UNITED NATIONS OF MERINGUES
French meringue—sometimes referred to as "ordinary"—is the most basic of the trio and the least stable until baked. Egg whites are beaten until they coagulate and form soft peaks, at which point sugar is slowly incorporated until the mixture has attained full volume; is soft, airy, and light; and stands at attention when the whip is lifted. French meringue is customarily spooned or piped into different forms, including dessert shells (such as vacherins) and cake layers (as in a dacquoise), and baked, later to be topped with fruit, mousse, or whipped cream. It is also often folded into batters (for lady fingers, sponge cakes, soufflés, and the like) and baked.
Swiss meringue is prepared by gently beating egg whites and sugar in a pan that sits above boiling water, without touching it. When the mixture reaches 120 to 130 degrees Fahrenheit and the sugar is completely dissolved, the mixture is pulled off the heat and beaten vigorously to increase and attain full volume and then at a lower speed until cool and very stiff. Swiss meringue is smoother, silkier, and somewhat denser than French meringue and is often used as a base for buttercream frostings.
Italian meringue (shown below) is made by drizzling 240-degree Fahrenheit sugar syrup into whites that have already been whipped to hold firm peaks. Whipping continues until the meringue is fully voluminous, satiny, stiff, and cool. Italian meringue is often used to frost cakes (alone or as a base for buttercream frostings), to top filled pies, or to lighten ice creams, sorbets, and mousses.
Classic French Lemon Meringue Recipe
1 1/4 cups (310 ml) sugar
1/2 cup (125 ml) cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon (0.5 ml) salt
Grated zest of 2 lemons
1 3/4 cups (430 ml) cold water
3 egg yolks
3 tablespoons (45 ml) unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup (125 ml) lemon juice
4 egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon (1 ml) cream of tartar
1/2 cup (125 ml) sugar
In a saucepan, combine the sugar, cornstarch, salt, lemon zest, and water. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly until it thickens (the preparation must reach a boil to allow the starch to thickens). Reduce the heat and cook for 1 minute. Remove from the heat and set aside 75 ml (1/3 cup) of this mixture for the meringue.
In a bowl, combine the egg yolks, butter and lemon juice with a whisk. Whisk in a ladle of the hot mixture, and then pour back into the saucepan and stir (if the yolks were added directly to the hot mixture, they could coagulate and form lumps). Return to the heat and bring back to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce the heat and cook for 1 minute to cook the yolks. Set aside.
In a bowl, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar with an electric mixer until soft peaks form. Gradually add the sugar, beating until stiff peaks form. Whisk in the reserved curd mixture (adding a little starch to the meringue prevents it from forming water droplets on its surface as it cools).
Reheat the filling and pour into the pie shell. Spoon the meringue over the filling (a hot filling cooks the underside of the meringue, which prevents seeping from the pie). Spread evenly, taking care to touch the edge of the crust. Form decorative peaks. Bake for about 20 minutes or until the meringue is golden brown. Let cool completely at room temperature, about 5 hours. Preferably enjoyed the same day.
Sources: Ricardo & Cooks Illustrated Image: The Very UnFrench Wives