Meringues have become ubiquituously associated with the "Fat Free!" "Almost ZERO calories!" crowd of diet desserts at the grocery store, crowded into plastic tubs that cheerily advertise their low-calorie benefits. They are certainly not what we would reach for when looking for an indulgent dessert.
But when baking for a large crowd of people, or looking for something cute and sweet to serve at a party, homemade meringues can be delightful, and a little extra something is all it takes to lift them into an addictive and delicious confection that crunches then melts in the mouth.
Read on for a basic recipe and tips to conquer the egg white...
Meringue is made, fundamentally, of three things: egg whites, sugar and air. Sometimes cream of tartar is added to stabilize the egg whites, along with a little salt for some piquancy, and one or two flavorings, carefully. And that's all. A meringue is a delicate dance of mixing these ingredients so they create an elastic substance that can hold the most possible air. The short ingredient list is deceptively simple, but getting everything to work properly together can be frustrating at times.
Once you learn a few simple steps, however, they are easy.
To make a meringue, egg whites are whipped until foamy, then cream of tartar is sprinkled in, then they are whipped again at increasing speeds. As they stiffen, the sugar is added in tiny, tiny increments. This is important, to beat the sugar in slowly and to give the whites time to absorb it gradually. The flavorings are carefully whipped in at the very end.
Then the egg whites are whipped until they are glossy like marshmallow frosting, and piped onto a parchment covered sheet and baked at a low temperature until thoroughly dried out. If your kitchen is humid it's best to just turn off the oven and leave them there all night to make sure they really dry out.
When making meringues, there are standard proportions that will give a certain result. For a crisp meringue like these, the rule of thumb is 1/4 cup sugar to each egg white. For the best results, use fine grained sugar, or run it through your food processor a few pulses. This will help it dissolve faster. Also, let the egg whites sit out until warm; they will have greater elasticity at room temperature.
Finally, a note on flavorings. Meringues can't support a lot of complicated flavorings; too much flavoring or mix-ins and they'll collapse, unable to support the extra moisture or weight. It's a balance, however, because plain meringues are just so sweet that they really need something to balance it. A great option is to use alcohol; a little brandy, Kirsch, or rum will give a wonderful flavor that pervades the cookies without ruining the texture.
Meringue Cookie Bites
about 60 2-inch meringues
3 egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
3/4 cup fine white sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
Flavorings - see below
2 teaspoons instant coffee or espresso powder
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon rum or rum flavoring
2 tablespoons Kirschwasser
Heat oven to 300ºF. Beat egg whites until foamy. Add cream of tartar and beat until soft, bubbly peaks form. The peaks will still flop over; they're like bubble bath still. Turn the mixers to high and add the sugar a couple tablespoons at a time. As they get glossy, beat in the flavorings. The texture should be glossy and tacky, with peaks that stand straight up.
Pipe onto parchment-covered sheets. The parchment is essential; these will stick like crazy. Bake for about two hours then turn off the oven and let them cool. They should be completely dry with no chewiness inside.