I have been working with meringues a lot lately. At work they are in high demand, probably because they are gluten free, and just about everyone is catching a ride on that train. I have also been trying to revive the Marjolaine, an antiquated dessert that I adore. (It was invented by Fernand Point, chef of Restaurant de la Pyramide, France’s first three-star restaurant, and training ground for many of the biggest names in French culinary arts.)
I’ll post the Marjolaine recipe later, though, because right now I am craving savory (as often happens at the end of a day at the bakery). Luckily there is a meringue-based recipe that is not anything like sweet. The cheese soufflé. If you happen to be trying to improve your culinary skills, the soufflé is a stepping-stone to greatness. It’s really very easy, but still wildly impressive.
This is the basic cheese version, but you can adjust it anyway you like, from the type of cheese you choose to the incorporation of floating garnish, such as fresh chopped herbs, diced ham, nuts, spinach, wild mushrooms—whatever you can concoct in that creative mind of yours.
When serving, take your soufflé dish directly from the oven to the table and set it on a napkin-lined saucer, just like the big boys do.
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
4 tablespoons bread or all-purpose flour
1-1/3 cup milk, boiling
1/2 teaspoon salt
pinch of white pepper
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
4 eggs, separated
1 cup grated Gruyère cheese
Once you’ve mastered the cheese soufflé, try replacing the cheese with melted dark chocolate. Use sugar instead of parmesan cheese to coat the soufflé dish, and add 2 tablespoons of sugar to the whipping whites.
Many recipes, both sweet and savory, incorporate meringue into a batter for lightness and leavening. Soufflés, mousses, and even cakes use it. Meringue is a crucial culinary technique, and one that can be intimidating. But there are only a few rules to be concerned with. Once you try it, you’ll master it.
When whipping egg whites, the bowl and the whip must be clean. Any speck of fat in the mix will inhibit the whites from taking in air. Egg yolks are full of fat, and are a common culprit. When separating the eggs, don’t let any yolk into the white bowl. The smallest amount can drastically reduce the amount of air an egg white can hold.
Some recipes call for a French, simple, or common meringue, with raw egg whites whipped until they are stiff, and granulated sugar sprinkled in at the medium or stiff peak stage. Sprinkle the sugar in slowly so that the weight of it doesn’t slow down the process. This is an unstable method, so it is important to stop the whipping at the appropriate time. Meringues do not always incorporate sugar, which technically means they are not a meringue, but just a boring whipped egg white. Nevertheless, the rules of engagement are still the same. To judge the peak stage, spoon a bit of meringue out of the bowl and hold it up right. If it makes a peak that stands erect at the tip of the spoon, it is a stiff peak. If the peak bends over a bit at the tip, it is a medium peak. If the peak flops all the way over, it is a soft peak.
A Swiss meringue is a little more stable, because it is essentially cooked. Egg whites and sugar are warmed over simmering water until the sugar dissolves. The eggs and sugar are then whipped until they are stiff and cool.
Some the recipes call for hot sugar syrup to be poured into the whipping whites. This method is known by many names including Italian Meringue, 7-Minute Icing, White Mountain Icing, and Boiled Icing. It is important to cook the sugar to the proper stage. Use a candy thermometer or the traditional ice test for best results. Once the syrup is ready, pour it slowly but steadily into the whites as you whip. The movement is important to prevent the heat of the sugar from overcooking the eggs. If you do not have an electric mixer, get a friend to drizzle in the sugar while you whip. If you don’t have a friend (sorry ‘bout that), you can secure the bowl of egg whites by placing it on a damp towel.
The following recipe is for Italian meringue, which I use on top of pies (its ready to eat), like lemon meringue, key lime, or chocolate cream. It also makes a great frosting for cakes (try it on Red Velvet Cake), and it is the snow of a baked Alaska. It does not bake crisp, so don’t try that.
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup water
1/2 tsp. salt
4 egg whites
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Use immediately to top cakes, pies, or other desserts. It doesn’t keep long. You can brown it before serving by placing under a broiler for 30 seconds, or by using a blow torch.