SOFT and billowy or sweet and crisp, meringue is a chameleon in the kitchen: Use it as a dessert topping, a magic mix-in that gives rise to dense cakes, even as cookie-like crumbles that lend crunch to all sorts of pastry-chef creations.
It's made of modest ingredients -- stiffly beaten egg whites and sugar at its most basic -- and with seemingly endless variations it changes shape, volume and texture, bending to the will of its maker. Soft meringue can be molded and baked into wafers and hollow shells. Replace the sugar with hot syrup and the result will be clouds of thick, glossy, almost marshmallow-like confection. (Add chunks of cold butter to that and you've got lush Italian buttercream).
Slightly toasted clouds of the stuff give lemon meringue pie its whimsical wow factor. For a crunchy bite, it can be piped and baked into French macaroons, perfect for sandwiching dollops of chocolate ganache or jam.
Pastry chef Sherry Yard folds soft meringue into kaiserschmarren, a popular Austrian dessert that's been a fixture on the menu at her home base Spago since the restaurant's inception. Chef Wolfgang Puck, she says, calls her "Miss Meringue." "At Spago, we make all of our pasta from scratch with egg yolks, so I'm always looking for new ways to play with egg whites."
Kaiserschmarren is traditionally torn pieces of caramelized pancake sauteed and served with fruit compote and powdered sugar. Yard elevates hers by adding fromage blanc, creme fraiche, raisins plumped in wine and sugar, and a generous amount of sweetened, whipped egg whites. Baked in a deep cake pan, the result is a fluffy, pudding-like dessert, more springy than a souffle and perfect for sopping up strawberry sauce.
"Meringue allows me to cut out flour in a lot of desserts and make them lighter," Yard says. "It's just about my favorite thing to work with."
Chef Michel Richard, who recently opened Citrus at Social, uses crisp meringue to make vacherin, a French invention using hardened, molded meringue to house ice cream or whipped cream (or both). Richard shapes his meringue into the form of a big mushroom using separate molds for the cap and stem, fills the baked shells with chocolate ice cream and whipped cream, and sets the whole thing atop a pool of pistachio sauce.
"I love the texture of the meringue this way, crisp," Richard says. "You add the creamy ice cream, the sauce, the whipped cream. It is wonderful to bite into all of the textures at once."
Meringue does double-duty in a meringue-topped lemon sponge cake: Beaten egg whites lighten the lemon and butter cake batter, which is baked until tender and just set. A generous amount of Italian meringue goes on top.
Mastering Italian meringue takes a bit of practice. When the sugar melts, the syrup must reach 240 degrees -- any hotter and it will become thick and viscous. Timing is essential: The syrup must be streamed very slowly into the whites while they are being beaten or it will not be fully incorporated.
French meringue, the easily thrown together blend of egg whites and sugar that gives dessert souffles their lift, can easily be manipulated into a variety of light but impressive treats. Make wafers perfect for tea time by blending finely chopped hazelnuts, vanilla and lemon juice into the meringue; bake spoonfuls of it on a lined sheet pan at a low temperature until they are dry and crisp. Or place a scoop of orange sherbet between two of the wafers and you have a refreshing twist on an ice cream sandwich.
Shape fluffs of meringue into cups or bowls before baking and you've got individual, beautiful Pavlovas. And as Richard puts it: "You don't even need a pastry bag."
Denise Martin is a freelance writer. Donna Deane is The Times' test kitchen director.
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Hazelnut meringues with orange sherbet
Total time: 1 1/2 hours, plus 2 hours drying time for the meringues
Servings: Makes 21 small ice cream sandwiches
Note: From test kitchen director Donna Deane. You will have leftover orange sherbet; reserve for another use.
3 egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1 cup finely chopped blanched
1 pint orange sherbet
1. Heat the oven to 225 degrees. In the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl with a hand-held mixer, beat the egg whites until frothy on medium speed, about 1 minute. Add the cream of tartar and continue to beat to soft peaks, a minute more. Gradually add the sugar and continue beating until stiff peaks form, an additional 3 to 5 minutes. Beat in the vanilla and lemon juice. Fold in the hazelnuts.
2. Use a 2 1/4 -inch ring to trace circles onto parchment paper on a baking sheet. Spoon about 1 tablespoon of the meringue onto the center of a circle, and spread evenly to the edges. Repeat with the remaining meringue.