I am sure that you may have noticed by now that I use a lot of egg yolks – in stuff like custards, mayonnaises, pasta, pastry and sauces. This leaves me with a lot of egg whites to use up. Since I hate waste, I try always to use them, which invariably means making macaroons, and meringues. I need to expand this repertoire, so expect to see consommés and more stir fries appearing here soon. If you have other suggestions for using up egg whites (although not the egg-white omelette, please, some things are a step too far, even for me!) feel free to leave them in the comments.
I had originally intended to make advocaat, in keeping with the Anglo-Dutch theme for my party, but I ran out of time. However, this time, the advocaat was actually the by-product of the intention to make meringues, instead of the usual situation where I have a load of egg whites left over from something else. No one missed the advocaat, anyway!
Since I make them so much, I thought that I would share my technique here. I haven’t given a recipe, as it will depend on how many egg whites you have and to some extent how old they are.
Start by heating the oven to 110°C. Then measure out 45 g sugar for each egg white. I like to use raw cane sugar, but you can also use caster, granulated or icing sugar. I have also seen sugar solution, but that seems to be for Italian or Swiss style meringues, and I tend to stick with French. It is possible to use soft brown sugar, but be aware that this makes it very hard to get a crisp, dry meringue. I think this technique may be best left alone or, if you insist, only use it to top lemon meringue pie.
Put the egg whites in a very clean bowl. There must be no fat or detergent in it. If you are unsure, wipe it with the cut side of a lemon (or other citrus), which will act as a degreaser. If the bowl has any fat, it may affect the ability of the eggs to maintain the air that you are about to whip into them. The same goes if there are any traces of egg yolk, so be careful when separating the egg, too. Note that the fresher the egg, the less likely that the egg yolk is to break when you separate it.
Next, whip the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. This is when the egg whites look drier, the whisk or a spoon will create peaks when you remove it from the mixture, and if you are brave, you can upend the bowl and the egg white will not slide out. I would advise using an electric whisk if you don’t want it to take you hours.
Then, a tablespoon at a time, add the sugar and whisk in thoroughly before you add the next spoonful. The egg white will stiffen further, as you add the sugar. At this stage, you are beating to incorporate the sugar, not to add any further air, so it won’t increase in volume.
Keep adding the sugar, and whipping, a tablespoon at a time. Eventually, the mixture will become really stiff, to the point of being really hard to work, and will look shiny. This is when you stop adding sugar. Because I use cane sugar, I find I need less than the stated 45 g per egg white. If you are using caster or icing sugar, you may find that you need to use all of it. This is also fine.
Don’t add more sugar than needed to get to this stiff consistency (or than the 45 g, whichever happens to come first), otherwise your meringues will leach sugar. This does not really affect the taste, but it does give them a rather unattractive look. A bit like a tree that is leaching sap.
Now your meringue is ready to be shaped. You need to line a baking sheet with some greaseproof paper. You can stick it down with oil or by dabbing a bit of the meringue in each corner and the centre of the paper and using this as glue to stick it to the baking sheet. Once the baking sheet is ready, you need to choose what shape and size you are going to have your meringue. You may wish to have it as a pavlova, in which case you need to shape one large disc, with slightly elevated sides, to hold the fruit in. I normally go for individual ones, because these are better for parties or for sharing. Most commonly, I will get two spoons and shape individual quenelles, which can then be stuck together with cream and fruit in a sandwich. However, I wanted to fill these with Chestnut Jam, so I decided that mini versions of the pavlova-style would be better suited to the task.
Some people would use a piping bag for that, but I lack the finesse, and the piping bags, so I made do with shaping them with two spoons. You can try either, I think both are just as good. I made them vaguely circular, like a nest.
Then it is ready to go in the oven. Bake the meringues for up to 1 ½ hours (but check after 1). If you have made one large pavlova style meringue, you will need longer – check after 1 ½, and leave in the oven up to 2 hours.
The idea is not really that the meringue cooks, more that it dries out. You need to check that it is no longer soggy to the touch, and that it generates a hollow sound when tapped very gently on the base.It will have darkened a little, even if you use icing sugar. Mine are generally more golden than off-white, because the unrefined sugar I use is a light brown.
When you get the hollow sound, it is done. If it is at all possible, turn off the oven, but leave the meringue in there to continue to dry overnight. This will give the best result, but it will be OK if you leave it to cool outside the confines of the oven.
Once it is done, fill it with fruit, cream, fruit and cream, jam, or serve it with ice cream, mash it up with fruit and cream to make Eton Mess – whatever you like, really.