Meringue on Top
So I’ve been reading prognostications that meringue will be the next big thing, at least as far as culinary sweets are concerned. That’s fine by me. I’ve really gotten tired of cupcakes since I wasn’t that fond of them in the first place. I understand their popularity: less cake and more icing per bite. When it comes to dessert, small and easy never exemplifies what I like best, and good meringue is neither.
Meringue comes in many forms but all of them combine egg whites and sugar, which are beaten together to form stiff peaks. Sometimes salt and an acid like cream of tartar or lemon juice is added to stabilize the egg whites (using a copper bowl achieves the same result). Flavorings like vanilla and almond are common additions as well.
Almost anyone can make a cupcake of some sort, but meringue is another story. Growing up the ethereal fluff capped many of my favorite pies—lemon, coconut cream and chess—the higher the better. I can remember going to a delicatessen in Miami Beach called the Rascal House and being awe-struck by its key lime pie topped with a foot of meringue. Likewise the Mile-High Ice Cream Pie at the old Caribbean Room in New Orleans never failed to dazzle. Lemon meringue pie was the only dessert my aunt would ever serve company.
From the same era I also recall little pies wrapped in wax paper—Hostess and many other commercial bakers made them. As bad as they were I couldn’t resist buying them (hope does indeed spring eternal). I was astonished when I the read the label on my ‘chocolate cream meringue pie’ that it contained neither cream nor eggs.
Liking pie so much was my motivation to learn how to craft it right—and meringue. At the time the idea that making it might be easier said than done never crossed my mind. Without trepidation I made pie after meringue-topped pie without glorious results. For whatever reason these golden crowned pies fell out of fashion. Whipped cream (worse yet, that stuff that comes frozen in plastic tubs) supplanted it as a finish. Granted sometimes I prefer a cream-topped pie, but meringue is unequalled on a tart lemon or creamy custard pie. My guess is its downfall was it was finicky to make and didn’t keep as well as whipped cream.
Meringue can be more than just a topping for pies or Baked Alaska. Especially popular in France and Switzerland is a version that’s slowly baked turning it into a chewy confection. Both the simple schaum torte and the elaborate cakelike vacherin are variously filled with fruit, custards and creams. My favorite dessert at Madison’s legendary Simon House was its schaum torte with vanilla ice cream and fresh strawberries.
In New Zealand, Pavlova torte is the national dish. Vinegar is added to the egg whites and formed into meringue layers that are slowly baked and left in the oven to thoroughly dry. Assembled with whipped cream and fruit—most popularly kiwis and strawberries—the end result is crispy on the outside with a marshmallow-like center.
After a meringue-making hiatus of several years, feeling nostalgic I decided I’d make a key lime pie topped with meringue. To my horror, despite all its pretty curlicues, the result was an utter flop! The meringue shrunk and was tough and chewy. I dismissed this disaster as an anomaly, but after a second failure my bravado faded and I knew it was time to seek help.
I learned from Julia Child that the best way to perfectly beat egg whites is using an unlined copper bowl and a balloon whisk. The reason being you’re able to force more air into the egg whites without overbeating; resulting in more volume and better texture. It really isn’t as much work as it sounds like if you have the right whisk. That said, when beating a large number of egg whites I tend to use a mixer fitted with a whisk beater. Don’t attempt meringue making on a humid or rainy day—it’s mostly air and doesn’t mix well with moisture and the finished product will be more prone to weep (more about that later).
Regardless of whatever bowl or beater you use, they should be free of grease and dry—otherwise you’ll have catastrophic results. The eggs you use are important, too. They need to be four days old or older (not a problem for most of us, but certainly if you’re raising chickens in your backyard). Eggs are easier to separate when cold, but you’ll attain much better volume if you let the whites come to room temperature before beating.
What transforms whipped egg whites into meringue is sugar. Many favor superfine granulated sugar because it dissolves more quickly. That said, I’ve had spectacular results using regular granulated sugar (and it’s certainly worked for my grandmother, too). Instead of granulated sugar, boiling sugar syrup can slowly be beaten into softly whipped egg whites to make what is referred to as Italian meringue. It’s frequently used to make macaroons and butter cream frosting, but can also be used as a topping for pies and Baked Alaska. A variation is Swiss meringue where the egg whites and sugar are beaten together in the top of a double boiler until stiff and glossy. The advantages to Italian and Swiss meringue are the egg whites are cooked and the end product very stable.
