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Sunday, 12 February 2012

Understanding Meringue - Lemon Meringue Pie

Meringue is the true melt in your mouth experience... When done right!!! The hard outside and smooth inside texture of meringue is the reason behind the world's love of this cloud-like food. Ask anyone and they will tell you that a Baked Alaska is an incredible experience that show cases a balance between hot and cold, hard and soft, sweet and savoury! The same applies to Pavlovas, Meringue kisses, floating island and of course the amazing Lemon Meringue Pie.... Some foods are just too good to miss out on, and some experiences are unique and fully satisfying to the palate... Such is meringue!

Are you fascinated by the way egg whites rise when whipped? Did you ever wonder why meringue pies weep and shrink? Do you know the difference between French, Swiss and Italian Meringues? Is meringue cooked or uncooked? .... if you have been wondering and want to understand meringue, then read on, because I am letting you in on all things meringue, on why meringue can go wrong, and ways to prevent it!!

Eggs are possibly the most remarkable ingredient in the kitchen. They totally transform to a new shape and acquire new properties with every cooking method used. This has enabled cooks to use eggs in a variety of concoctions as well as enabled the creation of many of the dishes we know today. Perhaps beating eggs is the one discovery that forever changed the face of cookery. It is through beating eggs that dishes such as soufflés, Meringues, Sabayons...etc. had come to life. Even specific types of cake, such as Angel Cakes, Meringue Cakes and Chiffon Cakes, would not have been possible without the discovery of the effects of beating eggs. For this reason, I have decided to dedicate a post to Egg Foams, specifically on the making of Meringue.

Egg Foams - The effects of beating eggs

Normally, physical agitation (produced by beating) destroys structure, but not for eggs. Beating eggs actually creates structure. For example if you place an egg white in a bowl and beat it with a whisk, in a few minutes you will achieve a glossy foamy texture that clings to the sides of the bowl when turned upside down! This same structure becomes firm and brittle when cooked, holding its own shape.

This foaming ability that the eggs have is basically, the ability of the egg whites to cling to air and make it an integral part of the ingredients making up the dish. Therefore, through beating the egg white, we are incorporating air, which is encased by the egg whites. This starts the build up of a foam. The more this foam is beaten, the more volume it acquires as more air is incorporated... The chemical and physical make up of the egg whites (its proteins), make it a less runny liquid which allows it to hold its form when foamed. Which is why the egg foam survives - as foam - longer than that created with other liquids. That's the reason why when whipped into stiff peaks, egg whites can hold perfect shape, allowing us to pipe it into detailed decorations, such as when making meringue moments or in the case of royal icing.

The addition of sugar to egg whites, adds density to the foam, making it more stable and thicker. It is usually added to egg whites after they had started foaming. But in some cases it can be added to the egg whites on the outset, which is done when a very firm, and dense foam is required (this is the most used method for commercial production of meringue). This is especially true when the meringue is going to be piped, or used in the creation of details.

Stages of beating egg whites
Beating egg whites results in foam (as in picture 1 above), once the foam is achieved continuing to beat will result in the formation of soft peaks (as in picture 2 above), these are peaks that curl up when you remove the whisk. Usually sugar is added at this stage. Then, further beating will result in the formation of stiff peaks (as in picture 3 above). Stiff peaks remain firm and straight once the whisk is removed. At this stage the foam should keep shape, and cling to the sides of the bowl, when flipped upside down.

Meringue - Sweetened Egg Foam
A Meringue is a sweetened egg white foam that is stiff and stable enough to hold shape. There are different types of meringue, such as French, Swiss and Italian meringues. The difference lies in the stage when sugar is added, or whether or not it is subjected to heat. However they all end up with the same result. It is therefore better to characterise meringue according to the method of cooking, rather than to origin.

