I have a large plastic envelope filled with recipes collected over the years. Every now and then, I look through them for inspiration. Surprising how many meringue recipes I’ve saved. Plain chocolate and vanilla, elaborate creations and simple pavlovas.
The white fluff on the top of my mom’s lemon meringue pie captured my attention early on. She fusses over perfect peaks, browned just so. Oh, the sweet, soft meringue is my favorite part of the pie. During a pastry chef’s apprenticeship, I looked forward to blow-torching my meringue-covered baked Alaska to perfect golden peaks. My penchant for meringue, especially crispy white fluffy mounds, means I stock store-bought meringue cookies for late-night sweet cravings.
So on a recent trip to Provence, France, I was thrilled to find ethereal, creamy-centered meringue the size of small footballs in nearly every pastry shop we entered (which was lots). We ate them out-of-hand and dusted the sugary crumbs from our coats with pleasure. When dining out, I indulged in vacherin, a beautiful meringue creation. Let’s make these at home, I thought, for my sweethearts (or maybe just for me).
The word “vacherin” may be more familiar to you as a luscious French cheese than a dessert, but a vacherin also is a classic dessert of crisp meringue layered with cream and fruit. It’s a stunning combination and easier to create at home than elaborate cakes or pies; meringue simply contains egg whites and sugar.
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The secret to perfectly baked, crisp yet soft meringue: beating in the right amount of sugar and a long, slow bake.
I like meringue with a ratio of 3 to 4 tablespoons of sugar per egg white; too much sugar, and the meringue bakes too dry for my taste. Some recipes call for confectioners’ sugar, which makes the meringue light and crisp. Granulated sugar yields meringue with a somewhat soft center, and superfine sugar works well because it dissolves readily. Some recipes use a little bit of starch (such as potato starch in the vacherin that follows) to prevent shrinkage during baking.
I separate the eggs while they are cold, placing the yolks into a glass jar for later use (such as in the clementine curd recipe that follows). Put the egg whites into a clean glass or stainless steel bowl. Remember, fat and soap will interfere with the beaten whites, so be sure the bowl is clean and that no traces of yolk remain.
Once separated, the egg whites can be left to come to room temperature – they’ll beat to a slightly bigger volume. A hand mixer works well, but use a stand mixer if you have one – you will be beating for a while. Start on low speed, then beat the egg whites until they get foamy and start to thicken. Gradually beat in the sugar by tipping it into the whites in a slow, steady stream from the measuring cup. Continue beating until the whites thicken, stiffen and turn a glossy white, at least five minutes. When you lift the beaters out of the bowl, the whites should flop over in a beautiful soft peak. In my experience, it’s better to slightly underbeat the meringue than overbeat and cause it to weep out liquid.
At this point, you could top your pie or baked Alaska with the meringue and brown it in an oven. For the vacherin dessert, meringue cookies or the simple pavlova that follows, the beaten whites get shaped on a baking sheet and baked in a low oven until crisp (but not browned).
The vacherins are shaped on circles drawn on parchment, so they are uniform. For the pavlova, named after the beloved Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, the meringues are nest-shaped and free-form. In the Midwest, we call this fruit- and cream-topped meringue nest a schaum torte – basically the same as a pavlova.
Crisp meringue can be stored in an airtight container up to a week. The chocolate meringue that follows makes a great snack or a special dessert when topped with raspberry sorbet and chocolate sauce.
The second recipe uses the yolks with sweet clementine juice to create a curd – a thickish pudding to serve over the crisp meringue. To save time, use store-bought lemon curd in its place, and add the leftover yolks to your scrambled eggs.
CHOCOLATE RASPBERRY VACHERIN
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 2 hours
Makes: 6 servings
Meringues can be made several days in advance; slice the sorbet and freeze it, so assembly goes quickly,
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons potato starch or cornstarch
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
4 large egg whites, at room temperature
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
2 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped (about 1/4 cup)
1 pint raspberry or chocolate sorbet
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 pint fresh raspberries
Warm chocolate sauce
Fresh mint sprigs
For meringues, heat oven to 225 degrees. Cut two sheets of parchment paper to fit two large baking sheets. Trace three 3-inch circles on each. Flip paper over and line the baking sheets with them. (These are your guidelines for shaping the meringues.)
Mix sugar and potato starch in a small bowl. Sift cocoa powder and espresso together in another bowl.
