I come from a family of serious meringue fans, the marriage of whisked egg whites and caster sugar, the crispy meringue shells, dried in the oven overnight and sandwiched with thick cream and topped with fresh berries and the show-stopping Pavlova with its chewy, marshmallow-like center. To make them chewy, we add cornflour and vinegar to the whipped-up sugar and egg whites. My mum makes an epic Pavlova and my Aunty Mary ate nearly a whole one for her eightieth birthday.
There is an old saying that you need ‘old eggs and a clear day’ to make a good meringue, certainly meringues are best made from older eggs, the runny whites are easier to whisk up, and frozen egg whites work very well so keep them from other recipes such a Sable pastry labelled in the freezer until needed, but allow to thoroughly defrost and reach room temperature before attempting the recipe.
There are several recipes for meringue in a professional kitchen including using super-hot sugar syrup ( Italian or Swiss Meringue ) but you can use one technique and warm your caster sugar on a baking tray in a hot oven, before adding to the egg whites, this helps the sugar dissolve quicker and the finished meringue will shrink less ( ideal for when you are making a Lemon Meringue Pie ). Golden caster sugar will make your finished meringue a darker colour but adds a delicious caramel flavour.
Finally, your meringues don’t have to be picture perfect remember you can just use some more cream to cover up cracks and flaws and if in the worst case just turn them into Eton Mess.
Use scrupulously clean bowls, any grease in the bowl will stop your egg whites properly expanding. Rubbing your bowl with half a cut lemon can help, but make sure you wipe it really dry with kitchen roll afterward.
It is an old habit I have but whenever I am baking I always crack the eggs individually into a small separate bowl. This means if you get a bad egg which happens occasionally you can avoid contaminating the rest of a bake. If a little egg yolk gets into the white, try to remove it with half of the cracked eggshell. If the yolk gets broken and mixed into the white, start again.
Be careful not to over-beat the egg whites. Whisk them until they hold firm peaks when the whisk is removed from the bowl. If you over‑whip them the finished texture will be grainy.
Cooking meringues is a process of trial and error and getting to know your oven. You don’t need a fan just an even heat. I have relatives and friends who have used the warm section of an Aga cooker, a plate warmer and an airing cupboard to dry out their meringues!
Classic Meringue Recipe
The simple ratio to remember is double the weight of sugar to egg whites.
300 gr Caster Sugar ( golden if you prefer a more caramelised flavour and colour )
The whites of 5 free-range Eggs, at room temperature
Half a fresh Lemon
Pre-heat your oven to 200 C / 400 F / Gas Mark 6, and spread the Caster sugar over an oven tray lined with baking paper and heat in the oven for five minutes. Meanwhile, wipe the inside of your mixing bowl with the cut lemon and add the egg whites. Whisk up to a foam, then carefully remove the sugar from the oven and tip a third into the egg whites continuing to mix constantly ( you may need help if you are using a hand mixer ). Add the remaining sugar and continue whisking until the mixture has cooled, and is glossy and will hold its shape.
Turn the oven down to its lowest setting. Line a baking tray with non-stick baking paper, and spoon the meringue mix on, remember to leave sufficient gaps as they will increase in size as they dry out. Place them into the oven and bake until they are crisp on the outside, and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom, depending on their size, this could take four to six hours. Turn the oven off and leave the meringues in there until it has cooled, then immediately transfer to an air-tight container.