I did a project on eggs in my last year in High School, after reading its chapter in On Food and Cooking (amazing book, still need to read the rest of it). I was fascinated by it, the amazing complexity of structure, the enormous range of applications, the interesting and odd ramifications from the tiniest of changes in amount, cooking time, temperature, etc which have plagued egg-focused recipes for centuries. But no doubt my favorite aspect came in the egg whites, or to be more specific what happened when we kinetically agitated the protein chains (aka beat the crap out of them w/out heat).
As a brief review, and to show I’m not all bull, egg whites are mainly made up of water and proteins, which are individually bundled together in tight balls. As energy and kinetic force is applied, links in these balls disconnect, letting them unfurl into long chains. Continuing to be whipped around and mixed up, the chains cross and link back together with the help of more energy and other things. Chains form around and together in giant nets, creating a new tight structure which traps water and air firmly between them, thus creating Bubbles. Very solid bubbles which have been used with great success and popularity throughout our history of cuisine.
Origins are contested and unsure, but all study suggests the very first recordings of those to purposefully beat egg whites for something to be in, surprisingly enough, England (or the area around it) during Medieval times. I find it quite interesting and curious that, in the same Medieval times, a painting technique known as Tempera (very similar to tempura isn’t it?) originated, whereas the focus was on heavily beating egg yolks or whites before mixing with pigments. Maybe that lead to the discovery of how beautiful and fancy egg white foams looked, perhaps leading to the Elizabethan-era dish known as Snow, made by adding a bit of egg whites and sugar to cream before beating, is likely the true precursor from which meringue evolved. At the time, 16th century, any forks and whisk-like utensils were still to be discovered, thus all any cook had to work with were bundles of reeds and cleft sticks. Cream is extremely easy to whip to peaks by hand given enough effort, at the time being used as a decadent centerpiece for higher class tables. But the eggs’ temperament in this area thus meant it needed to wait before it could shine on its own.
The tipping point for this seemed to happen in two countries simultaneously after the turn of the 1600’s. French chefs introduced a much lighter version of Snow containing more egg whites and sugar, and a certain Lady Elinor Fettiplace documented a recipe for “White Biskit Bread” in 1604, the latter being described as a “beaten-egg-white-and-sugar-confection.” The advent of Forks and other tined objects around 1644 would catapult the techniques to destroy and re/combine ingredients and thus send Meringues on their way, with various excerpts and influences on the French and other sides throughout its timeline. One note of interest, as many site, is the supposed official invention in the Swiss town of Meringen by pastry chef Gasparni in 1720; its relevance to the name is debated, especially considering other reports of the confection’s connection to the Saxon (in England-ish area) town of Mehringyghen and the fact that many words entering France from Germany often ended in –ingue. So whether the name’s source is specific or purely random (there is no actual or partial translation to it, it’s its own word, which is pretty unique if you think about it) is officially up in the air.
Popularity in desserts rose, the technique was slowly refined with different ways to make it added, and the final nail in the coffin of its identity was hammered in by the legendary Antoine Careme, who was supposedly the very first chef to use a Piping Bag to shape the foam before baking, as opposed to spoons. Not surprising considering his work with cakes.
Highly beaten egg whites with sugar are used today in everything from decorating desserts to acting as the base for soufflé to piling on top of pie to poaching and eating with custard (which will be another post soon I assure you). But probably its most popular, and singularly known, uses nowadays is as a simple ‘baked’ Cookie, which is what I’ll be doing with it today.
Chef’s Overdramatic Self-Centered Lecture Corner
I find Meringue has been both the glorious highlight and bane of my culinary life; or really anything that involves whipped egg whites (do you know how much trouble I had with Souffle before getting it right?). Some of my best points in my culinary life revolve around that period when I had whipping egg whites with sugar down FLAT; getting the right amount in, adding it at the perfect time, and all that stuff needed to yield the perfectly smooth, fluffy, marshmallow-like egg fluff, which I mostly just use to pile on top of a dessert raw instead of baking (should try it sometime instead of whipped cream).
But then for whatever reason I lost it, haven’t been able to make a good, proper protein-sugar-chain in the last couple years. So I was very much looking forward to tackling this project head-on, re-learning the various important points to not only make a perfect fluff, but also the right kind for baking. It was a very relieving day… so now I get to yell at you and pound this delicate art into your brain like a drill sergeant.
First thing to learn, as every other person discussing meringue will tell you, is that there are technically 3 regional styles of meringue: French, Italian, and Swiss. Obviously we’ll be focusing on the first one, but it’s still fun to mention the other two. Italian meringue, often the ones with the highest stability when done right, is made by pouring cooked sugar (vs raw grain) into the whites while whisking. The unique Swiss technique, however, has one mixing the egg whites and sugar even before beating, in particular over a bain marie (double boiler) on very gentle heat until the sugar melts into it. Supposedly, as I haven’t tried this style much, it create a rather dense, thicker version of the style; marshmallowy, right up my alley I think.
But we’ll be sticking with the originator and most simple, and least stable, style; adding raw sugar to the whites while mixing. Now we have to choose between another two styles of meringue in general; Soft or Hard (so if one considers it, with the regional techniques, there are at least 6 different kinds of meringue one can make). The former uses less sugar, added at a time that turns it into a lighter, fluffy cloud-like thing, well known in Meringue Pies. The latter, and often seen in icings and our baked cookies, incorporates large amounts and yields that almost emulsified, smooth white cream.
Really. One of the first important points to learn, when making a firm baking meringue, is that you’ll need about Double the weight of sugar as the egg whites being used to get the right consistency. Considering that, it should be plain to see that, despite the disappointing loss in flavor, you should use the finest grains of sugar you can find. Not powdered sugar though, it’s got starch and other things in it; though I have heard there are some recipes that swap out a little bit of regular sugar for powdered for an interesting result.
