I first learned to make meringues in Paris some twenty years ago. And while I’ve modified the recipe somewhat, it’s still one I use often. I love whipping egg whites and sugar into billowy clouds that bake into lighter-than-air crisp confections. I can pipe different shapes and add flavorings as I please, and I can keep the meringues for weeks in airtight containers.
To make a meringue, I use about twice as much sugar as egg whites. That may seem like a lot of sugar, but you need it to stabilize the whites and give them structure. During long baking at a low temperature, the water in the meringue slowly evaporates, leaving the cookie light and crisp all the way through. For the best texture and the lightest meringue, I use a mix of superfine sugar (it dissolves better than granulated) and confectioners’ sugar (the cornstarch in it helps to ensure an especially light meringue).
Simple steps for successful meringues
Before you start, remember two important things. First, your bowl and beater should be impeccably clean. Any speck of grease will keep the egg whites from expanding properly. A quick rinse with a little white vinegar and some water will do the trick. Be sure to dry the equipment well. Second, your ingredients should be at room temperature to get the best volume out of your meringue. Since it’s easier to separate whites from yolks when they’re cold, go ahead and separate your eggs straight out of the refrigerator. Then let your whites warm to room temperature in a bowl, or put the bowl over warm water to speed the process.
One note: Don’t try to make meringues on a very humid day. The humidity can prevent the meringues from ever getting crisp.
1. Add a little cream of tartar to your egg whites before you begin mixing. It will strengthen the whites and help to maintain the structure of your meringues.
2. When the whites are very foamy—almost at the stage where they form soft, floppy peaks—begin adding the sugar gradually. Turn up the speed on the mixer as you add the sugar.
3. Since the sugar helps stabilize the egg whites, this is one time when you don’t have to be cautious about beating—you want to whip the mixture until glossy, firm peaks form. At this point, stir in the vanilla and the chopped nuts.
4. Fit a pastry bag with a wide star tip. Twist the bag slightly just over the tip and stuff the twist into the tip. Fold the bag over one hand and spoon the meringue into it with a rubber spatula. Fill the bag about halfway and twist it shut. Untwist the part over the tip and squeeze out some meringue to remove any air bubbles.
Piping meringue shapes
After filling your pastry bag, you’re ready to pipe and bake. To pipe, squeeze gently with the hand that holds the top of the bag. Use your other hand to guide the tip. Practice piping on a sheet of parchment, and then line baking sheets with parchment and pipe shapes until you’ve used all the meringue. This meringue makes lovely little cookies in a variety of sizes and shapes. Don’t worry if the shapes aren’t perfect -- bake them all anyway; they’ll be delicious. If you’re aiming for consistency, use a template and a pencil to draw circles or other shapes on the parchment to guide your piping.
Hold the bag perpendicular to the pan and squeeze gently from the top of the bag. Lift the bag straight up while releasing pressure to let a peak form.
Pipe as if you were making kisses. After the first pipe, release pressure, but instead of removing the bag, push it ever so slightly back into the base, and squeeze another, slightly smaller kiss on top; if you like, make a third, even smaller layer (see the very top photo).
Gently pipe ladyfinger shapes with even pressure, lifting the tip slightly as you finish. Use ladyfingers to decorate cakes or make ladyfinger sandwiches from two to serve with ice cream.
Pipe a round of meringue as the base for a nest; then pipe the sides. Fill cup-size nests with a winter fruit compote or a scoop of ice cream and a drizzle of chocolate sauce.