Arguably one of the prettiest desserts, the feather-light meringue with its crisp exterior and yielding center, possesses a dainty appeal. Finding a special place in the hearts of some of history’s most iconic queens, the meringue has exhibited powers far beyond the claim of most other desserts.
Marie Antoinette was said to be especially fond of the delicate sweet. Rumor has it that she even introduced it to the courts of France. The Queen even went so far as to make them herself on her pleasure farm (a romanticized, albeit fully-functioning peasant village created on the grounds of Versaille). Queen Elizabeth I, upon her first experience with a meringue, was said to have compared it to a kiss, so sweet and light did she find it.
So where did these confections that so beguiled Europe’s royal courts come from?
Some say Poland, where they site the Duke of Lorraine, Stanislas Leszcyński’s, chef as the original creator, but this story shares too many similarities with the creation of the Madeleine and so I am inclined to throw it out. This dismissal is not based on research or sound reasoning but simply an anthropomorphic need for variety. Though they say history is bound to repeat itself it doesn’t make for quite as interesting a narrative. And so I abandon the Polish tale in hopes that a more interesting story may in fact also be the true one.
Larousse, in his legendary book, Lá Gastronomiqué, purports that it was instead a Swiss pastry chef by the name of Gasparini, who lived and worked in the small town of Meiringen. The inspiration for the name was presumably solely based on location. Though documentation proving kinship remains non-existent, it is rumored that Gasparini was, in fact, the brother of Stromboli, the fiendish puppet master made famous for his villainous role in the animated Disney movie, Pinocchio.
Many believe that François Massialot, the French chef de cuisine to the Duke of Orleans wrote the first meringue recipe in 1692. However, two written documentations from England were found to predate his. The first came from Lady Elinor Fettiplace, dated 1604, who called her meringues “white bisket bread”. There has been speculation on how Fettiplace landed on the terms “biskit” and “bread” as her points of comparison for a meringue. Perhaps she was unintentionally misguiding her readers, or maybe in a perverse moment, she was circuitously seeking vengeance for her own absurd title…
The other recipe came from Lady Rachel Fane. Her instructions are very similar to Fettiplace’s but followed 43 years later. Lady Fane refers to her meringues as “pets” a title they still carry in certain parts of France. Pets translates into English as “farts”. Though vastly more repellent, I can more easily equate a fart with meringue than I can a loaf of bread.
Though origins remain elusive, the technical development of meringue follows a straightforward path and the methods created centuries ago are still in use today. Let us first examine the three stages of the free-flowing egg white. They are as reliable as the morning and the evening and always appear in the same order.
The Three Stages Of Meringue
Stage 1: Foamy
First the foamy stage, the egg whites will still be in liquid form, may be slightly yellow in color, but the surface should be fairly covered with large bubbles.
Stage 2: Soft Peaks
The egg whites will become white as protein structure develops and more air is incorporated. As your whisk moves through the meringue, you’ll see ribbons or lines trailing in its wake. This is the stage where you begin to add either your sugar or your hot syrup, depending on which meringue you are attempting to make. When you pull your whisk up from the bowl, a peak will form but won’t hold its shape for long.
Stage 3: Stiff Peaks
All of the sugar will have been incorporated by this point, and you will continue to beat the meringue until it reaches its full volume, sometimes this is as much as eight times the original. Thick, glossy, and with some integrity, now when you lift the whisk from the bowl, the peaks will completely hold their shape.
*Some cookbooks also reference “medium peaks” the short stage between soft and stiff that no one is ever trying to achieve. This is a stage that doesn’t warrant examination or further explanation.
The Three Forms of Meringue
Meringue is separated into three categories: French Meringue, Swiss Meringue, and Italian Meringue. Though each of the three meringues contains the same ingredients, the techniques to achieve them are notably different.
French Meringue or “ordinary” meringue as it is sometimes called, is the simplest of the three to prepare and the technique most commonly found in recipes, however, it is also the least stable. To prepare French Meringue, simply beat egg whites until you have achieved a soft peak. Slowly add in the sugar continuing to beat until you have achieved full volume and shiny peaks that stand at attention when you remove the whisk. The meringue is now ready for all kinds of uses. Generally, at this point, you would fold it into a cake batter, or pipe it into shells to make vacherins or kisses like the ones featured. The uses for a well made French Meringue are practically endless.
Swiss Meringue, starting with egg whites and sugar once again, this time you are preparing them over the simmering water of a bain-marie. Whisking them together until the amalgam turns frothy and hits 130-140℉. Once the temperature is reached, the froth is removed from the heat and beaten vigorously until it has cooled and achieved a stiff peak. The finished product should be shinier, and somewhat denser than the French alternative. This meringue is generally used as the base for buttercreams.
Italian Meringue, the final and some say trickiest to make, it is also my favorite. Made by pouring molten (240℉) sugar syrup into egg whites that have achieved the soft peak. Then continuing to whip until the meringue is shiny and voluminous and the mixture has cooled. Italian meringue is generally employed to frost cakes, either on its own or as the base to a buttercream. It can also be used to top pies, lighten ice cream and make mousses.
French (Meringue) Kisses
This recipe follows a 2:1 ratio, so however many egg whites you have simply double the amount of sugar. I encourage weighing your ingredients whenever possible, it helps with accuracy.
1½ cups (300g) Sugar
⅔ cup (150g) Egg Whites
¼ teaspoon Cream of Tartar
½ teaspoon (Extract of your Choosing)
Preheat your oven to 400℉, then line a large baking tray with parchment. Be sure to use enough that the edges are coming out over the sides of the tray. Add your sugar directly to this tray and place it in the oven. Roasting your sugar prior to using it does two things: firstly it allows the sugar to dissolve in the egg whites more easily ensuring a silky texture, and secondly, it slightly lessens the sweetness of the sugar. In a recipe where sugar is the main ingredient, that is a good thing.
While the sugar is roasting, add your egg whites to the bowl of a standing mixer or if using a hand mixer use a large preferably metal or glass bowl (plastic can harbor residue from fats and oils that will sabotage the whipping of your eggs whites).
Starting on a medium-low speed allow the eggs to reach the frothy stage before cranking up the speed, beating until you have achieved stiff peaks.
At this point remove the hot sugar from the oven and turn the heat down to 200℉. Begin adding the hot sugar to the beaten egg whites in a slow stream, pausing now and again to allow the whites to reassume stiff peaks. Once the sugar is all incorporated continue to whisk for approximately five minutes. The mixture should be smooth, stiff, and glossy. Double checking that all the sugar is dissolved is a good idea. Do this by rubbing a bit of the meringue between your fingers, if there is still some grittiness from the sugar, continue to mix. Only once the meringue is completely smooth is it done.
You are now ready to employ your French Meringue however you see fit. If making meringue kisses, you can now flavor your meringue with natural extracts. I used rose water in half and peppermint in the other half. I also tinted each with a small amount of food coloring gel to help differentiate the flavors before filling my pastry bag. The piping is by far the most enjoyable part of the experience and should be savored. Experiment with different tips and shapes. Try striping the interior of the bag with food coloring to achieve a unique appearance.
Once all the meringues have been piped, place them in your oven and allow them to bake undisturbed for 35-45 minutes.