Food by itself holds less value unless dipped in memories. My first memory of meringue dates back to this Christmas party at the tea estate club when I was a little girl. Can’t remember the exact year, what I wore or the gifts I received. All I remember is being seated at the kid’s round table and this lady in green sari placing a silver tray filled with these little white swirls in front of us. I had never seen anything like it before. And as I took my first bite, the crisp texture easy loosened up and immersed my mouth in absolute sweetness. What were these little treats, I kept questioning again and again as I munched more.
(Pic, from left: Walnut Meringue at The Humming Tree; and Lemon Meringue Pie at Cafe Noir)
Meringue continues to fascinate bakers and food enthusiasts alike. The many adaptations and reinventions over the years have transformed this simple egg whites and powdered sugar recipe to a gourmet delight. I remember the time when mom and I discovered that “those little, white, crispy, sugary treats” were called meringue or white biscuit bread in a recipe book gifted by a friend. The French meringue recipe had seemed too simple to be true. Excitedly I had set out to bake my first batch only to be hugely disappointed as they turned out brown in colour and chewy! I must admit that I hadn’t followed the recipe as instructed because according to me, the measure for sugar had seemed outrageous and so had the baking time. One and a half hours for something so tiny! This was when I learned (the hard way) that baking was all about the right proportions and technique ofcourse.
Amongst the many sinful variations of meringue based desserts, Baked Alaska fascinates me the most. The technique of baking an ice cream cake without making a mess of it is commendable. This recipe mainly involves the Italian meringue technique where hot sugar syrup is whisked with the egg whites rather than castor sugar resulting in a more stable meringue. Charles Ranhofer (Chef at the famous Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York) had created this dessert in 1876 to celebrate the purchase of Alaska from the Russians by the United States of America. Marcus Eaves (Head Chef of the Michelin-starred L’Autre Pied in London) is credited for bringing this dessert to the modern dining table with an interesting twist. In his version, he substitutes the sponge base with an almond biscuit, infuses a burst of flavours to the ice-cream core and serves it with a fruit consomme to tone down the sweetness. Other noted chefs have tried to play around with flavouring the ice cream core or the meringue in an attempt at reinvention. Such as Waylynn Lucas (Pastry Chef of Fonuts in Los Angeles) in her much loved Coconut Baked Alaska with Pineapple Meringue and Stefano Faita (America’s CBC’s host of the popular TV series, In The Kitchen With Stefano Faita) in his Cappuccino Baked Alaska.
Pavlova is another favourite in desserts. Named after the Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova, the meringue base topped with seasonal fruits and whipped cream is perfect for an afternoon treat. In an earlier work assignment I had witnessed Chef Manjit Singh (Herbs & Spice and now The Humming Tree, Bangalore), demonstrating the step-by-step process to making a pavlova. It had seemed effortless! Within 15 minutes the prep was done and the pavlova was in the oven. And while we peeled and sliced the seasonal fruits along with good conversations, it was ready to be served. After trying the recipe at home, I can now say that pavlova is easy to make. Only trick is getting the right consistency of the egg whites and sugar mix. Another dessert Chef Singh is popularly known for in Bangalore is the Walnut Meringue. Light, crisp and delicious!
Cafe Noir, the popular Bangalore haunt for sinful desserts, serves a delightful Lemon Meringue Tart. Pastry Chef Bruno Le Francois uses the Switzerland meringue recipe wherein the egg whites and sugar are warmed over a bain-marie before whisking it. This results in a glossy marshmallow-like meringue. Somehow I have never had the courage to try this method. He also uses almond powder in the meringue to obtain a crunchy texture and lend an interesting flavour to the dessert.
While browsing online some months back, I had chanced upon Maria Elia’s (Head Chef, Delfina Gallery, London) Soft Meringue Roulade with Apricot and Mascarpone Cream in The Guardian. It was taken from her book, The Modern Vegetarian. Just the thought of it had my mouth watering. And so did the Lemon Meringue Cupcake by Isabella (Winner, Junior MasterChef Australia 2010). I love recipes that make you forget everything else and absorb you completely in its components and flavours with just the mention of its name. I am yet to try these two at home though. Hopefully soon! From my experience, a little patience and the right measures make the perfect meringues. So, let’s bake!