I have been surprised at how popular pavlova and other meringue based desserts are here at our holiday cottage in the South of France . Most of our guests seem to love them but say that they could never make them. The reality is that provided you take some simple precautions they are very straightforward, but I’ll come back to that.
Many people suggest that meringue was the creation of Italian chef Gasparini when he was working in Mehringyghen in Switzerland and it is the place that gave the name. However there is a reference to meringue in Massialot’s book “Nouvelle instruction pour les confitures, les liquers et les fruits” published in 1692. Although not called meringues there are earlier references in English cookery books to “white bisket bread” and the cooking ingredients and method are the same as for meringue. The Pavlova is named after the Russian Ballerina Anne Pavlova. The invention is the source of dispute between Australia and New Zealand but on balance it was probably created in Wellington New Zealand during her 1926 tour.
There are essentially three types of meringue. The first and most basic is Suisse where egg white and sugar are whipped together in proportions of 1 egg white to 50g (2oz) of caster sugar. Second is Meringue Cuite (cooked) This is not actually cooked in the preparation but it is whisked over hot water and icing sugar is used in a slightly higher proportion. It produces a firmer meringue. The third is Meringue Itallienne. This is the meringue used in professional patisserie work giving a similar result to meringue cuit but is a lighter finer mixture. It is made by making the sugar into a syrup before adding to the egg white.
So what are the key pointers to successful meringues?
1 Make sure the bowl and whisk are completely grease free, clean and dry.
2 Make sure there is absolutely no trace of yolk in the whites.
3 Eggs should be at room temperature and a few days old, but not stale.
4 The shape of the whisk and bowl can affect the quality of the meringue. The best is a balloon whisk in a rounded copper bowl and although it gives the best volume it takes a long time and a strong arm! I use a slightly narrower bowl and an electric whisk. It is important to use a constant speed and not to stop until the whites are stiff ready for the sugar to be added.
5 Use fine sugar. Caster sugar or icing sugar. Granulated is not suitable.
6 Dry the meringue rather than cook it! Low oven temperatures are essential. If the oven is too hot the meringue will lack crispness and be tough, you will also see beads of moisture oozing out. Some chefs will even say you should do meringues at 90o for about 3 hours with the oven door ajar to allow the steam to escape but that was before we became energy conscious!
Recently at Chez Maison Bleue we had a guest with a birthday and as a special dessert we produced a strawberry pavlova using lovely local strawberries from Mirepoix market. I like to beat some of the strawberries in with the cream to give the toping a nice light pink colour and then decorate with the whole or cut strawberries. Summer is the perfect time for making meringues with loads of delicious fresh fruit. Apricots and cherries are in season at the moment here in the Languedoc and peaches will be coming at the beginning of July. If you are worried about having all those egg yolks left over use them for lovely rich custards.