When most people think of Easter, the first thing that comes to mind is brightly colored eggs. For me, it’s meringues--beautiful, light, billowy meringue pies. They can be lemon, lime, chocolate, banana, rhubarb or graham cracker cream underneath, but there must be meringue on top.
They were the highlight of every Easter dinner at our house. My mother would get up early Easter morning to make her pies so they would be fresh for dinner.
Many cooks are intimidated by these fluffy beauties and take the easy way out by covering their pies with whipped cream. But let’s take a closer look at meringues and try to take some of the mystery out of making them. Actually, they’re fast and easy to prepare if you follow a few simple tips.
There are two types of meringues in these recipes. Soft meringue is made from egg whites beaten with cream of tartar and then with sugar until stiff peaks form. Italian meringues are made by beating a hot sugar syrup into the egg whites.
The most important thing about making either is making sure that your bowl and beaters are clean and totally free of grease. Any fat or grease will cause a loss of volume. The size of the bowl is also important; deep, medium-size bowls work the best.
Allow egg whites to come to room temperature before beating; this will give the greatest volume. When separating eggs, be careful not to break the yolk; the fat in the yolk can affect the beaten whites’ volume. Crack the eggs over a second bowl so that, if a yolk is broken, the bowl of whites will not be affected.
When making the soft meringue, add the cream of tartar at the beginning of the beating to stabilize the egg whites so they won’t deflate so easily. Add the sugar only after the egg whites have reached soft peaks. You can tell by stopping the mixer and lifting the beaters up--the whites should form peaks that fall over softly.
When you add the sugar, it is very important to do so gradually to get a stiff meringue. It is also essential to beat the meringue until it turns glossy. When the beaters are lifted, the egg whites should form stiff, pointed peaks that do not fall over.
Test the egg whites with your fingers at this point. They should not feel gritty. If they do, beat a little longer to dissolve the sugar. Undissolved sugar in meringues forms “beads” of syrup on baked meringues. Over-beaten egg whites will look too thick and will begin to lose their gloss and look dry.
Italian meringues are made in much the same way, except that the sugar is added in the form of a hot syrup, which cooks the egg whites. It is important to cook the syrup to 238 degrees, but no higher. It is also crucial to add the syrup to the softly beaten egg whites in a fine stream. Remember to slow down your beater when adding the hot syrup so you will not get burned by flying syrup.
Continue beating until the meringue is stiff and cool; then it’s ready to be piped onto the tart (unlike soft meringue, which is spooned). An Italian meringue will harden on its own, without further cooking, so use it right away.
When decorating a pie, spoon the meringue into the center of the pie and then push it to the very edge of the filling, so it touches the crust, sealing in the filling. When making the swirls in the meringue, keep the peaks low; if they stand up too high, they will burn during the baking.
Also, don’t over-bake the meringue. It should just turn a golden brown. Bake it too long, and the meringue will begin to “weep,” oozing drops of sugar syrup. This can also be caused by over-beating the egg whites. Cool meringues away from drafts to avoid shrinkage.
Remember that meringue pies are best eaten shortly after baking--definitely on the day they are made. They are never quite the same after a night in the refrigerator. Try to avoid making them during humid weather, if you can. Humidity is the enemy of meringues; they tend to weep, have less volume and be tough.
You can get a head start the night before by making the pie crust dough, rolling it out and fluting it so the crust is ready to go in the morning. Just cover the pie shell tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate it.
Make the pie filling close to baking time. And, of course, the meringue mixture must be made at the last minute, just before baking.
Yes, it does mean getting an early start on your baking on Easter Day, but it’s well worth it. After you try it once, you too will always think of meringue pies at Easter.