My personal love affair with meringues started as a sweet-toothed and temperamental 4 year old in the midst of a muggy Australian summer and I’ve scoured the world over for meringue and pavlova desserts ever since. Some people in this world are graced with the wonderful ability to craft and master meringue-making. I am definitely not one of those people. Like any good love affair, I find meringue-making to be temperamental, complicated, and delicate. But those who perfect it will be rewarded with a life-time of bliss.
What you’ll need:
- An electric free standing mixer with a whisk attachment (or a very strong upper-arm muscle and a balloon whisk). A few tablespoons and a spatula.
- A very clean, and very dry bowl. A lot of people talk about using copper. I use the stainless steel bowl that my electric mixer came with. Whichever you go for make sure its big enough to accommodate the vast increase in volume
- Eggs. Since I generally don’t do well at separating eggs “properly” I use a plastic egg separator to separate the eggs one at a time (just in case). Eggs at room temperature seem to manage better and rumor has it that not-too-fresh eggs separate and fluff faster
- Sugar. The finer the better, since it needs to dissolve into the egg whites. For this recipe I used the equivalent of 50 grams of sugar for every egg white. As you will read below, sugar is crucial to meringue making and therefore 50g per egg white is open to modification. The amount you use will depend on how crispy you want your meringue. This is perhaps where experimentation, or professional Chef advice would come in…
- Last but not least: good weather. Humidity and dampness (rain) can interfere with meringue making
- For the hazelnut swirl, I used this fantastic Crema Gianduja from Maison della Nocciola Piemonte. I like this product because it is not as sweet as some of its counterparts so you taste more hazelnut and less sugar. I put a few tablespoons in a bain marie to make it easier to work with. Once the egg whites are perfectly stiff, I drizzle the somewhat melted hazelnut paste onto the egg whites and fold very softly just once or twice to maintain the swirl ribbon effect. Mix too much, and the meringue will just become brown.
I use two tablespoons to create round meringue dollops on a baking tray lined with silicone mats and bake them at 200 Fahrenheit (or 95 Celsius) very slowly.
The baking time will depend on the size of your cookie. For the small-to-medium sized meringues pictured below, I baked them for 1 hour and left them in the oven to dry for an additional hour with the oven turned off. Two hours would be a good time for a medium to larger sized meringue.
A note on beating: there are several stages your egg white will go through, the first being the soft peak stage when it’s not really clinging to the bowl and the peak on the whisk droops a bit. The next stage is the stiff peak stage, where stiff shiny peaks will form and the egg whites cling to the sides of the bowl. Rumor has it that the next stage, the dry peak stage, (when the fluff starts to break, becomes dull, and liquid again) is the stage that apparently gives the best meringue cookie. Truth be told, this is usually the stage where it can go horribly wrong for me, so I prefer to stop at the stiff peak stage and add my hazelnut swirls then.
If your inner nerd is interested in the science behind this whole thing, here are some facts that I have learned in my time as a meringue-eating-maniac.
We all know that eggs are a good source of protein. Did you know that egg whites are actually mostly made up of water? Long story short, the more you beat the egg whites, and the more air you incorporate, the more you change the properties of the protein structure inside, which bond with the air bubbles you create through beating and voila – “fluff” is formed.
It’s important to keep in mind that over-beating your egg whites can actually make them too stiff, and under-beating can make them unstable. There’s a fine line! This also explains why foreign objects of any kind are such a threat to meringue-perfection. Even the tiniest trace of egg yolk, egg shell, oil, water or detergent will make your meringue go kaput (mostly because they will interfere with the protein/air bubble bonding experience).
Sugar however, is your friend in this process, but timing is everything. Sugar will retain some of the moisture and allow the egg whites to achieve their glossy stable fluff. Add it too early however, and you disrupt the bonding process, potentially resulting in less fluff. Add it too late and it may not dissolve properly, resulting in partially grainy meringues. With that being said, try to add the sugar at that point when the egg whites have gained a bit of fluff but still have some moisture to them (so the sugar can dissolve) and add the sugar one spoon at a time rather than all at once. Easier said than done, I know. There’s just one way to find out: just try!
Now, when it comes to meringues, the French, the Swiss and the Italians all have differing opinions on how to make them. One fine day, when I find the time, and energy, I will test out all three and let you know which I find most meringueable.