Technique and baking can test your skill. Beat the egg whites (brought to room temperature) with a little salt in a clean, dry unlined copper, stainless steel or glass bowl (never use plastic!). As soon as the egg whites are frothy, add the cream of tartar (unnecessary if you’re using the copper bowl). Continue beating (on medium speed if you’re using an electric mixer) until the egg whites are snowy and opaque and then gradually begin to add the sugar, continuing to beat all the while. (Once you start the process you must continue until it’s done!) Continue beating until all the sugar has been dissolved and you have firm, glossy peaks (the whipped egg whites should clump on the beater when it’s removed). Finally, beat in the vanilla or other flavoring. Never over beat the egg whites: they will look start to look grainy and dull and eventually collapse back on themselves.
If you’re using the meringue to top a pie, spread it over the filling while still hot—the hotter the better! This helps the bottom of the meringue cook. Use a rubber spatula to rapidly spread it quickly over the surface, avoiding the temptation to play with it too much. Make sure the meringue grips the edge of the crust, creating a seal so that when it cools it won’t shrink.
When browning the pie, use a relatively low temperature—325 degrees—for 20 to 30 minutes (an internal temperature of 160 degrees). If the meringue is under cooked, it will weep—exude drops of moisture on the surface. Some cooks mix in a teaspoon of cornstarch with the sugar before beating into the egg whites which will absorb extra moisture and help prevent this problem. Too hot of an oven will make the surface crunchy and the interior sticky and chewy. Italian meringue is preferable for topping Baked Alaska since it obviously must be browned quickly—under a broiler or in a very hot over—so that the sheathed ice cream doesn’t melt.
The technique to make schaum torte, vacherin and pavlova torte is the same, but the recipe will include vinegar or lemon juice. They are baked at a lower temperature—250 to 300 degrees—and longer—an hour or more, until thoroughly dry and crisp.
Unfortunately, meringue-topped pies are best stored at room temperature and therefore must be eaten as soon as possible. Regardless of what you do, if the pie is refrigerated it will weep. Meringue shells or layers made for the likes of shaum torte can be made a few days ahead and stored in an airtight container, but should always be filled at the last minute and then consumed promptly.
As with pie crust and so many other things, making perfect meringue requires practice. It’s as much about look and feel as good instruction. Whether meringue is the ‘next big thing’ I’m not so sure, but it’s just as welcome as it always has been.
RECIPE: Traditional Key Lime Pie
1 9-inch graham cracker crumb crust
4 large eggs, separated
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
4 teaspoon grated lime zest
14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
Preheat oven 350 degrees.
Combine 4 egg yolks, lime juice and zest in a mixing bowl and beat for several minutes until well combined. Beat in the condensed milk and heavy cream. Pour into the crumb crust. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and set on a rack.
Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees.
3 large egg whites at room temperature
Pinch of salt
1/4 teaspoon (rounded) cream of tartar
1/2 cup superfine granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Have all the meringue ingredients premeasured and utensils ready. About 5 minutes before its time to remove the pie from the oven, make the meringue:
Using an electric mixer beat the egg whites and salt at low speed until frothy. Add the cream of tartar and beat at medium speed until opaque. Beat in the sugar a teaspoon at a teaspoon at first, gradually adding more sugar—never more than a tablespoon at time. When all the sugar is incorporated, raise the speed to high and beat in the vanilla. Continue to beat until the meringue forms stiff, shiny peaks and the sugar is thoroughly incorporated. (If you rub a little meringue between your fingers you should feel no grit.)
Immediately, make mounds of meringue around the outside circumference of the warm pie, making sure that the filling is completely covered. Fill the center of the pie with meringue and shape with a rubber spatula. Return the pie to the 325-degree oven for 20 minutes or until an instant-read thermometer reaches 160 degrees when inserted in the center of the meringue. Cool on a rack and serve as soon as possible. Use a knife dipped in cold water to cut the pie.
Serves six to eight.