First published Canberra Times December 5, 2012.
My earliest memory of the coastal village where I grew up was that our local shops contained all the essentials of life. The butcher, chemist, vegetable and grocery shop sat in a higgledy-piggledy row, built of cream painted planks with a dark red trim. We called the shops by the shop owners’ surname – Frith’s hardware, Smith’s shoes, Hiles for clothes, Kozary’s fruit and veg, and some exceptions like Goodway grocers and Coolibah milk bar.
Smack bang in the middle of the row of shops sat the very sixties bakery filled with the classic Aussie patisserie du jour. The front door was always open, with plastic fly strips to keep out the blowies flapping in the coastal breeze.
At the end of our weekly Saturday trip to the shops, we would drop into the bakery, a reward for uncomplainingly accompanying Mum to do the weekly shopping. While she chatted to the staff, our noses were pressed to the counter, debating with great passion which cake we would choose; the neenish tart, vanilla slice or piped pink meringues topped with coloured sprinkles. The cakes sat in neat rows behind the counter glass and were the ultimate lure, perfectly positioned to catch us kids, as we poked and prodded the glass with our grubby fingers.
Although she was a dab hand at cooking, Mum’s meringue making was one of her specialties and she was clearly influenced by her European heritage. Her meringues were very different to those made at the bakery, often being double the size and distinctly freeform in shape. I later realised she used the Swiss technique, commonly used in the patisseries of Europe. This method involves warming the egg whites and sugar in a pan, creating a stable mixture that can be piped, swirled or spooned and peaked loosely with a spoon. The result is a dry, crispy and silky exterior with a marshmallowy centre.
French patisserie windows are overflowing with this style of meringue in every flavour and colour variation imaginable. Beautiful displays are created with the billowy, free flowing shapes and the silky textures of these creations.
Regardless of the method you use, there are a few key tips to success. Firstly, you will need a reasonably heavy duty stand mixer, as hand beaters just won’t cut it. Unless you are built like the incredible hulk, you will have difficulty obtaining the consistency you need for good meringues without this essential piece of equipment.
Because egg white and fat don’t mix, wipe the utensils you intend to use with a vinegar and water solution and allow them to dry before you start. This will remove any traces of fat.
Another point to remember is not to overbeat your egg white and sugar mixture. Whisk eggwhites to a soft peak about eight times the original volume in air. You can test this stage by lifting your whisk and the peak of meringue mixture left by the whisk should just curl around to resemble a birds beak.
Always weigh your egg whites, as this method uses double the weight of sugar to egg white. This quantity makes about 13 giant meringues.
436g caster sugar
pinch of salt 15g bitter cocoa, sifted
½ tsp vanilla paste
1 heaped tspn ground cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 110C and line two large baking trays with baking paper.
Sieve the cocoa and cinnamon and mix to combine.
Place the egg whites, salt and sugar in a large saucepan. Cover your hands with clean food grade disposable gloves.
Place the saucepan over a very low heat to gently heat the egg whites and melt the sugar. Stick your hand into the egg and sugar and stir continuously with your hand. While using your hand in this way, you can control the temperature to ensure the egg white and sugar does not rise above 37C. Stir till the sugar is dissolved. You may need to remove the saucepan from the heat every now and again, returning it to the heat to control its temperature.
When the sugar is dissolved and you cannot feel any sugar between your fingers, transfer the mixture to a stand mixer fitted with a whisk. Add the vanilla paste and whisk the egg whites until bird beak stage, when the meringue should hold its shape.
Remove the mixing bowl from the machine, and sieve the cocoa powder and ground cinnamon over the meringue. Do not mix through. Use two large soup spoons to scoop a large spoonful of the mixture onto the tray for each meringue. Don’t be tempted to mix the cocoa through the mixture or you will spoil the effect of the chocolate and cinnamon swirl.
Drop spoonfuls of meringue mixture onto the prepared baking trays, leaving sufficient gaps as they swell while cooking. Don’t be concerned if the chocolate and cinnamon is not mixed through, this is the intended effect.
Place the meringues in the preheated oven, leaving a gap between the oven shelves to allow the hot air to circulate evenly.
Bake the meringues for two hours and turn off the oven. Leave the meringues in the oven to cool for 10 minutes with the oven door ajar.
Remove from the oven and gently transfer to a rack to completely cool. Keep the meringues in an airtight container for up to four days.