I’m not sure why I only find myself making meringues in the hot summer months; really, they’re easier to make in colder weather, less likely to flop or collapse on you. But they suit the summer so well: crisp and crumbling, light as air: the perfect vehicle for fresh sweet berries, or sharper fruits, stewed until soft, or luscious, ripe stone fruits, sliced and sticky.
There are several different types of meringue, and it can feel a little overwhelming as to what you’re looking at, or for. French, Swiss, Italian: what does it all mean? The names refer to the different stages of sugar cooking before the sugar is added to the egg whites. The more the sugar is cooked, the more stable the meringue. But for little meringue nests – and for the sake of not handling boiling sugar – French meringue is by far your simplest and best option here. Sugar whisked into egg whites, and baked low and slow until crisp and light; it’s as easy as that.
I love making meringues: there is something inherently pleasing in the bright white peaks and dips of the mixture; how well the shapes hold during cooking, and how accomplished the final product makes you feel.
Meringues are easy to make, as long as you follow a couple of simple rules. First, keep your bowl and equipment free of any grease, and make sure that you don’t get any yolk in your separated eggs: fat will prevent your eggs aerating properly, and you won’t get the volume or texture you need. Secondly, begin by whisking slowly until tiny bubbles appear, then ratchet the speed up and go wild. Finally, add the sugar bit by bit, to ensure you don’t lose volume. The meringue is ready when it stands proudly up on the end of your whisk in spikes, and holds its own weight, without flopping over on itself.
It’s much easier, admittedly, with an electric whisk, or a stand mixer, but meringues are very do-able with a bit of elbow grease. Pop the radio on, brace yourself, and go for it, your meringues will be just as good, and only take a few minutes longer to achieve the necessary stiffness.
Just before serving, fill with softly whipped cream and stewed or fresh fruit. It goes like this…
Makes: 6 meringue nests
Takes: 10 minutes
Bakes: 1 hour 45, plus cooling
70g egg whites (or the whites from 2 large eggs)
100g caster sugar
A little lemon juice or vinegar
1. Preheat the oven to 100°C and line a large oven tray with a silpat mat or baking paper.
2. Take a scrupulously clean bowl: wipe around it with a small amount of vinegar or lemon juice.
3. Carefully separate two egg whites from their yolks, or weigh out 70g of pasteurised egg whites, and pour into the clean bowl.
4. Whisk slowly at first until tiny stabilising bubbles appear. Now you can begin to whisk more vigorously until the whites are opaque and stiff and stand up on their own.
5. Add the caster sugar in three roughly equal additions, each time whisking the whites back up to stiffness. The finished meringue will be bright white, glossy and when the whisk is upended, spikes of meringue will stand proud without flopping over.
6. If you’re using a piping bag, fit a large star nozzle to the bag and spoon the meringue into the bag. Pipe a small spiral of meringue onto your lined tray, then build up the sides with a further continuous line of meringue. If you’re not using a piping bag, place a couple of generous tablespoons of meringue onto the baking tray and, using the back of the spoon, create a dimple in the middle of the nest, and using the end of the spoon, dip it into the sides of the nests and pull up, to create little spikes around the edge.
7. Cook for 1 hour 45 minutes, then turn off the oven. Leave the meringues to cool completely in the oven and then remove from the tray. Once cool, fill with the cream and your chosen fruit.