Egg whites are the egg’s supreme contribution to gastronomy, at least for anyone with a sweet tooth—and who doesn’t have one during the holidays? Egg whites are the basis for delicious angel food cakes, sponge cakes and mousses. But it is simple meringues that provide the biggest bang of sugar shock.
Meringues are satisfying in a primordial way. Who can resist running a finger through a fluffy meringue frosting, then slowly savoring the smooth white clouds. Meringues can be enjoyed in their purest form or be boosted into crispy cookies, marshmallows and candies such as the Italian nut-nougat torrone and traditional divinity.
It’s almost impossible today to imagine making a meringue without a heavy-duty electric mixer, but some food historians claim cooks used crude straw whips to beat egg whites more than 2,000 years ago. Most agree, however, that meringues first appeared during the Renaissance. Some say the inventor was a Swiss chef named Gasparini who worked in Germany, or a chef to King Stanislas I Leszcyski of Poland; others say it was Lady Elinor Fettiplace of Oxfordshire, England. No matter. It was the first celebrity chef and founder of haute cuisine, Marie-Antoine Carême, (1784-1833), who first piped meringue from a pastry bag into large elegant edible shapes often used as centerpieces.
A great choice for a holiday meringue dessert is Pavlova, which is traditional New Year’s fare “down under” in New Zealand and Australia. Many home cooks shy away from making meringues because of seemingly complicated recipes that specify using a copper bowl, or testing the state of sugar syrups–hard ball, soft crack, etc.—in cold water. And then there’s the debate over whether or not to use old eggs, fresh eggs, cold eggs or room temperature eggs, salt or no salt. And what does “the foam stage” or “stiff peaks” mean? The process is more daunting than it should be. Don’t be deterred.
Here’s an explanation that might make things easier:
Egg whites are about 90 percent water and 10 percent protein molecules. Beating the egg whites partially breaks the proteins into strands that join with each other to create bonds that hold the meringue bubbles. Sugar dissolves in the egg white water adding strength and elasticity, while heat from sugar syrup expands the bubbles and solidifies the encircling strands—higher heat, stronger bonds. Whip the mixture from the foam stage to soft peaks to stiff peaks, but don’t overbeat, or the bonds will collapse and you’ll lose the fluff. It’s that simple (and that complicated).
It’s as simple (and complicated) as this. Copper bowls impart some acid which helps stabilize the above process, but cream of tartar and/or vinegars do the same thing. Salt can slow down the entire process, but that is rapidly corrected in production. The cold water method for testing sugar syrups is fine, but a candy thermometer is easier. Most chefs specify room temperature eggs because they supposedly incorporate air better, but some scientists say it doesn’t matter. Most chefs prefer fresh eggs, but some recipes that actually suggest ways to age the whites. Experimenting gives mixed results. Forget about it.
Instead, make your holiday meringues—and your time in the kitchen—easy: Use a candy thermometer, eggs from the box, room temperature or not, and follow the recipe, salt and all. Whip from the foam stage to soft peaks to stiff peaks, but don’t overbeat. The only absolutes are to avoid even a speck of fat when beating and to use very clean, dry equipment.
The meringue recipe below will have you enjoying Pavlova cake, which was named for early 20th century “rock star” ballerina Anna Pavlova.
She performed in both Australia and New Zealand, so both countries claim to have “invented” the holiday tradition. As with all things egg white, however, their claims are subject to discussion, with new research pointing to America and Germany.
No matter, Pavlova is a top-tier sugary meringue confection, crisp on the outside, soft and somewhat creamy on the inside, and easy to make. Raspberries and blackberries complement it well, but almost any fresh fruit will work—try kiwifruit, which is grown in New Zealand, also home to the Kiwi bird.
4 ounces egg whites, about ½ cup, usually from 4 extra-large eggs
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup and 1 tablespoon superfine white sugar, preferably ground in a food processor (Measure superfine sugar after processing, so start with about 1 ½ cups.)
1 ½ teaspoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon raspberry or red wine vinegar (more traditional)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon almond extract
1 ½ cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons brown sugar, optional
About ½ cup of unsweetened fresh fruit, preferably berries, per person.
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
2. Draw or trace an 8 inch circle on parchment paper with a pencil. Turn the paper over and place it on a metal cookie tray.
3. Put the egg whites in a bowl with the cream of tartar and salt; use the wire whip.
4. Start beating the whites with mixer at a low speed until foamy.
5. Increase the speed to the halfway point. When the whites are well broken up and foamy, begin gradually adding the sugar. It should take about 3 minutes to incorporate it. Increase the speed to high and beat until the whites are stiff and glossy. Do not overbeat.
6. Remove the bowl, sprinkle the cornstarch, vinegar and extracts over the top of the whites, then fold in very gently.
7. Mound the whites carefully inside the circle on the parchment paper. Smooth the top with an offset pastry knife or spoon.
8. Bake in the center of the oven for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 250 and continue baking for about 1 hour. The cake should be a medium brown on top and not jiggle when you tap it.
9. Turn off the oven, open the door and let the cake sit until the oven cools, at least 30 minutes.
10. Take the cake out, and let it cool to room temperature before
removing the parchment paper and moving the cake to a plate.
11. Whip the cream with the (optional) brown sugar.
12. Prepare the fruit, making sure it is as dry as possible.
13. The cake can now be assembled, using a serrated knife. If you’re eating it in one sitting, cut it in half horizontally across the middle (careful, because it cracks easily); spread cream on the bottom layer, then the fruit; then place the top on, spread more cream and top with fruit. Or, if you’d like to preserve some of the cake for future enjoyment, just cut the cake and pass the cream and berries separately. In either case, use a serrated knife.