On paper, meringues look like the easiest thing to create, basically just egg whites and sugar. But looks can be deceptive. While the goal is a melt-in-your-mouth crispy texture, often the disappointing result is a sticky puddle of goo.
Determined to find out what we're doing wrong, we turned to renowned food scientist and cookbook author Shirley Corriher. We knew she would have some good advice, since her book BakeWise has an entire chapter devoted to the intricacies of egg whites.
In a phone call the other day, Corriher started things off by reminding us just how important the egg-separation process is: "All it takes is the tiniest speck of yolk to ruin egg whites."
For this reason, she recommends the three-bowl method for separating whites and yolks: Crack the first egg and open it very carefully. Drop the white into a small bowl and put the yolk into another small bowl. Assuming this goes well, and the white has not been contaminated by any yolk, transfer the white into the mixing bowl. Continue this process until all the eggs are separated. If a yolk breaks, chances are it has compromised the white, even if you can't see any evidence of this. In this event, better not to use that white. (We typically end up with enough suspect egg whites to make a nice fritatta.)
Many meringue recipes call for room-temperature eggs. Corriher says eggs are easier to separate when warm; on the down side, the yolks can break more easily. But cold eggs take longer to foam, increasing the risk that you may over-beat them. Corriher warns that over-beaten egg whites can become dry and rigid and will not expand properly while baking.
Just as a smidge of yolk can mess up egg whites, so can even a small amount of invisible fat. For this reason, Corriher cautions not to use a plastic bowl to beat egg whites.
"If you use a plastic bowl, even though you just washed it with hot, soapy water, there's a possibility that there's a trace of fat still harbored there," she says.
Corriher counsels that meringues are not the place to think healthy by reducing sugar:
"The amount of sugar is crucial. Sugar is not just a sweetening ingredient. ... It is pulling the water out of the spider-web protein network. It's a technical, structural part of a meringue."
And, speaking of sugar, Corriher recommends using finely ground sugar, sometimes called baker's sugar, for most meringue recipes, because it dissolves faster in the egg foam than does granulated sugar. If you don't have any superfine sugar on hand, you can easily make your own. Simply process regular granulated sugar in the food processor for a minute or two.
What about cream of tartar? Is it really necessary? Corriher sets us straight on this issue: "It's an incredible help. It changes the acidity and gives you a more stable, delicate egg white foam. Proteins in the egg white loosely join to each other around each air bubble and this is what you want. ... You want them to join loosely, so in the oven they can expand and your meringue can expand."
One L.A. baker who takes Corriher's advice to heart is Tonya Dooley, chief pie maker of Cutie Pie That! Dooley uses Corriher's recipe for Italian meringue to top her First Birthday Blueberry Lemon Meringue Pie, created in June to celebrate her company's one-year anniversary.
"The flavor and texture of the Italian meringue is really quite a bit softer," Dooley says. "There's a lot you can do with it. You can put it onto a pie using a spatula or you can put it on using a pastry bag. You can decorate it into various peaks. It's fun to do. I love to do it, my staff loves to do it. We all love the taste of it."
Corriher's Italian meringue recipe involves adding a portion of the sugar as a hot syrup while beating the egg whites into peaks. This technique eliminates two common problems with pie meringues: weeping (the liquid puddles between the meringue and the pie filling) and beading, when annoying drops of brown syrup appear on top.
"The process of cooking the meringues while they're in the mixing bowl creates a sturdier meringue. It doesn't bead and it doesn't weep," says Dooley.
Dooley shares her seasonal pie recipe with us. (And if you're not up to baking in the summer heat, Dooley will be making this pie for the next week or two, as long as fresh blueberries are available at local farmers markets.)
First Birthday Blueberry Lemon Meringue Pie
From: Tonya Dooley of Cutie Pie That!
Makes: One 9-inch pie
1 baked 9-inch pie crust
1 ¼ cups granulated sugar
5 tablespoons cornstarch
1 cup milk
½ cup fresh lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon. salt
6 large egg yolks
2/3 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest
1 ½ tablespoons Limoncello
2 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1. Carefully separate 6 large eggs. Put the egg whites aside.
2. Combine the sugar, cornstarch, milk, ½ cup lemon juice and pinch of salt in a large, nonreactive saucepan. Whisk to combine.
3. Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat, whisking occasionally. As the mixture reaches a simmer and begins to thicken (after about 4 or 5 minutes) and turns clear, whisk in the egg yolks, 2 at a time.
4. Slowly add the 2/3 cup of lemon juice, whisking constantly, then add the zest and Limoncello. Add the butter, 1 piece at a time, whisking constantly, return to a simmer for a few minutes, then remove the pan from the heat.
1 cup fresh blueberries
Sugar, to taste
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1. In a nonreactive saucepan, combine the fresh blueberries with enough sugar to reach the desired flavor. Add remaining ingredients and cook on medium low heat for about 7 minutes until the blueberries begin to boil.
2. Remove from the heat and add the blueberry sauce to the lemon filling. Immediately pour this mixture into the baked pie crust.
Italian meringue topping
From: BakeWise, by Shirley Corriher
Note: Corriher recommends superfine or baker's sugar for many merigue recipes, but in this recipe, regular granulated sugar is OK.
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/3 cup cool water
6 large egg whites
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
2 cups sugar, divided
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
½ cup water
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon salt
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a small bowl, combine the cornstarch and 1/3 cup cool water. Put aside until needed.
3. In a mixer with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar until soft peaks form. Add in ¼ cup of sugar and continue to beat.
4. In a heavy, nonreactive saucepan, stir together the remaining 1¾ cups of sugar, the corn syrup and ½ cup water. Bring to a boil. Rinse down the sides of the pan with water on a pastry brush. Attach a candy thermometer to the saucepan and continue to boil the syrup until it reaches 248 degrees (hard-ball candy stage).
5. Continue beating whites until stiff peaks form. Ideally, have the whites stiff when the syrup reaches 248 degrees. Carefully pour the hot syrup onto the meringue peaks while continuing to beat on medium speed. (Try to avoid drizzling the syrup onto the beaters or the sides of the bowl.) The meringue will swell dramatically and fill the whole bowl.
6. Beat until the meringue has cooled, approximately 10 to 13 minutes. Beat in the vanilla and salt, then beat in about 3 tablespoons of the cornstarch paste, 1 tablespoon at a time.
7. Spread the meringue on top of the pie.
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8. Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 10 minutes.
9. Serve the pie chilled and refrigerate any leftovers.
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