Here’s a life lesson I learned this week.
If you end up with some extra egg whites on your hands, and you decide to make meringues, and you already know how to make the crumble-in-your-mouth kind but want something a little softer and more ethereal, and you decide to bake the meringues at a lower temperature just for funsies, and then you realize you have a bridal shower to go to in half an hour, and you turn off the oven and fly out the door, and you come back six hours later and the meringues are still kinda sticky and chewy and marshmallowy but totally done on the bottom, and you say what the hell and take them out anyway…
…people will go apeshit over them. True story.
I work in a high-powered office building in the Financial District. Everyone is crisply and fashionably dressed, upwardly mobile, and completely health-and-fitness-crazed. Our (tiny) office shares a kitchen with an asset management firm, and those folks are some of the most diet-conscious, sugar-leery people I’ve ever met. I’ve brought in a variety of little sweet treats–handmade chocolate truffles, orangettes, margarita cookies–and had to bring leftovers home at the end of the week, every time. (And I’m the insulin-resistant one!)
But these little marshmallow-meringue Frankencookies? Gone within two days.
Meringues are one of my favorite “Oh, this old thing?” treats. The base is nothing more than egg whites, which I tend to have lying around anyway. They’re stupidly easy to make–all you need is an electric mixer, a baking sheet and some parchment paper. And they can be baked into a variety of textures to suit all tastes, from the crispy-sandy cookie contingent to the fluffy-cloudy camp to the marshmallow cohort. Me, I’m fickle–one batch is crunchy, the next is downy. Now I can add chewy to that list.
Oh, also, the gradual beating of egg whites from yellow and oozy to taffeta-stiff and winter-white is one of the closest things to magic I’ve ever achieved in my life. I love how the sugar makes the egg whites satiny and luminous, and how the batter feels gooey-smooth on the roof of your mouth. (Yes, I steal mouthfuls of raw meringue sometimes. Don’t judge me.)
It’s one of the prettier things I create on a semi-regular basis.
One more discovery to tell you about. When I brought the meringues into work, and put them in our climate-controlled office kitchen next to the fridge, they stayed chewy and sticky until they were gone. But I kept a small stash at home, solamente pour moi, and left them in an uncovered bowl in my dry, warm studio apartment. Over the next few days, they slowly dried out, until they were no longer marshmallows, but something else–plush, velvety, soft and airy, like a heavier version of cotton candy. I considered bringing them into work, but then I decided I’d better hoard them jealously.
Then they disappeared. I have no idea how that happened.
Meringues (this is the Big Overview of Making Meringues, with variations galore)
For each egg white, you will need:
- 1/4 cup superfine (caster) sugar*
- Large pinch of salt (maybe 1/16 tsp)
- 1/4 tsp vanilla extract
- Pinch of cream of tartar (optional–I always forget to buy it, so I do without)
*Superfine sugar is nothing more than granulated sugar, finely ground. If you don’t feel like buying a whole thing of it, you can just blitz granulated sugar in a food processor until it’s powdery.
Preheat the oven. The temperature depends on how crisp or squidgy you want your meringues, so keep reading.
Using an electric mixer with a whisk attachment–or just a regular whisk, if you’ve got biceps like Popeye–beat the egg whites until they’re light and foamy. Add salt, vanilla, and cream of tartar (if using), and continue beating until the egg whites hold soft peaks. Beat in the sugar gradually, a tablespoon or two at a time, and keep beating until the egg whites are glossy and hold stiff peaks.
Line your baking sheet with parchment paper. Transfer the meringue mixture into a large zip-top plastic bag, gently squeeze out most of the air, and zip the top. Use a pair of scissors to snip a hole in one of the bottom corners. Gently squeeze the meringue through the hole and place little dollops on the baking sheet. (Alternately, you can scoop the meringue with a spoon or two, like very sticky cookie batter.) The meringues will not spread, so you can place them close together.
When it comes to baking, there are options:
- For meringues that are shatteringly crisp all the way through, bake at 300º F for 25 minutes or so. Let them cool in the oven with the door partly open, or on a rack.
- For meringues with a crunchy exterior and soft pillowy interior, bake at 200º F for 1 1/2 to 2 hours (yes, it’s a big window, so keep your eye on ’em). Let them cool in the oven with the door partly open, or on a rack.
- For meringues that are sticky and chewy and almost marshmallow-like, bake at 250º F for 10-15 minutes, then turn off the oven and let the meringues cool inside with the door closed.
- For cloudlike, melt-in-your-mouth meringues, follow the sticky-chewy directions above, but leave the oven door partly open as they cool or cool them on a rack in a warm, dry place.
No matter what baking temp and time you decide on, the meringues are done when they are dry to the touch. They should only be the tiniest bit golden, if at all. The easiest way to tell is to try lifting a meringue off the parchment–it will release cleanly and easily when it’s ready.
Meringues are like blank canvases in cookie form. They will happily accept a parade of flavors. I’ve done ’em with chocolate chips, with raspberry liqueur and orange zest, with cocoa and chili powder…these little goodies are mind-bogglingly adaptable. Some suggestions:
- Instead of (or along with) the vanilla extract, include 1/2 tsp (per egg white) of your favorite extract, liquor or liqueur. Almond, peppermint, raspberry, bourbon, tequila–anything goes.
- For chocolate meringues, sift about 3/4 tbsp (per egg white) cocoa powder with the sugar before adding it in. You can also add ground spices this way–chili, cinnamon, cardamom, ground ginger…
- When you’re done beating the egg whites, fold in about 1/3 cup (per egg white) chocolate chips, or a couple tablespoons of finely chopped nuts or coconut flakes, or a teaspoon of citrus zest–or all of the above!
- Before baking, sprinkle the tops with some chopped nuts, coconut, pretty sprinkles or colored sugar.