Soft and billowy or sweet and crisp, meringue is a chameleon in the kitchen: Use it as a dessert topping, a magic mix-in that gives rise to dense cakes or even as cookielike crumbles that lend crunch to all sorts of pastry-chef creations.
It's made of modest ingredients -- stiffly beaten egg whites and sugar at its most basic -- and with seemingly endless variations, it changes shape, volume and texture, bending to the will of its maker.
Soft meringue can be molded and baked into wafers and hollow shells. Replace the sugar with hot syrup and the result will be clouds of thick, glossy, almost marshmallowlike confection. (Add chunks of cold butter to that, and you've got lush Italian buttercream).
Slightly toasted clouds of the stuff give lemon meringue pie its whimsical wow factor. For a crunchy bite, meringue can be piped and baked into French macaroons, perfect for sandwiching dollops of chocolate ganache or jam.
Pastry chef Sherry Yard folds soft meringue into kaiserschmarren, a popular Austrian dessert that's been a fixture on the menu at her home base, Spago, since the restaurant's inception. Chef Wolfgang Puck, she says, calls her "Miss Meringue."
"At Spago, we make all of our pasta from scratch with egg yolks, so I'm always looking for new ways to play with egg whites."
Kaiserschmarren is traditionally torn pieces of caramelized pancake sauteed and served with fruit compote and powdered sugar. Yard elevates hers by adding fromage blanc, creme fraiche, raisins plumped in wine and sugar, and a generous amount of sweetened, whipped egg whites. Baked in a deep cake pan, the result is a fluffy, puddinglike dessert, more springy than a souffle and perfect for sopping up strawberry sauce.
"Meringue allows me to cut out flour in a lot of desserts and make them lighter," Yard says. "It's just about my favorite thing to work with."
Chef Michel Richard, who recently opened Citrus at Social in Hollywood, uses crisp meringue to make vacherin, a French invention using hardened, molded meringue to house ice cream or whipped cream (or both). Richard shapes his meringue into the form of a big mushroom, using separate molds for the cap and stem, fills the baked shells with chocolate ice cream and whipped cream, and sets the whole thing atop a pool of pistachio sauce.
"I love the texture of the meringue this way, crisp," Richard says. "You add the creamy ice cream, the sauce, the whipped cream. It is wonderful to bite into all of the textures at once."
Meringue does double-duty in a meringue-topped lemon spongecake: Beaten egg whites lighten the lemon-and-butter cake batter, which is baked until tender and just set. A generous amount of Italian meringue goes on top. Mastering Italian meringue takes a bit of practiceTiming is essential: The syrup must be streamed very slowly into the whites while they are being beaten or it will not be fully incorporated.
French meringue, the easily thrown-together blend of egg whites and sugar that gives dessert souffles their lift, can easily be manipulated into a variety of light but impressive treats. Make wafers perfect for tea time by blending finely chopped hazelnuts, vanilla and lemon juice into the meringue. Bake spoonfuls of it on a lined sheet pan at a low temperature until they are dry and crisp.
Shape fluffs of meringue into cups or bowls before baking and you've got individual, beautiful Pavlovas. And as Richard puts it: "You don't even need a pastry bag."
Denise Martin and Donna Deane wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.
Lemon Spongecake With Italian Meringue and Blackberry Puree
1/2 pint blackberries plus 12 small blackberries for garnish (divided use)
6 1/2 tablespoons plus 3/4 cup sugar (divided use)
1/3 cup flour
2 tablespoons cake flour
pinch of salt
3 eggs (separated, at room temperature) plus 3 egg whites (room temperature) (divided use)
2 tablespoons grated lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
2 tablespoons melted butter
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter six 4-inch individual tart pans with removable bottoms.
Carefully rinse the blackberries and pat them dry. (Set aside the 12 berries for garnish.) Puree the 1/2 pint of berries in a food processor or blender until smooth, then strain the puree through a fine mesh strainer and discard the seeds. Stir 1 tablespoon sugar into the puree and set aside.
In a large bowl, stir together the flour, cake flour and salt and set aside. In a medium bowl, beat the egg yolks with 2 1/2 tablespoons sugar until thick and lemon-colored. Stir in the lemon zest and vanilla and set aside.
Beat 3 of the egg whites along with the cream of tartar to soft peaks. Gradually beat in 3 tablespoons sugar until stiff peaks form. Quickly fold the beaten egg whites into the beaten egg yolks. Fold in the flour mixture until just combined. Then quickly fold in the melted butter. Divide the mixture evenly among the tart pans and gently smooth the tops.
Place the tart pans on a baking sheet. Bake about 15 minutes, until the cakes are lightly browned and set in the center. Cool on a wire rack, then remove from the tart pans.
In a small saucepan, combine 1/4 cup water and the remaining 3/4 cup sugar. Cook over medium heat until the syrup reaches 238 degrees on a candy thermometer. Remove from heat. Beat the remaining 3 egg whites to form soft peaks, 30 seconds to 1 minute. With the mixer running at medium speed, add the syrup in a slow stream. Continue beating until the meringue is cool and stiff peaks form, about 3 to 5 minutes.
Place the cakes on a baking sheet. Divide the meringue evenly among the six cakes and spread over the top. The meringue also can be spooned into a pastry bag with a large round tip and piped over the cakes. Place the cakes under the broiler until the edges are golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes.
To serve the cakes, garnish each with a couple of fresh blackberries, and drizzle a little blackberry puree around each cake. Serve immediately.
Per serving: 276 calories, 6 grams protein, 49 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams fiber, 7 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 116 milligrams cholesterol, 87 milligrams sodium
Analysis provided by the Los Angeles Times.