Matter of Taste: Once you've cracked it, perfect meringues make masterful desserts

The airy mix of sugar and egg white takes a lot of practice, and owes its history to a renaissance pudding

Matter of Taste, Meringue

[Flickr/Henrik Nyh]

Meringues, that sweet and airy mass of baked sugar and egg whites, get a raw deal in the world of baking. Perceived by the inexperienced to trickier than they actually are, the important part of preparing them lies in the understanding that you don’t put them in the oven to bake them at all, rather to slowly dry all of the moisture out of them. And because they act so well as an insulator, it means a poorly judged oven temperature can result in a burnt shell hiding a raw mix of goo on the inside, a diabetic oyster. When done right, though, the meringue mix goes into the oven in brilliantly white mounds of sweetness, emerging some time later as deliciously crisp beige beauties, almost impossible to resist.

Nobody is quite certain where the word meringue came from, with even its most Gallic professors stuck with the linguistic reality that almost every word ending in –ingue in French came from Germany to begin with. There is an entirely discredited legend about something to do with a Swiss chef, but that story came after the first printed version of the word by some 15 years. Instead, meringue is first found in the proto-celebrity chef François Massialot’s Le cuisinier roïal et bourgeois, arguably the world’s premiere attempt at cooking with a liberal seasoning of self-indulgence; Massialot uses the opening pages of his 1705 book to declare himself “a cook who dares to qualify himself royal, and it is not without cause.”

While the name’s origins are murky, at least the origin of the meringue itself is better known. Certainly, European cooks only caught on to the value of beating egg whites in the 16th century, where, in the absence of a nice stainless-steel whisk, the chefs would break a sweat brutishly bullying air into them with birch twigs. To this they would fold in cream to prepare a raw dish that was named snow. But this is pretty far from proper meringue, as anyone who has ever made a hames of separating their yolks from their whites will attest, you can’t make meringues with any fat in the mixture at all. These renaissance meringues would also have suffered from ‘weeping’, the phenomenon that sees even the most fastidious bakers come unstuck, so to speak, by big sticky blobs of syrup, that can only be resolved by using the finest of sugars.

When the modern meringue did finally debut in the 17th century, it didn’t have a name, and was frequently referred to as ‘sugar puff’. It’s also around this times that the first additions of flavoured creams, fresh fruit, or ground nuts mixed through the uncooked meringue arrived, seeing it grow in popularity all over the salons of European courts.

Nowadays, the average home baker is probably aware that meringue science has seen three distinctive varieties emerge, used for different purposes; French meringue is the everyday sort, beating sugar into stiffened whites. Moving east, we get to Switzerland, where Swiss meringue ups the ante and the temperature, with the sugar beaten in over a pan of hot water until it has dissolved, with the remaining mixture then slapped into stiff peaks. The trickiest of all remains the Italian meringue, which involves a vaguely terrifying alchemy with sugar, boiling water, exact temperatures, and courage. The rewards for mastery of the Italian range from voluminous piles of opalescent toppings on pies to obnoxious gloating to anyone who’ll listen.

That said, perhaps no baker can truly claim bragging rights on modern meringue making till they’ve managed the trickiest of all – the vegan variety. Given that our friends of the earth and its fauna abstain from albumen, yet still like the idea of biting into something crispy and sweet, you may start stocking up on cans of chickpeas now. The solution they’re suspended it, which leeches protein from the pulses, has become an egg-white surrogate for vegan bakers, given the somewhat ostentatious name of ‘aqua faba’, the neologistic Latin for ‘bean water’. According to the beautifully shot pictures of the vegan blogosphere, not to mention the (repeated) assurances that these meringues taste nothing like legumes, it’s curiously tempting to at least give it a try. Put it this way, worst case scenario... you’ll be eating hummus for a week.

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