onto the baking sheets (they should look like giant chocolate kisses).
Allow about 1 inch between each puff. The larger the meringues, the fewer you’ll have. (M. Herme’s recipe says make the meringues 2-1/2″ for a yield of 20. Mine are generally smaller, so I’ve had as many as 40.)
6. Place the baking sheets in the oven and insert a handle of a wooden spoon into the door to keep it slightly ajar (this helps cut down on moisture in the oven). Bake the puffs for 1 hour, rotate the sheet pans, and bake for another hour.
7. After the second hour, turn off the oven, take the wooden spoon out of the door to close the oven, and continue to dry the meringues for another 2 hours, or as long as overnight. Take the meringues out of the oven and transfer, parchment and all, to racks to cool to room to room temperature. Run a thin metal spatula under the puffs to release them from the paper.
*The meringues can be kept up to one week in an airtight container.