The mystery of meringue eludes many a cook. Visions of marshmallow-like clouds quickly turn into the reality of mushy pancakes because of a simple error. Sugary grit pierces the fluff that should have been. The soft peaks expected after ages of whisking flop like an airless balloon. And if success is achieved before baking the delicate treat, the cracks that appear when it's pulled out of the oven aren't veins of gold, but veins of disappointment.
Meringue magic isn't as difficult as it sounds, though. It just takes careful attention to the recipe directions and squelching the impulse to open the oven door for a peek. As for those cracks, while they may not be eliminated entirely, they may yet turn to gold.
Fresh Is Best
A successful meringue is the result of all its components coming together. It starts with fresh, room-temperature egg whites. If your freezer is bursting with tubs of frozen egg whites left over from all your custard making, defrost them overnight in the fridge and then bring them to room temperature. Whisking may take a bit longer, but the formerly frozen egg whites will work. Whisk the egg whites on high until stiff peaks appear.
Sweetening With Sugar
Slowly add the required amount of sugar (extra-fine sugar is best) a tablespoon at a time until all has been incorporated into the meringue. The sugar provides molecular support and helps to firm the structure of the egg whites. If diet is a concern and massive quantities of sugar are a no-no, eliminate the sugar altogether. The whites may not stand to attention as they do with sugar, but think of the health benefit! If sweetness is important, a sugar substitute will work, but go slowly when whisking it into the egg whites. Check the product packaging to get the right ratio between the substitute and the sugar required by your recipe.
Adding Additional Ingredients
Cornstarch, vanilla favoring or paste, a drop of lemon juice and a little white vinegar also are added during the whisking. Be sure everything is incorporated completely. Test the meringue to make certain that no sugar crystals are evident. If they are, continue whisking. When the meringue falls off the whisk and looks like a bird's beak, it's ready for the next step.
Making Meringue Art
Whether piping the meringue for cookies or spreading it out for the base of a Pavlova, a sheet of parchment paper or a silicone pad must come between the meringue and the baking tray, which should have a small lip, not a high side. Sculpt the meringue into the shape desired.
Place the baking tray in an oven that's been preheated to 325 F. Once in the oven, immediately reduce the oven temperature to 300 F. Bake the meringue for one hour. Do not open the oven door. After one hour, turn the oven off and let the meringue sit, preferably overnight, without opening the door. Cracking should be minimal, but know that even the best pastry chefs suffer veining in their meringues.
Turning Goofs Into Greatness
A highly cracked meringue needn't end up in the trash. If it's not good enough to be used as is, crinkle it up into small bits and flake it over ice cream. Or make a deconstructed Pavlova by flaking the meringue onto the bottom of a serving plate, adding cream that has been whipped with lemon curd or the flavoring of your choice, and dotting the top with fresh fruit. Sprinkle additional meringue flakes around your masterpiece for a delightful dessert – without cracks.