Thursday, 1 August 2013
Back when I first started blogging, meringue was one of the things I was scared of making. I bewailed my troubles in an early post on Lemon Meringue Pie, declaring that I didn't know why it was going wrong (if you click through, you can also enjoy my attempt to take photos in the dark with a lamp and a homemade lightbox...). This post is for that past version of myself, standing in the kitchen of my university flat, intensely irritated.
It's also one of the topics that has come up when I've asked for suggestions for the Foundations Series. Meringue is perfect for so many summer dishes - think of all the soft fruit and cream you can combine it with - so it seemed like the right time to tackle it.
Because I want to cover each method, I've decided to split the topic into two posts. This post will focus on the basics of meringue and the French method. Part II covers the Swiss and Italian methods.
The first person to call the glossy combination of egg whites and sugar 'meringue' was a French court cook called Massialot in 1692. Meringue had been made before, however, under different names.
Take a look at the beginning of this recipe from earlier in the seventeenth century - it's easily recognisable as a French meringue:
"Take five ounces of sugar finely beaten, two whites of egg. The sugar must be stroyed in by degrees into the eggs as you are beating them and you must beat them with a spoon a long time. The longer you beat them, the thicker they will be and the whiter..."
The recipe is called 'Satin Biscuit', deftly capturing the elegant sheen of meringue.
A few things to keep in mind:
- Make sure your equipment is very clean and free of grease, that you have rinsed it all carefully so no detergent is left and that your whites have no trace of yolk in them.
- It's easier if the egg whites are at room temperature. Older whites are faster to whip, but they're not essential.
French meringue is the simplest of the three meringues. When I first started making it, I made the common mistake of not whipping the whites for long enough, before or after the sugar was added. French can be just as thick and glossy as the cooked meringues.
French often has slightly less sugar than the other types. I usually use a ratio of egg white to sugar of 1 : 1.3. Therefore, if I have 70g of egg white, I calculate 70 x 1.3, which gives me 91g (or 90, if we're being sensible).
In the photos I'm making a mix with 80g of egg white (from 2 large eggs) and 105g of white caster sugar. It's best to use caster or superfine sugar as it dissolves quickly.
Some recipes include lemon juice, cream of tartar, vinegar, cornflour and so on (especially for pavlovas). Generally I stick with the two main ingredients but if you're using a recipe, follow their lead. Adding salt decreases the stability of the egg white foam by interfering with the protein bonding process so I avoid using it, especially at the beginning.
Start with a very clean bowl and whisk (be particularly careful with plastic bowls and utensils). I usually wipe the bowl clean with the cut side of a lemon to make sure. Add the whites to the bowl and have the sugar to hand.
You can make French meringue in a stand mixer, with a hand mixer or with a normal whisk (though be prepared to have an aching arm). I usually make it in a stand mixer so I've put the settings I use below.
Start whisking the whites slowly then increase the speed. I start at 4/10 then move to the 6/10 setting on my mixer. They will start to froth up.
As you whip egg whites, two things happen: air bubbles are incorporated into the liquid and some of the egg proteins begin to unfold as they are tugged around by the whisk. The proteins gather at the surface of the bubbles and begin to bond, creating a network around the bubble walls, holding the gas and liquid in place.
Keep going past the big bubble stage (two pictures up) until you get a foam with tiny bubbles (above). When you lift the whisk out it should leave soft peaks that flop over and don't disappear back into the mix. This usually takes about 40-60 seconds on 6/10.
Watch carefully as you don't want to overdo it - you can't rescue curdled, clumpy whites. Don't panic and add it too soon, either, or you'll reduce the volume, lightness and stability of the foam as the sugar interferes with the unfolding and bonding of the proteins.
When you've reached the tiny bubble stage, start adding the sugar slowly in several additions, whisking all the time.
Scrape the sides of the bowl down then turn the mixer up (I use 8/10). At this stage the sugar is dissolving - if you look at the picture above, you can see the granular texture, and you can feel it if you rub a bit of mixture between your fingertips.
Once the sugar has dissolved, it makes the liquid into a thick syrup, which slows drainage from the bubble walls, preventing their collapse and making the mixture more stable.
Even once the mixture starts to look glossy (as above) you still need to keep whipping.
After a bit, the meringue starts to thicken up and turns a bright, snowy white. The picture above shows the meringue at the soft peak stage. Some recipes call for you to use the meringue at this point, but for most you keep whipping.
Finally, you reach stiff peaks. When the whisk is pulled slowly out, the mixture should stretch like a ribbon between the bowl and the whisk. When it's pulled away, the meringue peak should stay strong, like a little mountain. From the point you add the sugar, this usually takes about 2-3 minutes on 8/10.
To make simple meringue nests, pile the meringue into heaps on a lined tray (this mix makes 6 to 8), use a spoon to make a dip and then bake for 50 minutes at 100C/210F. Turn the oven off and leave to totally cool (I usually do this overnight). Transfer to an airtight box if you're not serving them immediately. This makes the sort of nests I like with a crispy, creamy crust and a squidgy, chewy interior.
This is the eighth post in my Foundations series - the next part of this post covers Swiss and Italian meringue.
Three more ways to use French meringue:
Strawberry Meringue Cake
Raspberry Pavlova Ice Cream