How to master the modern meringue

Strawberry and burnt meringue
Meringue is back on the menu, and here is how to master it  Credit: Andrew twort

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the definition of a dessert is 'the sweet course eaten at the end of a meal,' but if you were to watch last night’s episode of the Great British Bake Off, where the six remaining bakers were given a set of challenges for ‘dessert week’ including: a layered meringue cake signature; a technical of layered verrine housing panna cotta, jelly and sablé biscuits; and a celebratory bombe showstopper, ‘anything straight from the back of a retro sweet trolley’ might be a little more fitting.

Meringue - a dessert rooted in French, Swiss and Italian cuisine of whipped egg whites, sugar and stabilisers - is enjoying one of the greatest culinary comebacks of the last decade. Formerly an outmoded conclusion to dinner parties throughout the 70’s and 80’s, this iconic dessert is now considered a chic addition to the table. This renaissance is thanks, in part, to the towering piles of giant glossy meringues, heavy with notes of exotic rosewater, orange blossom and a generous scattering of pistachios created by food writer and chef Yotam Ottolengi for his London-based delis.

Ottolenghi’s meringues piqued the interest of the public because they were a different kind of beast; they were colossal, exotic and certainly not the traditional fare that dominated sections of classic cookbooks by Delia Smith and Mary Berry. The public welcomed the modern interpretation. And not long after, shops from Waitrose to Selfridges began to stock the dessert in all sizes and flavours. 

The ingredients needed for a meringue, being so simple, mean that it is a great vehicle for the exotic. Versions containing blood orange, fragrant fennel and yuzu have become well-loved additions to the British culinary repertoire. Modern home cooks are far more likely to try out twists on classic recipes, often taking inspiration from the colourful cuisine of the Middle East. 

It is also thanks to the invention of electric whisks (namely KitchenAid, a powerhouse for home bakers) that is has never been easier to create one yourself. “What really fascinates me about pavlova  is the extent to which it owed its growing popularity to the spread of new technology,” says Stephen Harris, chef and owner of The Sportsman in Seasalter, “I can’t imagine many home cooks being keen on whisking whites to the hard peaks required by hand. Just the thought of making meringues with the old “birch twig” type of whisk makes my arm ache.”

French, Italian or Swiss? 

Meringue, in all of its guises, from pavlova to layered cake, relies on a blueprint recipe that has remained unchanged and these fall under the following categories. 

French meringue

The most basic of the trio, this method requires the eggs to be beaten until they coagulate and form soft peaks, at which point the sugar is added until it becomes airy and light (standing upright when the whisk is lifted).

This version is perfect for piping into different forms or cake layers (such as a dacquoise), or baking. The light texture is also beneficial for batters, adding lightness to any sponge. 

Swiss meringue

This is made by gently beating egg whites and sugar in a pan that sits above boiling water, without touching it. When the mixture reaches around 48.8C and the sugar is completely dissolved, it is taken off the heat and beaten to attain full volume and then at a lower speed until cool and very stiff. This version is smooth, soft and slightly thicker than French meringue, which makes it perfect as a base for buttercream.

Italian meringue

Drizzle scorching sugar syrup into whites that have already been whipped to hold firm peaks. The mixture must be whipped until the meringue stands in satiny peaks. This kind is popular for cakes (as a frosting), pavlovas or to lighten ice creams, sorbets, and mousses.

Though French, Italian or Swiss meringues all have a reputation for being difficult, once you nail the blueprint, they’re surprisingly easy to master and cost effective.

Chefs' tips

“They are the perfect choice for financially strapped chefs, being cheap to make (two ingredients: eggs and sugar) and needing no specialist equipment,” says Alex Hoffler and Stacey O’Gorman, founders of The Meringue Girls. “We’ve created a cross between Swiss and Italian meringue, as we knew the three methods so we kept experimenting until we found the perfect formula.” Hoffman and Gorman suggest heating the sugar in the oven until it begins to caramelise before adding it to stiff egg whites, as this will result in shinier, smoother results. 

For Flora Shedden, food writer and GBBO finalist, it’s all about the ingredients. “In my mind, the key to a good meringue is to use good quality eggs,” she says, “use a good quality large egg, with a shell that breaks easily. It is also important not to over-whisk, as this can affect the end result.

"You are looking for glossy peaks with a smooth texture when rubbed between two fingers. And finally, low and slow is crucial – never try to hurry a pavlova as it will crack and you will lose that delicious soft centre.” Shedden’s simple meringue recipe, shared below, is a great introduction to the dessert. 

The naturally sweet flavour is complemented by syrup and fruit, but don’t be afraid to give your creation a bit of a zing. Telegraph columnist Diana Henry suggests using brown sugar instead of white to give a deep caramelised flavour alongside blood orange compote the shade of claret, or flecked with fennel with ripples of lemon curd – an idea she admits is stolen from meringue master Ottolenghi himself. 

Here, we’ve rounded up our very best meringue recipes from pavlova to cake for home cooks to try at home, and a simple meringue recipe shared below. 

Simple meringue recipe by Flora Shedden 

Credit:  Andrew Crowley

MAKES

enough for one pavlova or 30-40 meringue kisses


INGREDIENTS

  • 4 large egg whites (approximately 150g)
  • 300g caster sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla bean paste
  • ½ tsp white wine vinegar
  • ½ tsp cornflour

METHOD

  1. Place the egg whites in the bowl of a free-standing mixer. Whisk on full speed until soft peaks form.
  2. Add the sugar one tablespoon at a time with mixer still running, making sure it is well incorporated before you add the next spoonful. This takes around five minutes.
  3. Turn the mixer off and feel a bit of the meringue between two fingers. If it is still grainy, continue to whisk. Once silky-smooth to touch, add the vanilla, vinegar and cornflour and whisk again briefly. This is now ready to use.

Have you had any meringue horrors? Let us know in the comments.