My professional encounters with meringue happened to follow a trajectory that took me from very small to extra-large.
In my first job as an assistant to the pastry chef in a Michelin-starred French restaurant, I was helping with the petit fours. This involved piping minuscule meringue mounds onto tiny lemon tarts and then placing those under the grill for just a minute or two. This gave the meringue a crisp crust and a blissful contrast to the glorious goo created when the meringue sank into the lemon curd underneath it. I had to use Italian meringue for these, a technique that consists of boiling sugar syrup and slowly pouring it into the whisking egg whites. This creates a stable meringue that doesn’t need any cooking.
For making meringue kisses, baked and then attached in pairs with cassis, I used the French method, which simply involves gradually adding caster sugar to the whisking whites. This is the method most commonly used by home cooks, and it requires cooking the meringue in a low oven for a relatively long time until completely dry.
Next, baked alaska, that superretro dessert in which an ice-cream heap sits over cake and is covered with a thick layer of meringue that is then briefly baked in the oven for color. I was working at a British restaurant and made individual alaskas using Christmas pudding as the base and rum-salt-caramel ice cream on top. You would think this would be inedible because of off-the-chart sugar levels, but as I often find with meringue, its natural sweetness is mellowed by other sweet things, which is why it is so effective in multilayered sweets and desserts.
The outside shatters and crumbles as you bite into it, while the center remains satisfyingly chewy.
After that, I worked in a pastry shop in which meringues were multifunctioning as treats for sale as well as window decoration. Round meringues, each the size of a small fist, sprinkled with flaked almonds and piled up to heights where no other cake would be safely placed. Meringues’ natural sturdiness means they can be plucked from a distance with long tongs with little risk of breakage. For those meringues, we used the Swiss method, in which sugar and egg whites are heated together over a water bath for the sugar to start dissolving in the whites before they are whisked up. This is a good way to get a smooth consistency, but it wasn’t always easy finding bowls large enough for the high volumes of meringue we were making.
So when I opened my own deli, Ottolenghi, a few years later, we used another method, which involves heating the sugar in the oven before adding it to the whisking whites, and so helping it dissolve. The meringues grew bigger — now the size of grapefruits — and were finished off by rolling them in raspberry coulis, cocoa powder or chopped pistachios just before baking, giving our window bursts of intense color when each type was piled up in a colossal heap. These meringues are fully cooked in the middle, which allows you to break them up and mix them with whipped cream or ice cream, or even both. I have never envisaged — in fact, I seriously advised against — their being eaten as they are, using a knife and fork, although I have met a few eccentric customers who insisted that that’s how they liked them.
As much as I love meringues, I would never eat them neat. For me, they must be combined with something creamy, something nutty or — most effectively — something fruity. Meringues’ ultimate life skill is the way in which they contrast and highlight the creaminess of cream, the nuttiness of nuts and the sharp, juicy sweetness of fresh seasonal fruit.
Which seamlessly leads me to pavlova, the dessert that does all of the above in the most magnificent way. To the egg whites and sugar, a small amount of vinegar and some cornstarch are normally added. This stabilizes the meringue and allows you to only partly cook it, so the outside shatters and crumbles as you bite into it, while the center remains satisfyingly chewy. Along with the cream and fruit, it’s an unmatched carnival of textures.
Pavlova is the dessert you would find more than any other on my dining table at home. My two young boys cannot get enough of it; for them, it is pure happiness. For me, it is pure happiness plus. Precisely because it is so simple to make, because it is just meringue, because it is light and airy and crispy, it is a blank yet glorious canvas, the perfect backdrop on which I can showcase the season’s bounty of fruit.