It’s hotly contested on what (or really who) started meringues, but one of the first recorded sighting of it was in 1691 by François Massialot. He, from what I could tell, was a pompous dude. He describes himself as “a cook who dares to qualify himself royal, and it is not without cause, for the meals which he describes…have all been served at court or in the houses of princes, and of people of the first rank”. And his library is filled with many leather bound books, and smells of rich mahogany.
It originally was called “white biskit bread” by a Lady Elinor Fettiplace in 1604, who wrote a similar recipe way before this well mustached man. But word “meringue” was a translation into an English version of Massialot’s cookbook stuck, and it since has hopped the pond and spread into the wide world of baking. It’s hard to imagine something more Southern (suth-thern) than a lemon meringue pie, or more Australian (er- New Zealandy) than a pavlova filled with kiwi & jam. Despite it’s European origins, this dessert has spread and become diverse. It’s easy to see why, as it’s so flexible and diverse of a platform for flavor. It was a favorite of Marie Antoinette (not surprising), and has since become something that can stand on it’s own.
When you talk to a baker and say the word “meringue” you usually will get a response of “what kind of meringue”? Usually they’re broken down into these three categories:
- The “basic” method. Fine white sugar is beaten into egg whites, and call it a day.
- The sugar is added in a boiling hot syrup, instead of fine sugar, and dripped into egg whites as they are beaten. Typically allows for more stable meringue, and it’s safe to use without cooking since usually putting yourself in hot sugar syrup will cook you “up real nice”. This is usually what you see in a pie or baked alaska.
- Eggs are whipped over a bain-maire (a hot tub for food) in a bowl until it’s cooled. Then it is baked.
If you’ve ever made macarons before, these classifications should look familiar. Macarons are a type of cookie that is layering almond meal in a meringue and cooking it, and most recipes specify if it’s Italian or French (I’ve yet to see a Swiss macaron style). That means it either uses sugar syrup or white sugar to make the meringue. Same thing happens with icing. There is a Swiss meringue icing and a Italian meringue using a syrup. These names are interesting to me, especially since I’ve yet to see any evidence that these standards are specific to a country. Now, it could be argued that very, very French recipes use the French method (I’m looking at you Mr. Dacquoise), but there’s flimsy evidence to suggest the other two. Either way, these are the terms commonly used in America.
There are a few (bajillion) variations on meringue as a technique, but we’re keeping it simple today. Let’s talk cookies.
Imagine a messy ball of yarn, one with little magnets stuck on the yarn along the way. This is what an egg white protein looks like in it’s normal state. Small, condensed, and linked together. What would happen if we wanted to unfurl this ball of yarn? Expand it until it was at it’s fluffiest, with those magnets linked end to end instead of pilednon top of each other? How would we do that?
In food science, this would be called denaturation. It’s a fun way of say that this yarn ball loses its structure, and can’t go back. In eggs, you can do that a number of ways. Heat it (fry that sucker up) where the proteins expand, and then they quickly link back up in other or new close links before they’re fully expanded (aka sunny side up or hard boiled). There’s of course a few chemical ways to do it using pH that look… gross. Then there’s physical force (whisking), that will unfold the proteins and expose some of their hydrogen bonds (magnets) for us to use. As we whip the egg white proteins, we’re forcing in air bubbles within those protein (or magnet) links. This separates the egg whites proteins and forces these guys to form around the air bubbles instead of sticking together.
In some locations that are more humid, cream of tartar is an acid that’s added to the egg whites before we whip it up. Many recipes require it. Why? Well potassium bitartrate (hence the name), the chemistry name for it, is a by product of wine making. Even though we are adding in air to separate everyone by whipping, they may form back together and create lumps in the meringue. Cream of tartar comes in to prevent those protein to protein connections. It’s like adding oils on our abused yarn magnet metaphor.
So let’s say we’ve whipped our eggs out, and the proteins are expanded. What is a good source to keep this ball of magnets from linking messily back together to the earth, or worse, falling and become a flat meringue (the horror!)? We’ll need a strong structure, one that hold itself up like a set of bricks. Like a crystal. Here comes, our savior, sugar.
