When you bite into a meringue, the delicately crisp exterior shatters lightly in your mouth. Inside is a pillowy soft sweetness that shimmers fleetingly on your tongue before dissolving into a happy memory.
It seems to defy the laws of physics that anything could be so light and airy. And for such a delicate treat to be so packed with flavor — it seems practically impossible.
The secret is no secret at all: It’s albumen, the white of an egg.
The scientific explanation for what happens when you whip an egg white can get a bit technical (the protein starts to denature, inviting tiny pockets of air to get trapped when it coagulates), but it basically comes down to this: egg whites are sticky, thick goo. Whipping them makes bubbles in the goo, which is so sticky and thick that the bubbles take a while to break.
Add some sugar — both for taste and to help stabilize the bubbles even further — put it in the oven at a low temperature to dry it out, and you have a delicious meringue treat that you can use for a seemingly limitless number of desserts. Top it with fruit and perhaps whipped cream, and you have a pavlova. Place it in a puddle of custard or berry sauce and you have a floating island. Shape them into nests and top them with ice cream, or mix them with cocoa and walnuts before baking for can’t-miss, totally addictive cookies.
Or perhaps you could try what some consider the very finest use of a meringue, the ultimate dessert: macarons.
Macarons (some also call them “macaroons,” but they are not to be confused with the dense coconut cookie of the same name) are two beguilingly puffy wafers sandwiched around a layer of chocolate, flavored cream, or jam. They are light and heavenly, and at the moment are just about the trendiest dessert in the world.
The wafers are made of almond meringue; that is, almond flour (which is nothing more than finely ground almonds) mixed into a meringue. The almond flour gives them more texture and a rounder flavor than just the ethereal effervescence of a plain meringue. They are great all the time, but I had been particularly craving them for a few weeks, ever since I made their heavier and denser cousins, marzipan cookies.
Kelly Wolfe, pastry instructor at Owens Community College, said it is always a good idea to start with egg whites that are at room temperature. That makes it easier to hold the air when you whip them, she said.
But she cautioned not to overwhip the egg whites. When the whites have been beaten too much, “they will get dry and spongy looking. They almost look like they curdled, they get very chunky. And there is really no way to bring them back,” she said.
You can tell they have been whipped to a proper consistency for meringues or macarons when they are glossy and white and have stiff peaks. That is, when you take the beater or whisk out of the whites and turn it over, the little peaks at the top keep their shape and do not move. Soft peaks, which is the point at which you often add sugar or flavorings, “will look like the end of ice cream when it comes out of the soft serve. The end will bend over a little bit,” Ms. Wolfe said.
The enemy of whipped egg whites is fat. Just a few drops of oil or butter in the bowl will keep the meringue from forming at all. For that reason, you should take special care when separating eggs to avoid mixing in any yolk with the whites. For that reason, Ms. Wolfe has her students use three bowls: one for the shells to be thrown out or composted later, one for the yolks, and one for the whites. If you add the whites to the mixing bowl after each egg, you won’t have to worry about contaminating more than one egg white with a yolk.
A little bit of yolk won’t hurt anything, she said, but don’t let too much slip in.
Regular meringues are so easy to make, I decided to make two different flavors, vanilla and lemon.Though not absolutely necessary, I added a pinch of cream of tartar to stabilize the whipped whites and keep them higher. Cream of tartar is an acid salt, Ms. Wolfe explained, so it increases the eggs’ ability to hold the air by upping their acidity; that is why some people choose to add a touch of vinegar to their egg whites when whipping them.
I wolfed down a bunch of the finished meringues just as they were and shared the majority with my colleagues (the full recipe makes about 40 of them), but I decided to get a little fancier and try a few of them in an orange sauce. The sauce turned out to be completely spectacular, and I can’t wait to try it with a host of other desserts. But with meringues it has the additional advantage of using up one of the egg yolks. That, and a lot of butter. Yum.
Making macarons took more effort than the meringues, but that was mainly because of my own stubbornness. I decided to make my own almond flour rather than buy it at a store. I blanched a bunch of raw almonds and painstakingly removed the skin of each one. Then I dried them for an hour or so on paper towels under a fairly hot light, and used a blender that is particularly suited to chopping dry ingredients to grind them into the right consistency.
Despite a sense of accomplishment and pride in a job well done, it frankly wasn’t worth the effort. Next time, I’ll just buy a bag at the grocery store. You can find almond flour for about $12-$15 a pound in the baking or gluten-free sections of most big grocery stores.
