Thursday, 20 June 2013

Fool-Proof Meringue (Unless You're a Really Foolish Fool)

Apologies for lack of photos! That will be amended tomorrow when the camera is out of camera hospital (ie. my Dad's workshop).

How to make meringue; the ultimate question. For something so simple in theory, it is notorious for going very, very wrong very, very often. It's either too dry, or too sticky, or it gets too burnt, or melts all over the oven, sets too hard, sets too soft among other numerous problems.

I have found, however, that once you conquer a few little factors the perfect meringue will materialise as if by magic! The two factors are, like with any recipe under the sun, the recipe itself and the method by which it is made. I know I sound like Captain Obvious, but making meringues can be a delicate process that can be very easily upset if handled to roughly. So, onto my own personal recommendations:

INGREDIMENTS

The most basic formula for meringues, which is a time-tested staple to any cookery book, is 2 ounces (55 grammes) of caster sugar to 1 large egg white; 1 large egg white weighs roughly 1 ounce (30 grammes). That simple. However, there is a small issue with using just these two ingredients: it's not stable enough.

Have you ever made a meringue that collapses after baking, or one that goes all soggy a few hours later, or one that's crisp outside but wet and gummy in the middle? These are all results of the meringue separating during cooking: the sugar, water and protein have not bonded properly, meaning that the protein contracts, squeezing all the water out, and the sugar crystallises. This is bad juju.

The way to stop a meringue from separating is to stabilise it using one simple ingredient: an acid of any kind. The acid breaks down the protein allowing it to hold onto the sugar and water more easily, and then cook into shape while in the oven. For each egg white, use 1 pinch of cream of tartar, 3 drops of lemon juice or 3 drops of white vinegar. That's all that's needed.

If you want to make it even more stable, you can also add ¼ teaspoon cornflour. But, more on that in the...

METHOD
That there are two methods that work every time, no matter what you're doing.

METHOD A
Method A is the traditional French meringue. Because it's still technically raw on going into the oven to bake and needs to cook for quite a while, it is best suited for little meringues or pavlova bases.

  • First of all, prepare your mixing bowl. Don't use plastic, as the surface can be too uneven; the best materials to use are either glass or metal. Take some kitchen roll, dampen it with a small amount of lemon juice or vinegar, and clean the inside of the bowl. This is to remove any shred of any trace of oil, which is the enemy of a successful meringue.
  • Separate the eggs, put the egg whites into the bowl, and leave to sit at room temperature for an hour. If you can do this step a few days before you need to make the meringue, even better (obviously, keep them in the fridge until the aforementioned hour before cooking). The older the whites, the bigger the fluff.
  • Before you begin preparing the meringue, preheat your oven to 120°C (250°F, Gas Mark ¼, very slow)
  • Mix the lemon juice and cornflour together, and mix into the egg whites until fully mixed in.
  • Using a balloon whisk (for masochists) or an electric hand mixer, beat the egg whites on high speed until they reach the soft peak stage. Soft peaks stage is where the egg whites have turned completely into a dense foam, leaving no liquid behind, and on pulling out the whisk, a little peak is left behind that flops over.
  • At this stage, running the mixer on medium speed, add in the caster sugar 1 tablespoon at a time until fully mixed in.
  • Halfway through adding the sugar, add in the cornflour and acid (whether it be cream of tartar, lemon juice or vinegar). Continue adding the sugar as you were.
  • Continue whisking the mixture until stiff peaks stage is reached. Having added the sugar, the dense bubbly foam that you had should have become a shiny, thick, glossy mass, and on pulling the whisk out of the mixture, a peak should be left behind that stands up completely straight. This might take a while to achieve, so don't feel like it's taking too long.
  • You now have meringue mixture to do with whatever you will (see baking instructions below)


METHOD 2
Method B is known as Swiss meringue. This is partially cooked over a bain-marie, which makes it suitable for recipes where the meringue isn't cooked for very long such as lemon meringue pie or baked Alaska. This method is a little trickier, but makes a more sturdy meringue. 

  • Like with the first method, separate the eggs, leave them, and preheat the oven. You can slow cook this like in method A, or you can set your oven to up to 180°C (350°F, Gas Mk.4, or moderate) to toast it quickly for a pie topping or Baked Alaska.
  • The next step is to set a medium saucepan to simmer gently with about 2 inches (5 centimeters) of water in it. If you're afraid of cooking the egg whites, you can actually bring the water to a rough simmer then turn the heat off altogether.
  • Into the eggs, add all the sugar and mix until the sugar is incorporated. Place the bowl on top of the saucepan and mix the eggs and sugar gently with a wooden spoon until the sugar has dissolved. Don't allow the water in the saucepan to boil, or you'll end up with sweet scrambled egg-whites.
  • Once the sugar has dissolved into the egg whites, remove the bowl from atop the saucepan and beat relentlessly with a balloon whisk (for masochists) or electric hand mixer until the stiff peaks stage is reached. This can take from ten minutes to fifteen, depending on the strength your hand mixer; using your hand will take substantially longer, something more like the rest of your life.
  • Once soft peaks are achieved, add in your cornflour and acid. Continue beating until firm peaks are formed, which is a tiny little bit floppier than firm peaks. Because the mixture is slightly warm, full stiff peaks cannot be achieved using this method; believe me, I've tried.
  • You now have meringue mixture to do with whatever you will (see baking instructions below)


PREPARATION FOR BAKING
  • Line your baking tray(s) with non-stick paper, like waxed or silicone paper, and prepare your meringue mixture however you want, just make sure the meringue is no deeper than 1 or 2 inches (2.5 to 5 centimeters), otherwise it won't cook properly.
  • You could also put the mixture into a piping bag fitted with a 1/2 inch (1 centimeter) nozzle.
  • Cook for at least 30 minutes, until dry. The larger ones will obviously take longer, and I have notes on that below.

BAKING TIMES
Baking times depend on how dry you want your meringues to be. If you want them a little soft in the middle, bake them for the shorter time, but if you like them almost completely dried out, bake them for the longer time. Obviously, the higher you make your piles of meringue will increase the baking time: a thin meringue cooks faster than a fat one, no matter how wide it is. The best way to tell if the meringue is cooked is:
  • Fully dry and matte on the outside.
  • Hollow sounding when tapped on the bottom.
  • Not in any way sticking to the paper, almost as if it's just resting on the paper.

However, for the pedantic, here are some rough guidelines:
  • Little meringues, about 2 inches across, take about 45 minutes to an hour.
  • Medium sized meringues, about 4 or 6 inches across, take anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half.
  • Large, pavlova sized meringues 6 or more inches across, can take an hour and a half, but try not to leave it in any longer as it'll begin to colour too much.

COOLING
Take the meringue(s) off the tray and cool on a wire rack to cool completely. Because the meringue(s) is quite porous, it won't take long to cool, maybe 20 minutes.

WHAT THEN?
What you do with your meringues now is completely up to you! Smother them in cream and coat them with berries, or drizzle them with melted chocolate, the possibilities are endless. They're even pretty nice on their own!

I hope this little thesis answers all the questions you have on baking meringues, however if there is any base I have left uncovered please do not hesitate to ask me any questions!

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