Meringue adds texture to many classic desserts from Pavlova to Eton mess to the show stopping baked Alaska. There is much dispute about its origins with the Italians, French and Swiss all claiming to have been the first ones to whip egg whites and sugar together.
The texture of meringue can vary greatly depending on personal preference; some like it hard and crunchy while others add corn flour and vinegar to the egg whites for a softer chewy treat. The egg whites require a great deal of beating so an electric whisk is a must for this task or you will end up with very tired arms very quickly!
There are three types of meringue: Italian, French and Swiss.
French meringue is the most simple, just whipped egg whites with the gradual addition of sugar. It is normally baked in the oven or folded into mixtures such as soufflé.
For Swiss meringue, the eggs should be placed in a bowl over a bain marie and whisked until stiff peaks, again with the gradual addition of sugar. This cooks the egg whites making them more stable for baking. The texture of Swiss meringue is similar to that of marshmallow.
Italian meringue is the most stable as the sugar is cooked before adding the whites. A little water is added to the sugar and the mixture is taken to what is known as the ‘soft ball’ stage, 121˚C. It is then poured into semi-whisked egg whites and whisked until cool. This meringue is ready to use straight away and is often used for piping and blowtorching.
Meringues can be flavoured by using dry ingredients such as cocoa powder, matcha tea powder, coffee and finely-ground nuts which can be added at the same time as the sugar. To introduce fruity flavours to a meringue mixture, dehydrate fruit first and then use a pestle and mortar to grind it into a powder.
For stripy meringues, paint the inside of a piping bag with food colouring or fruit purée so it colours the egg white mixture as it's piped out.
Italian meringue is showcased in Tom Aikens’ Baked Alaska or for something more challenging try Nathan Outlaw’s Sea buckthorn curd meringue with yoghurt sorbet and wholemeal shortbread.
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