Food: As light as a cloud

Meringue: the perfect confection for lazy days
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The Independent Culture
Leaving aside meringue glace with hot chocolate sauce, which everybody adores, even if they always greet it with cries of "Oh, I couldn't possibly", the combination of meringue, ice-cream and cream can only be bettered by adding soft fruit. And soft fruit means strawberries and raspberries, preferably in that order. There are more elaborate confections involving ground nuts, for instance, and other fruits - of which more later - but few taste quite as good as the red juice of a ripe strawberry, loosely mixed with cold vanilla ice, thickened sweet cream and a meringue so light that it might crush and crumble just by being shouted at.

Meringues were one of the first confections I ever attempted to make. My mother had one of the very earliest Kenwood Chefs (it is still in full working order), all in cream and red, with a glass bowl. It made light work of those magical meringues and I would watch with glee as the jelly- like egg whites whipped themselves up into a froth of cloudy spume.

Pavlova, that well intentioned Australian dessert (named after a Russian ballerina), all set about with passion-fruit pips and Chinese gooseberries (oh, all right, Kiwi fruit), can be a sumptuous affair if it is made with care and consideration. You should use just one fruit - perhaps two, but certainly not more than three - and all of immaculate pedigree.

If you add ground almonds to meringue, you'll get a dacquoise; hazelnuts, rather more prosaically, result in a hazelnut meringue cake. Both mixtures are baked in the oven until crisp, but turn out richly cakey within. When you cook a hazelnut meringue, the temperature is higher than for simple meringues (see recipe below), and it should be cooked for less time. The same goes for Pavlova - this is baked in a loose-bottomed cake tin.

The nicest filling for a dacquoise is to mix whipped cream and a little sugar with coarsely pureed apricots. Tinned ones can successfully be used, although dried ones, soaked and cooked in a little sugar syrup, are worth the trouble to prepare - they taste like fresh, ripe apricots are supposed to taste.

Hazelnut meringue cake can also be filled with apricots and cream, but, really, it is best with fresh raspberries - and only fresh will do. It is worth making a small amount of sauce from them, too, pureed with a little sugar and - if you just happen to have some in the house - a judicious amount of eau de vie de framboise. For a less fragrant potion, some creme de framboise (mildly alcoholic raspberry syrup) may be used instead.

Returning to the basic meringue, whisk only half the sugar in and fold in the rest. This produces a lightness of meringue that is unbeatable. Whisking the whole lot in can make the meringues hard and unyielding: those ones that, when pressured with a fork, always shoot off on to an adjoining table.

Make the meringues as squiffy as you please, and use a tablespoon to form their shape unless you are into nozzles and piping bags, which can be very therapeutic . I have always found that the old-fashioned method of a well-buttered flat tray, dusted with flour, is the best non-stick coating there is. However, you may prefer to use a manufactured non-stick surface, or cooking parchment.

Basic meringue mixture, for 4 large meringues glaces

4 egg whites

pinch salt

225g/8oz caster sugar

softened butter

plain flour

Preheat the oven to 140C (fan and conventional)/ 275F/gas mark 1.

Using a scrupulously clean mixing bowl, whip the egg whites with the salt until soft but able to hold a peak. Beat in half the sugar, a tablespoon at a time, until glossy and stiff. Now fold in the rest of the sugar, using a large spatula, with authoritative scoops rather than mimsy movements; the air must be contained, but the sugar does also need to be thoroughly mixed in.

Lightly grease a flat baking tray with butter, and sift over a spoonful of flour. Shake around a bit to disperse the flour in an even coating and then tap off the excess.

Spoon out the meringue mixture in whichever form suits your mood and bake in the oven for 112 hours or so. The point at which the meringue reaches a pale coffee hue is about right for me. Leave to cool for a few minutes before removing from the baking tray. Store in an airtight container until ready to use. Serve with vanilla ice cream (one scoop per pair of meringues), 285ml/10fl oz double cream whipped with a tablespoon of caster sugar, and strawberries or raspberries.

Hazelnut meringue cake, serves 6

Though not essential, it is worth grinding your own hazelnuts to give a finer flavoured cake. Try to buy them ready skinned, dry-roast for a few minutes in a moderately hot oven and then grind in a food processor.

4 large egg whites

pinch salt

225g/8oz caster sugar

2-3 drops vanilla extract

12 tsp vinegar (white spirit or cider)

110g/4oz ground hazelnuts (sifted)

285ml/10fl oz double cream

1 tbsp caster sugar

350g/12oz fresh raspberries

Butter and flour 2 x 20.5cm/8-in loose-bottomed cake tins and line the base of each with a circle of baking parchment. Preheat the oven to 180C (fan oven)/190C/375F/gas mark 5.

Whisk the egg whites until soft-peak, as above, but this time whisk in all the sugar, a tablespoon at a time. Once the mixture is glossy and stiff, whisk in the vanilla and vinegar and then fold in the ground hazelnuts. Fill the two prepared tins equally with the meringue mixture and smooth the tops with a metal spoon dipped in hot water. Bake for about 35-40 minutes, until the top is blotchy-golden and crisp. Remove and allow to cool for a few minutes before removing from the tins (they tend to sink a little). Turn out on to a cooling rack, and remove the parchment while warm.

Once the cakes are cold, whip the cream with the caster sugar until just holding peaks. Spread on to the surface of one of the cakes and then evenly pile on the raspberries. Carefully press the other cake on top. Leave for at least an hour; it will then be easier to cut.

Finishing touches and variations: swirls of extra whipped cream around the top surface, decorated with more raspberries; sifted icing sugar, a puree of raspberries to serve as a sauce; raspberry eau de vie added to the whipped cream or into a sauce.

Dacquoise, serves 6

The two meringue cases are baked directly on to baking trays, so it is probably best to use parchment.

4 large egg whites

pinch salt

225g/8oz caster sugar

pinch of cream of tartar

110g/4oz ground almonds (sifted)

for the filling

85g/3oz dried apricots (soaked overnight in cold water)

85g/3oz caster sugar

3 strips lemon rind

half a vanilla pod, split lengthways

75ml/3fl oz water

275ml/10fl oz double cream

icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 140C (fan and conventional)/ 275F/gas mark 1.

Make the meringue cakes in the same way as the hazelnut ones (as above), and spread on to parchment in circles, to a width of 20.5cm/8in. Bake for about an hour until crisp and coffee-coloured. Lift out and leave to cool for a few minutes before removing the paper. Cool on a wire rack.

While the meringue is cooking, stew the apricots with the sugar, lemon rind, vanilla and water until soft and almost jam-like. Remove the vanilla and lemon and push the mixture through a coarse sieve into a bowl. Cool. Loosely whip the cream until soft-peak and fold in the apricot puree in swirls. Pile on to one of the meringue cakes and top with the other. Dust with icing sugar

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