Beat egg whites in large bowl of an electric mixer (or a hand mixer) until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in sugar mixture, scraping down bowl occasionally. Beat until glossy and the mixture holds stiff peaks, about two minutes. Add cocoa mixture and balsamic vinegar; beat on low just until blended. Use a rubber scraper to fold in chopped chocolate.
Transfer meringue mixture to a pastry bag fitted with a large round tip. (Alternatively, use a zippered food bag and then cut at one corner to make a hole.) Pipe the meringues onto the parchment paper into the circular outlines. Smooth tops with an offset spatula.
Bake meringues, rotating pans after 30 minutes, until crisp and bottoms are lightly golden, about one hour. Turn off oven, and leave meringues inside to cool, one hour. Store in an airtight container for up to several days.
Use scissors to cut away the container from the sorbet. Place sorbet on a cutting board and slice into six rounds. Place the sorbet rounds on plastic wrap, then wrap and return to the freezer to firm. This can be done several days in advance.
To serve, beat whipping cream in a small bowl just until soft peaks form. Put one meringue onto each serving plate. Top with a dollop of whipped cream, then a sorbet disk and more whipped cream. Top with raspberries. Garnish with drizzles of chocolate sauce and mint. Serve immediately.
Nutrition information per serving: 446 calories, 18 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 45 mg cholesterol, 61 g carbohydrates, 49 g sugar, 5 g protein, 49 mg sodium, 4 g fiber
CLEMENTINE PAVLOVAS WITH CANDIED PISTACHIOS
Prep: 1 hour
Cook: 1 1/2 hours
Makes: 6 servings
Make all the components in advance for quick assembly. Instead of candied clementines, you can top the dessert with fresh clementine segments and a drizzle of light agave syrup or honey.
3 large egg whites, at room temperature
6 ounces confectioners’ sugar, sifted to remove lumps (about 1 3/4 cups after sifting)
6 tablespoons butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
3 eggs yolks
1/2 cup freshly squeezed clementine juice (4 to 6 clementines)
1 cup heavy whipping cream
Candied clementines, optional, see recipe
Candied pistachios, optional, see recipe
Fresh mint sprigs
For meringues, heat oven to 250 degrees. Line one large baking sheet with parchment paper.
Beat egg whites in a large bowl of electric mixer (or with a hand mixer) until foamy. Gradually beat in confectioners’ sugar and continue beating until mixture holds stiff peaks, about 15 minutes.
Use a wet ice cream scoop to spoon six large dollops of the meringue onto the baking sheet. With the back of the scoop, make an indent in the center of each meringue, forming a nest shape. Bake meringues until crisp and bottoms are lightly golden, about one hour, 15 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container up to several days.
For the clementine curd, beat the butter and sugar together in a medium bowl with an electric mixer. One at a time, beat in the egg and egg yolks. Beat for one minute. Add clementine juice. Transfer to a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Cook on low until mixture is smooth (curdled appearance will resolve when butter melts). Increase heat to medium and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon (about 170 degrees on an instant-read thermometer), about 15 minutes. Do not boil. Strain through wire mesh sieve into a bowl. Cover and refrigerate until completely cool. (Clementine curd will keep refrigerated for several days.) Makes 1 1/2 cups.
Shortly before serving, beat whipping cream in a small bowl with electric mixture just until soft peaks form.
To assemble, put one meringue onto each plate. Divide clementine curd equally among the meringues; top with whipped cream. Top with candied clementines and their syrup, dividing equally among the plates. Garnish with candied pistachios and mint; serve immediately.
Nutrition information per serving: 532 calories, 29 g fat, 17 g saturated fat, 199 mg cholesterol, 66 g carbohydrates, 63 g sugar, 6 g protein, 56 mg sodium, 0 g fiber
Candied clementines: Put 1/2 cup each sugar and water, 1 teaspoon ground cardamom (or 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg) and a pinch of ground allspice into a small saucepan. Heat to a boil to dissolve the sugar into a syrup. Add the segments from six clementines. Cook, stirring often, until the clementine segments turn translucent, about 10 minutes. Cool the segments in the syrup. Makes about 1 cup. Refrigerate, covered, up to a week.
Candied pistachios: Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and spray the paper with nonstick spray. Put 1/3 cup each sugar and water into a small saucepan. Heat to a boil, then cook, carefully swirling the pan, until mixture turns a deep golden color, three to five minutes. (Do not walk away.) Immediately stir in 1/2 cup pistachio nuts and pour onto prepared baking sheet. Use a buttered knife to spread the nuts out in a single layer. Cool completely. Use a large knife to roughly chop. Store in a plastic bag for up to two weeks.