I have said – boasted, even – elsewhere that the only electrical device I use in a kitchen is a hand-held immersion blender. A cheap one, to boot, a €10 device bought from Lidl, Europe’s favourite discount supermarket chain.
This is a lie.
I also have a hand-held mixer. For mixing cake mix and for whipping up meringues.
But that’s all.
I have an excuse. A reason. A medical note, even, for straying from the hand-beaten path: carpal tunnel syndrome. 25 years typing on keyboards as a journalist followed by 7 years chopping, cutting and dicing ingredients in restaurant kitchens did for both my wrists. To the point, in fact, that I have permanently lost a sizeable portion of the use of both hands, even after corrective surgery, and am now declared officially Unfit For Kitchen Work by the Medecin de Travail, the work doctor whose word is law in France. It would actually be illegal for me to work as a professional restaurant cook now.
This is all a long way round to say that I use a hand mixer to make meringues. Making meringues is the only time in my life when I wish I had a stand mixer, a big old Kenwood like my mother had for 20 years before giving it to me and which I wore out after another 10 years of use.
And then I think about the other things I’d rather do with €500 and continue holding on to the hand mixer as it beats the meringue mix until my wrists simply can’t take it any more. Yes, even holding an electric mixer is painful, which is why I wish I had a stand mixer.
But, as the French say, you can’t have your butter and the money for the butter so I spend that €500 on something more useful, like food for my children or books. Mostly books, actually. And foie gras.
Meringues are not really difficult to make: you use the egg whites left over after making crème brulée, crème anglaise, crème pâtissière, crème whatever. You add 75g of sugar per egg white little by little as you beat the egg whites. That’s it.
Well, OK, there are a few points.
First, when you’ve finished separating the whites from the yolks, making sure there’s no yolk at all in the whites, put the whites in the fridge. Get them and the bowl you’re going to beat them in nice and cold. Same as for whipping cream, cold is your friend. Put the beaters for your mixer in there too if you like, can’t do any harm. Make sure everything is scrupulously clean. Then you’ll have only yourself to blame when it doesn’t work.
Start beating the whites on the lowest speed to break them up a little, throwing in a couple of pinches of salt. For the 12 whites I used in this recipe, I put three decent three-finger pinches.
When they’ve broken up, turn the speed up on high and start pouring in the sugar. I do this from the packet – the recipe calls for 75g of sugar per white so 12 x 75 = 900g. I put 100g into my vanilla sugar box and just poured the rest of the 1kg packet into the meringue mix bit by bit.
So, this will make French meringue. It gets fairly stiff and will hold a medium peek, but as you can see in this picture they don’t always hold up perfectly after piping them out:
Some do, some don’t. Your piping technique will also have an effect, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.
If you want good, stiff peaks and meringues that hold their shape then you need to make Italian meringues, not French ones. The ingredients are the same except to make Italian meringues you need to heat the sugar to 115°C, which is quite hot. You slowly drizzle this hot sugar into your beaten egg whites as you keep stirring, which is hard to do if you don’t have either a stand mixer or a third hand. Or a commis. I have a commis but she’s 8 years old and I’m reluctant to let her near molten sugar.
So, French meringue it is. As you can maybe see in the picture above, the meringue should take on a glossy sheen when it’s getting towards being beaten enough. And, of course, when you lift the whisk up the mix should form a peak which holds its shape well.
There are schools of thought about when to add the sugar – before, during, after or a combination thereof. Me, I get it going and then as the egg whites start to get their form I start drizzling in the sugar, slower or quicker depending on my mood and what’s on the radio.
The real secret to meringues, if there is one, is to beat them for MUCH longer than you think is necessary. Time yourself and see how long it takes to get them to the point where you think they’re OK; now beat them for the same amount of time again. They’ll get much stiffer. Me, I beat them until I can’t bear to hold the mixer any longer and my 8-year-old commis has gone to make meringues in her Minecraft kitchen.
And then you pipe them out onto a baking sheet or dollop them onto it with a big spoon
You see giant dolloped-with-a-big-spoon meringues in many French patisseries being sold pretty cheaply, €1-€1.50 each as the patissiers try to get rid of their excess egg whites – most creams and crèmes are made with just egg yolks so there’s always a surplus of whites. Which is why, incidentally, there’s a wealth of patissiers around the Seine river in Paris: vintners importing wine by barge from Burgundy and Bordeaux into the capital used egg whites to clarify their wines, giving them an excess of egg yolks which were snapped up cheaply by medieval patissiers who set up shop near the river.
Anyway, choose the form you like.
The results go into the oven to dry, not bake – if they’re coloured at all they’re overcooked – at 80°C for 3-6 hours, depending on their size.
Professional patissiers and restaurant kitchens have ovens with ‘ouilles’, vents you can open to let out moist air from the interior. Domestic ovens mostly don’t, so I prop mine open half a centimetre or so with a folded tea towel. It helps the drying process go quicker.
When I worked with Jean-Remi Joly he used to dust his perfectly identical baby meringues (served as mignardises with after dinner coffee) with chocolate or cinnamon powder. One day he tried dusting on the powder just before putting them in the oven and the resulting colour and taste were gorgeous, so I recommend trying that if you like such things.
Otherwise you can mix in flavourings like strawberry coulis or pistachios when the mixture is fully beaten.
I pipe the meringues onto greaseproof/silicon paper, which seems to be the easiest thing to unstick them from; you can test if a meringue is cooked sufficiently by trying to peel it off the paper – if it leaves its base on the paper it’s not yet dry enough, keep cooking it.