The Process is as such:
Separate your whites from the egg yolks, very carefully; there is to be no trace of yolk or any other fat in the whites, otherwise the egg proteins will NOT come together; they’ll try, and many will, but that giant network will never form together properly. So keep your separating system organized and risk-free; crack over one bowl and organize the whites for whipping in another.
Despite the back of my mind always insisting on naturality and keeping things traditional, stabilizers have become key to the creation of these nowadays. In particular, Cream of Tartar; add a small amount, part of a teaspoon, in while the egg whites are getting somewhat foamy while beating.
As the proteins are destroyed and re-chain together, the resulting foam will go through two stages before breaking down again (or, in reality, the chains tightening up so much that their held water leaks out): Soft Peak and Stiff Peak. When the foam starts to take shape, turning completely into a mess of snow-like bubbles, but it still too weak to hold a firm, pointed peak (tested by pulling whisk/beater away), it’s at the Soft stage. This is when we need to add the sugar.
The key, simply, is a little bit at a time, and it should emulsify properly. I have seen a LOT of old, and even recent, recipes that say this should be ‘folded in, gently’… yeah, I tried that when I was young. It doesn’t do anything, just gets grainy and you can’t whip it into the proper emulsion after. I mean maybe if you did it a certain way it’d work, but I doubt it’d be any better than just blending it in on a lower/medium speed. Will ensure full incorporation anyways.
Push it all the way to the Stiff stage (it’s easy to tell, damn it gets firm…), and flavor; rule of thumb, any extract, liqueur, or hard spirit should add enough flavor while not requiring a lot (you only want to add a couple tablespoons of something at the very most so as not to mess with the structure). Also certain powders, such as cocoa, can be used in sparing quantities.
Now we bake; or, to be more accurate, we ‘Dry.’ Something I’ve been trying to figure for a long time… do I cook it at 350F for a short time and shut it off, can I do 225F for a few hours, do I gradually lower, can I even cut it short at all with high temp? I’ve found many recipes that will be convinced with using various temperatures, but all it’s done for me is browned my cookies and caused sugar syrup to leak from the bottom. So, really, don’t try and do it quickly. Turn your oven to its lowest setting, about 160 or 170F, and leave them in there overnight or a whole day. It’ll dry out, the eggs will technically cook (just very slowly) but nothing will brown and, so long as it’s stable, leak or denature in any way.
And thus you will be left with a perfectly crunchy, melt-in-your-mouth Meringue Cookie. See how simple that was?
3 Egg Whites (about 3 oz)
¼ tsp Cream of Tartar
¾ cup/5-6oz Fine grained Sugar
¼ tsp Salt
1 tsp – 1 Tb desired Flavoring Extract or Alcohol
- Turn oven to a barely warm setting, 160F preferred.
- With electric mixer, beat Egg Whites until notably frothy and foamy. Toss in Cream of Tartar and continue beating.
- Whip until soft peaks form on blender after pulling away. While mixing on low/medium speed, slowly add in the Sugar and Salt.
- Continue beating until bright and glossy cream in appearance, and very stiff peaks form on blender after pulling away.
- Quickly mix in your Desired flavoring and transfer to a piping bag, piping out desired shapes onto a parchment paper lined pan.
- Move to oven and leave for a minimum 6 hours or, ideally, overnight.
- Remove, let cool slightly and pop into mouth, or a dry airtight container for storage.
So I still need to do this one or two more times until I get it right. It’s so frustrating cuz I know the process and know I CAN do it properly, but there’s always one thing that keeps happening every time. The first cookies I made (a Bourbon Vanilla) I tried out one of those higher temperature recipe; you know, like the ones I previously mentioned you should flat out ignore (well now you know why). Well they overbrowned and the sugars cooked a bit. And my Kirschwasser batch took an extra tip of liquor, completely loosening and screwing up that perfect Stiff Peak consistency (I tried to fix it, but it was a no go).
Mind you, they both tasted damn good, were crunchy and crumbly, sweet and delicious and meltable and all that jazz nonetheless. But not that annoyingly just-out-of-reach perfection that keeps teasing me. Oh, and their texture doesn’t stand up that well over the days; I’m wondering if that’s due to the mistakes made or if it would still happen with a perfect French Meringue. I bet one would have to do a Swiss style (using cooked sugar syrup over raw grains) to get a similar result as those packaged store cookies; their stability and density is just so much better.
This is a hard one, there’s not really that many elements to this one would normally use when matching with drinks. Though it’s crunchy, there’s no real texture or chew to them. The body is extremely light. It’s sweet, but that disappears quickly along with the rest of the meringue itself, dissolving fast in the mouth. There’s ultimately not that much presence left during or after eating which one could then use to make a solid flavor integration with alcohol.
So then, I’d say, the best use would be to switch the focal point, having one’s desired drink as the main attraction while using these little cookie bites as a crunchy snack on the side. The best option from there would be to stick with those drinks that reminds us of “dessert;” Cocktails of Chocolate, Fruit, and/or Mint; simple chilled glasses of Liqueurs or, even, your favorite Fruit Brandy. Match the flavorings you used to the drink: have a Lemon Meringue with Limoncello; drink a shot of the same Kirchwasser we used in the cookie; set a basic vanilla next to a shot of Vodka at the end of the meal (if you’re so Russian-inclined); or just a nice simple glass of Sparkling Wine.
Thus taking an initial leap from my first sentence, one actually could have quite some fun here. For though there’s barely anything that really CAN ‘pair’ with this, one could then say that there’s barely anything that really CAN’T. It’s an open book, drink with it what tastes best to you at the end of the meal. Or just get drunk off meringues and booze in the afternoon, I won’t judge (so long as it’s the good stuff).