For a filling, I settled on chocolate ganache because, well, it’s chocolate ganache. Can anything be richer or more chocolatey than that? And it is so easy to make: Just heat cream in a double boiler, add chopped chocolate, and stir until it is smooth.
It’s a lush, luxurious chocolate filling. Could anything go better between macarons that are as light as air?
Contact Daniel Neman at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6155.
Crisp Chewy Meringues
4 egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla or orange flower water or maple extract, etc.
Pinch cream of tartar
2/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup confectioners' sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Cook's note: This recipe can be easily halved, which is helpful if you want to make two flavors.
Heat oven to 225°. Whip the egg whites with the salt to soft peaks, add the vanilla or other flavorings, and continue beating to stiff peaks. Stir the cream of tartar into the granulated sugar and whisk into the whites a spoonful at a time, until the sugar has dissolved and the meringue is stiff and glossy. Sift together the confectioners' sugar and cornstarch. Sift over the meringue, and gently fold until fully incorporated.
Pipe or spoon the meringues onto a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Bake until cream-colored and crisp on top when tapped, 1-1½ hours. Cool on the baking sheets. Store in an airtight container.
Serve plain, with ice cream, with custard, with pureed fruit, or with orange sauce, below.
Yield: About 36 golf ball-sized meringues
Source: French Taste, by Laura Calder
¾ cup sugar
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
¼ cup fresh orange juice (use blood oranges when available for a rosy color)
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
1 large egg yolk
3 large whole eggs
Pinch of kosher salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, whisk together the sugar, zest, orange juice, lemon juice, yolk, whole eggs, and salt. Add the butter and cook, stirring constantly, until the first sign of a boil, about 5 minutes. Remove the sauce from heat and strain into a bowl. Cool the sauce to room temperature and add the Grand Marnier. The sauce will keep for a week, covered, in the refrigerator, but is best served at room temperature.
Yield: About 2 cups
Source: Bistro Cooking at Home, by Gordon Hamersley, with Joanne McAllister Smart
1 cup almond flour
1¾ cups confectioners' sugar
3 large egg whites, room temperature (ideally, kept out overnight)
¾ cup sugar
Drops of food coloring, optional
½ cup cocoa powder OR 2 teaspoons vanilla extract OR the seeds from 1 vanilla bean OR 2 teaspoons coffee extract OR 2 teaspoons raspberry extract
In a food processor, combine the almond flour and confectioners' sugar and process until well combined, 90 seconds. If making chocolate macarons, add the cocoa powder to the blended mixture and stir. If making vanilla macarons with the vanilla bean, add the seeds. Pass the mixture through a fine sieve and set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, beat the egg whites on high speed until they form soft peaks. Reduce the speed to low and slowly add the granulated sugar. Increase the speed to high and beat until stiff glossy peaks are formed, 90 seconds to 2½ minutes. If using vanilla extract, coffee or raspberry extract, and/or food coloring, add now. Add the almond flour mixture all at once and beat until the mixture is just well combined, about 10 seconds. Do not allow the mixture to get soupy. Check by dropping 1 teaspoon on a flat surface. The mixture should spread slightly, not thin out. Surface marks should dissolve into the batter. If the mixture doesn't spread at all, give it a few more stirs and test again.
Transfer the mixture to a pastry bag fitted with a ¼-inch tip. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Anchor it at the corners with drops of the mixture. Pipe 1½ to 2-inch circles onto the paper. To do this easily, hold the bag at a 90-degree angle and squeeze it while keeping the tip stationary as the mixture spreads into a circle. Quickly lift the tip and form the next macaron. Let the macarons rest until their surfaces become dull and a crust forms, about 60 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 325°. Bake the macarons until the tops are completely dry and the macarons come off the paper easily without leaving any residue, 15-20 minutes. Transfer the macarons while still on the paper to a countertop. Cool and remove from the paper.
Fill the macarons with chocolate ganache (recipe below), lemon curd, lime curd, or jam such as raspberry, strawberry, or black currant.
To fill the macarons, turn them flat side down and pair them by matching size. Place 1-1½ teaspoons of filling on the bottom half of each pair, cover with the top half, and press to form a sandwich. The filling should be visible. Repeat with the remaining pairs. Refrigerate overnight and bring to room temperature before serving.
Yield: 24-30 macarons
Source: Kosher Revolution, by Geila Hocherman and Arthur Boehm
½ cup heavy cream
4 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
Heat cream in a double boiler or a saucepan set over simmering water. When cream is hot, remove from heat, add the chopped chocolate, and stir until the chocolate is melted and completely incorporated into the cream.
Yield: 1 cup
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