There’s no point beating about the bush – a basic meringue is just egg whites and sugar. It is a simple recipe but frequently one resulting in disaster! So if your perfect pavlova is a bit of a palava, hopefully I can shed a little light on one or two things that might be causing a bit of a problem…
I believe the culprit of failures in the meringue department is caused by one (or all) of these:
1. Oil. Oil, fat or grease of any description will absolutely ruin your meringue. Your mixing bowls, whisk and any utensils coming into contact with your meringue making should be scrupulously clean. One way to ensure squeaky clean spotlessness is this: after washing and drying, spritz everything with lemon juice (either fresh or from a bottle) and wipe it all clean with paper kitchen towels. Make sure everything is completely dry before you start.
2. Cold egg whites. I don’t really know why but fridge-cold egg whites never, ever work for me. Always allow the egg whites to come to room temperature. If your egg whites are frozen, it is best to defrost them slowly in the fridge then allow them to come to room temperature (the latter takes about an hour or so.)
3. Overbeating or underbeating. The key is to incorporate as much air as possible before adding the sugar. If you don’t beat the egg whites enough, you risk ending up with something resembling a collapsed, soggy meringue. If you overbeat, particularly after adding the sugar, you also risk the egg whites returning to a liquid state. Have a look at the pictures below and watch your meringue carefully as you make it. It’s not hard but you do need to keep an eye on it.
A basic meringue recipe is double the weight of caster sugar to egg whites. As an example, my four large egg whites (above) weigh approximately 140g. The amount of caster sugar needed is therefore 280g.
Stage 1: Put the egg whites in your scrupulously clean bowl and start to mix on a medium-high setting. The whole process will take several minutes even when using a powerful mixer. I once made meringue by hand and I had a twitchy shoulder blade for several weeks afterwards. The egg whites will start to look thicker and whiter.
The photographs above show the thickening process as the egg whites take on a foamy, cloudy appearance. Keep whisking until it looks extremely thick and stiff.
When the egg whites look like this (an old trick is to hold the bowl upside down – the meringue should be firmly stuck to the bowl and not on your floor) you are ready to add the sugar.
Stage 2: Add the caster sugar about a tablespoon at a time as you continue to whisk. I am a bit of a control freak and count to five between additions but this isn’t entirely necessary. Just take your time. The meringue will begin to take on a thick, glossy appearance.
When you have added all the sugar, check the meringue periodically. It is ready when it stands in peaks.
If you want to add flavouring or colour, (use a colour paste – not a liquid) do this after you have added all the sugar, and continue to beat until the flavour and colour is thoroughly incorporated and you have stiff peaks. In this example I have used a pink colour paste.
When the colour is incorporated and the meringue is heavy, thick and glossy, it is ready. You can now use it according to your recipe.
For this example I have made simple meringue shells:
Preheat your oven to 120c / 250f / gas mark 1/2. Pop a large star-tip piping nozzle into a piping bag. To make it easier to fill, I always open up the sides of the bag and pull them over a tall glass as shown above.
Fill your piping bag with the meringue. Line some baking sheets with baking paper and use a 2″ cutter to draw circles, leaving a gap around each one. The meringue shouldn’t expand too much but it is very easy to accidentally pipe over the lines. This quantity of meringue will make about 20 shells.
When you have piped all your shells, place the tray/s on the lower shelf of the preheated oven for approximately 1hr 20. The shells are ready when they look matt in appearance and the bottom looks dry and lifts easily from the baking paper. Allow to cool thoroughly and use as desired (I’m a big fan of dipping the bottoms in melted chocolate and sandwiching two shells together with whipped cream!)