I’ve been trying to think and remember why I first made these things, but alas, I cannot. I guess it must have been the classic situation that comes only by the use of eggs, or more specifically, egg yolks. I must have made custard or some other brilliant thing made with egg yolks, and upon having leftover egg whites, what is one to do but make meringue? But in the absence of a fun story about my adventures in the kitchen, here’s a different type of story about meringues.
Contrary to popular belief, meringues are not exclusively French. Indeed, one story claims that meringue was first invented in Meiningen, a small town in Switzerland (now in Germany), by an Italian pastry chef, Gasparini, around 1800! Maybe that accounts also for the differing methods of making meringue, namely Swiss and Italian meringue.
However, others contest that theory, stating that,
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, [England,] which later appeared in the cookbook Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book — Elizabethan Country House Cooking.
Imagine how angry it would make the French to be told that one of their beloved foods is actually English and was invented 200 years before their version of meringue! And then of course, add in the drama of trying to decide who invented the Pavlova, and you’ve got a real food war on your hands! But at least the French can claim that it was a Frenchman who was the first to actually pipe meringues as opposed to using spoons to shape them. I think that’s a win in some sense.
But honestly, I don’t know what to believe. And it also depends on how picky you want to be about what a meringue really is (is it just egg whites and sugar? What about flour? What about nuts?). But as it stands today, there are three main types of meringue: French, Italian and Swiss.
French Meringue is made when caster sugar is gradually beaten into room temperature egg whites until stiff and glossy.
Italian Meringue is made with a sugar syrup, which is then beaten into stiff egg whites.
And finally, Swiss Meringue is made by heating egg whites and sugar in a double boiler, then beating them into to stiff peaks.
The beauty of Italian and Swiss meringue is that the process of making the meringue (before even being baked in the oven) means that the egg whites are cooked, and so are much less dangerous to consume, were you to be concerned about food poisoning. But, as French meringue is the most straight-forward method (fancy that! That has to be an anomaly, because I don’t think it’s possible for French food to be straight-forward!), it’s the one that is most commonly used in recipe books.
And for another surprise when it comes to French baking – meringues are dead easy! Sure, if you want to be technical about it, there are many things you can be finicky about. But, they’re quick and simple and very impressive – so well worth a try!
I generally make meringues in “kisses” form – that is, I pipe little meringues and either colour them, flavour them, or pair them together with some chocolate and put them on top of cakes for decoration. But they’re also just a yummy (and fat free!!) treat by themselves.
1 egg white
1/4 cup caster sugar
cocoa for dusting (optional)
dark chocolate for pairing the kisses (optional)
- Whisk egg white in a stand mixer or with a hand-held electric beater until soft peaks form.
- Once soft peaks have formed, add one teaspoon of sugar at a time, beating between each addition to make sure the sugar has dissolved. If the sugar isn’t dissolved by the time you put the meringues in the oven, they will crack and “weep” sugar – which is fine, but just not ideal.
- Once all the sugar is added, rub a bit of the meringue between your fingers to see if all the sugar has dissolved. If you can still feel some grains then keep beating. If you want to add flavour or colour, do that now. Otherwise, get your piping bag ready!
- You can use a star tip or a round tip to pipe your meringues, or if you don’t want to pipe them, you can just shape them with a spoon.
- Pipe or shape you meringues onto oven trays lined with baking paper and bake in the oven for 1-1.5 hours until they are firm and can be lifted off the trays without sticking.
- If you want to pair them with chocolate, melt the chocolate in the microwave, keeping an eye on it. Once meringues are cooled, dip just the bottom of two meringues in the chocolate and them join them together. Leave them to set on the baking tray. Repeat with all the others, then dust with cocoa.