The 2 types of Meringue

  • Uncooked Meringue   (French) This type is the simplest and most commonly used. It ranges from creamy to dense and stiff. The lightest consistency is achieved by beating the whites first to soft peaks and then gradually folding in the sugar. This creates a soft frothy consistency suitable for spreading, yet too soft to pipe or shape. If the sugar is beaten in, instead of folded in, you will achieve a creamier and firmer consistency. The longer you beat this egg and sugar mixture the stiffer it becomes, and the more suitable for piping and creating shapes it is. There is an array of methods to incorporating the sugar into egg whites. What is worth noting here though, is that the earlier the sugar is added, the firmer and stiffer the meringue is. The later the sugar is added, the softer the meringue.
  • Cooked Meringue    This type is trickier to make and results in a denser meringue than the uncooked type. This type is also less brittle than the uncooked meringue, and absorbs sugar more readily as sugar dissolves better in hot liquid. The partial coagulation of the egg whites creates a more stable meringue, which can sit without separating for a day or even more! This meringue is also safer than uncooked meringue, as the heat kills salmonella bacteria. Cooked meringues can be stored in the fridge for several days. There are 2 types of cooked meringue:
  1. Italian Meringue; this is a meringue that is made by using cooked syrup (sugar and a little water are boiled to "soft ball"), the whites are whipped to stiff peaks, and then the syrup is streamed into the egg whites while continuously beating. This meringue is usually fluffy yet stiff enough to use in decorating pastries, and can hold for a couple of days  before use. This meringue is also light enough to be incorporated into the making of other desserts such as cake batters, and creams...etc.
  2. Swiss Meringue; This meringue is usually made by placing sugar, eggs and some acid (like cream of tartar, or lemon juice) into a bowl over a water bath, and the mixture is whipped to stiff peaks. The bowl is then removed from the water bath and the mixture is whipped until it cools. This method also pasteurises the eggs.
Whichever way you decide to prepare your meringue, you should always watch out for "Meringue's 3 Enemies", which will cause it to flop and not get the proper texture. These 3 enemies are: egg yolk, fat or oil, and detergent. These chemicals will interfere with the foaming process and will lead to an unstable meringue and requires prolongued whipping. However, egg yolks and fat or oil can be incorporated into the meringue after the completion of the foaming process (after the meringue is achieved) as in the case of egg leavened cakes, and the making of soufflés . 

Meringue Troubles
We all know that meringue can go wrong! Weeping, Grittiness and Stickiness are the most common meringue problems. But what exactly causes them?
  • Over-beating or under-beating can cause weeping (unsightly puddles of syrup or syrup beads)
  • Weeping and beads are also caused by undissolved sugar. Therefore it is best to use caster or icing sugar rather than granulated sugar. This is also true for under-cooked sugar syrup.
  • Small particles of undissolved sugar in sugar syrup will also cause grittiness. In uncooked meringues, undissolved sugar (resulting from using granulated sugar and adding the sugar all at once) will also end up with a gritty textured meringue.
  • Meringue pie toppings can weep and shrink away from the base, this can be a result of undercooking, or cooking in a high temperature oven, which browns the meringue before the egg whites had the chance to gelatenise. Especially when the pie filling is cold, the meringue bottom will not cook, and the top will overcook in a high temp oven.
  • Humid weather is bad for meringue, as they absorb moisture, which will make it soft and sticky.
  • It is hard to control weeping when the pie is old. In fact, this is an indication of freshness of the pie if you are to purchase it. Weeping, softness or stickiness are all indications that the pie is old.
Now that you know how meringue is made, how to prevent meringue troubles and how to make my best ever Lemon Tart, you are ready to take on the all-time favourite Lemon Meringue Pie. Here is how its made:

Lemon Meringue Pie
Makes 1 (10" pie) or 12 mini pies
Make sure the meringue does not get too stiff before adding the cornstrach mixture.

You Need

1 recipe lemon tart (freshly made and filling still warm)

For Meringue
You Need
150ml egg whites (from about 5 large eggs)
a squeeze of lemon juice
134g caster sugar
1 tbsp cornstarch
90 ml water
1 tsp vanilla essence

Whip the egg whites with the lemon juice on high speed in a stand mixer until it tripples in size. (if you are using handheld mixer make sure to make cornstarch mixture before you start, once done transfer the cornstarch mixture from the cooking pan into a bowl to stop the cooking process). Gradually add the sugar, turn to medium speed. Continue whipping until soft peaks, do not over beat.

While the egg whites are beating, make the cornstarch mixture. Place the cornstarch in a saucepan and gradually add the water stirring until the mixture is smooth. Bring the mixture to a simmer while constantly stirring. Once the mixture becomes translucent, cook for 30 seconds extra. remove from heat and stir in the vanilla.

Turn the mixer back to high, and immediately add the cornstarch mixture to the egg whites. Whip to stiff peaks. Do not over beat, stop immediately once stiff peaks are achieved.

Immediately cover the tops of the still warm lemon filling, making sure to touch the crust on all edges, leaving no gaps, in order to make sure that the meringue does not shrink. Once the whole top is covered with meringue you can create shapes by pulling your spatula upwards, or swirling it about. Just make sure that there are no gaps. Alternatively you can pipe the meringue over the top if you like. Bake in 375F oven for 10 minutes or until the meringue is lightly browned.

Refrigerate for several hours before serving, in order for the filling to set.

Thank you for dropping by and reading this post. Hope it helps you make perfect Lemon Meringue pies, which are really succulent and should not be missed! Come back again soon for more. & don't forget to spread the love :)