That’s right, egg protein, sugar is here to help lift you up and whisk you off your feet (all while looking good doing it, wink). You’ll notice in the recipe that we add sugar after whisking up our eggs, this will be holding up our proteins in it’s new fluffy, white structure. We then cook the whole thing with heat to cement the bond. Too hot, and the sugar in our mixture will become caramel. Too cold, and it won’t harden. We have to find that Goldilocks point.
Here’s a good standard meringue recipe. They whip in chocolate chips for fun, and I quite like it. I’ve varied this up so many times by adding maple extract or sprinkles as you see in the photo. It’s a great base, and it’s pretty low on the calorie count which is always a plus.
- 4 egg whites, room temperature (very important!)
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 1/4 tsp. cream of tartar
- 1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
- 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
- 1 cup mini semisweet chocolate chips
- Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Line a baking sheet (or two) with parchment paper.
- Using a stand mixer, beat egg whites, salt, cream of tartar and vanilla on medium-high speed until soft peaks form.* Slowly add sugar and beat until stiff peaks form, about 5 minutes. Gently fold in chocolate chips by hand until combined.
- Drop batter by heaping tablespoon-fulls onto cookie sheet. Bake at 300 degrees F for 25-30 minutes until the cookies are cooked and slightly golden. Turn the oven off, and let the cookies cool in the oven for an additional 20-30 minutes until cool. Remove and serve immediately, or store in an airtight container.
Adapted from Gimme Some Oven
This other recipe is a little different than your standard, in that it caramelizes the sugar a bit before adding. I believe it adds a bit of flavor depth to the meringue, but dumping in a pile of vanilla won’t hurt anyone either. Here’s how mine ended up looking, sans vanilla. I didn’t miss it since they’re so sweet, and the cookies themselves are nice white since it’s a low temperature. This is a good recipe for those that was vibrant color on their cookies. It’s a bit different than your standard, but it’s from the Meringue Girls. If they don’t know what they’re doing with egg whites, then who am I to step in their way?
Soft(er) Meringue Cookies
The only note I would add is that these took me a while longer to bake, by the counts of 50 minutes. But, I also had them risen high and thicker than most meringue cookies, and the inside will have a softer side if you pipe them thick with a round tip, almost like a filling. You’ll get your usual crisp cookies if you use a star tip and do smaller sizes.
- 300 g superfine sugar (1 1/2 cups)
- 150 g egg whites (about 5 eggs)
- 1/8 or a pinch of cream of tartar
- 1 teaspoon clear vanilla extract (optional)
- food coloring (optional)
- Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper, pour in sugar and bake for about 5 minutes at 400 degrees F until the edges just begin to melt.
- Meanwhile, pour egg whites & cream of tartar into the bowl of your stand mixer (make sure it’s clean) fitted with the whisk attachment. Whisk by hand (or on low) at first until some yellow-white bubbles form to get it started and break up the tartar. Then switch to your mixer to whisk on high and continue whisking until stiff peaks form and you can turn the bowl upside down without the egg whites falling out.
- Remove the sugar from the oven and begin whisking again at high speed. Add one big spoonful at a time, ensuring that the whites come back to stiff peaks after each addition. Any sugar clumps can be smashed with the back of a spoon. If it’s too hard to break or too big, don’t throw it in. Once all the sugar is added, add your optional vanilla here, and continue to whisk for 5 – 7 minutes. You should be able to rub the mixture between your fingers and not feel any grit from the sugar. You know it’s ready to use when it forms a smooth peak on the tip of your finger. You’ll notice the batter is much shiner.
- Decrease oven temperature to 200 degrees F (you’ll need time for your oven to cool, so do it now). Line baking sheet with parchment paper. Place a dab of meringue on four corners of pan and press paper on top to hold it down flat.
- To stripe kisses, turn piping bag inside out and paint on 4-5 stripes of food coloring. Roll the bag so the painted side is inside and carefully spoon in meringue mixture so it is packed in tightly. Snip off the tip of the piping bag about an inch in diameter and pipe kisses on baking sheet.
- Bake at 200 degrees for 40+ minutes until the kisses can easily be lifted off the parchment paper with bases in tact. Let cool completely. Meringues stored in an airtight container will keep for up to two weeks.
Adapted from The Meringue Girls Cookbook
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