A Lesson: Meringue

Submitted 7 months ago
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While attending culinary school, it became quickly and aggressively apparent that food and pastry as we know it would be nothing without Europe. I can’t slam the US though- have you heard of Betty Crocker?! But when it comes to pastry, the EU has got it on lock.

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Pardon the most obvious expression, but who takes the cake? If you ask the French, it’s the French. Asking an Italian? It’s Italy- you see where I’m going. Though, in the case of certain delicacies, origins are truly unknown and it’s hard to give credit to one country over another. Especially in the case of meringue.

At its core, meringue is basic. Egg whites, sugar, and an acid are manipulated in such a way that yield cloudy confections that make you question if you’re a wizard and not a Muggle after all. Perhaps that’s just me, (still waiting on my Hogwarts letter) but I digress.

Some accepted history explains that meringue was created in the 17th century in the Swiss village of Meiringen by a pastry chef named Gasparini, who, you guessed it, was Italian. If we’re to believe this version of events, Gasparini then took this creation back to Italy, giving us both the Italian method and the Swiss method.

To muddy the waters further, it seems that versions of meringue appeared in English and French cookbooks sooner in the 1600’s than Gasparini’s creation. I know, I know, who the heck really knows?! What we do know, though, is that we have three commonly accepted versions of meringue:

FRENCH – whip egg whites until frothy- add granulated sugar gradually- whip on med-high to stiff peak stage         

SWISS – warm egg whites and granulated sugar over water bath until warm- whip on med-high                         to stiff peak stage

ITALIAN – heat granulated sugar and water to 240*- whip egg whites to soft peak- drizzle syrup into egg whites slowly- whip on med-high speed to stiff peak stage

…and if we would like to split hairs (we would) then we have a fourth iteration:

VEGAN **not a place in Europe** made by replacing egg whites with liquid reserved from canned chickpeas (aquafaba) for real!– whip aquafaba until frothy- add granulated sugar gradually- whip on med-high until stiff peak stage

All versions serve a purpose and the basic three are applied in the pastry world on a regular basis. Let’s have a look, shall we?

FRENCH: Macarons, not to be confused with the beloved coconut macaroon, are the fancy French sandwich cookies that have had a resurgence in the past few years. To create that crunchy shell, the French meringue method is employed in the first step followed by a delicate folding in of almond flour and confectioners’ sugar.

French Macarons

ITALIAN: Buttercream comes in all shapes, forms, and origins just like meringue (we’ll save that lesson for another day). Italian buttercream relies on a sugar syrup stabilized meringue to create a creamy base that is then inundated with a healthy amount of butter.

Italian Buttercream

SWISS: Around the 1870’s, everybody and their brother was floored by the invention of the Baked Alaska. Ice cream was encased by a thick layer of meringue and then torched to oblivion, creating an unheard-of dessert. The Swiss meringue method created the necessary stability that is also utilized in meringue covered pies.

To prove that all meringue is not created equally, I put one recipe to the test using the three methods:

While it may not be apparent at first, there were huge deviations in definition and texture. The Italian method yielded a chewier cookie that was tackier to the touch than the others, most likely due to the sugar syrup base. The French method, while not as tacky, lacked definition, but still had a nice crunch. All in all, the Swiss method passed each test with flying colors. The definition remained just as it did when piped before baking and there wasn’t any tackiness. Most importantly, they had a perfect crunch and melted in your mouth as a meringue cookie should.

I realize it’s gauche to play favorites, but when it comes to meringue cookies, the Swiss method is my #1. If the idea of sugar syrups and water baths are daunting, though, I would recommend experimenting for yourself to get a feel for what method may be best for you. And if you’re indecisive maybe just throw caution to the wind and apply all the techniques in one go- so as to not offend your French, Italian, Swiss, and/or vegan friends:

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