Meringues and soufflés

Meringues and soufflés

By
Justin North
Contains
10 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740665377
Photographer
Steve Brown

Meringues and soufflés are what I think of as the ‘sweet-nothings’ of the dessert world. Both look stunning, all puffed up like airy clouds, and both dissolve into a delicate sweet lightness on the tongue.

This magic occurs when air is whisked into egg whites. As they cook, the heat causes the tiny air bubbles to expand and it sets the egg white protein firm around them. In the lesson on gelatine we touched on this whisking and aerating technique in making mousses. The difference is that mousses are not cooked, and the whisked egg whites are ‘set’ with gelatine or with whipped cream.

Meringues are one of the simplest desserts of all to make, as they need only two ingredients: sugar and egg whites. And although this sounds as if it might be a little restricting, meringues are extraordinarily versatile. Pastry cooks love meringue and it is used to make all manner of imaginative concoctions. It’s not just an essential building block of the soufflé, but think too of oeufs à la neige (floating islands), baked Alaska, vacherin, Genoese sponge, Mont Blanc and the great Aussie and Kiwi dessert classic, pavlova.

The versatility is achieved because different methods of combining the two basic ingredients result in three quite different types of meringue – French, Italian and Swiss.

French meringue – or meringue ordinaire – is the simplest, and is made by beating sugar into whisked egg whites to form snow-white, shiny peaks. Whisked egg whites can expand up to eight times their original volume and the sugar helps to stabilise them, making them less likely to collapse. The only thing to remember when making French meringue is to add the sugar gradually (usually after the whites have been whipped to about four times their original volume) and to make sure each batch is thoroughly dissolved into the whites, or the meringues will ‘weep’ as they bake. French meringue can be used as is for a soufflé or for making oeufs à la neige, or it can be piped or shaped into shells, discs or fingers and baked.

Italian meringue is the meringue of choice of professional pastry chefs. It is virtually indestructible (unlike French meringue, which will break down if not used straight away), so it can be pre-prepared and kept for several hours in the fridge. The stability is achieved by pouring boiling sugar syrup into the whisked egg whites and continuing to whisk them until they cool. The heat from the syrup causes the whites to puff up and ‘cook’. Italian meringue has an even smoother, finer texture than French meringue. It is mainly used as the base for other sweet recipes, but it’s also used to make a range of petits fours, as a topping for tarts, in sweet icings, and as a base for some sorbets, ice creams and iced soufflés.

Swiss meringue – or meringue cuite – is somewhat trickier to make, and tends to be left to professional pastry chefs. It’s made in a similar way to Italian meringue, but is cooked over a pan of simmering water. It requires a fair amount of muscle power, but the resulting meringue is stiff and very stable. I use Swiss meringue to make nougat glacé.

Sweet or savoury, hot soufflés have earned a bit of a reputation for being tricky and unpredictable. A fallen soufflé is probably every cook’s nightmare. But they really are not difficult as long as you observe the basic principles.

Hot soufflés as distinct from iced soufflés are all are made using the same component parts: a flavoured base and whisked egg whites to aerate. Savoury soufflés are usually based on a béchamel sauce. Sweet soufflés are based on pure fruit purées or a flavoured crème pâtissière, folded together with French meringue. In all cases, it is important that both base mixture and whisked egg whites should be of the correct consistency, and they should be folded together gently to maintain maximum volume and lightness.

The prepared soufflé mixture is then spooned into lightly buttered ramekins or a large soufflé dish and baked in a hottish oven to quivering splendour.

A slightly simpler and more foolproof version of the soufflé is the omelette soufflé. These follow the same basic principle of folding whisked egg white into an egg yolk base, but they are baked in an oven-proof omelette pan instead of the traditional soufflé mould.

Tips for whisking egg whites

In general, eggs are easier to separate when they are super-fresh, but the whites whip better when they are older and lightly warmed. I recommend separating them as soon as you take them out of the refrigerator, then leave the egg whites in a covered bowl and allow them to come to room temperature before whisking. Even better, leave them at room temperature for a couple of days; they will begin to liquefy a little, which makes them easier to whisk to even greater volume and they will also be less likely to collapse.

Both your whisk and bowl should be scrupulously clean. Any traces of dirt – and especially any oil or grease – will prevent the whites from whisking successfully.

When whisking egg whites, always start at a low speed. Whisk until they are foamy, with large loose bubbles, then increase your speed to medium-high then high. If the egg whites are beaten too quickly from the beginning the structure of the foam will not be as strong and you will not achieve the maximum volume.

There are several distinct stages that whisked egg whites go through: foamy – when there are large, loose cloudy bubbles but the whites are still quite liquid; soft peaks – when the bubbles have tightened into a white foam, form a ribbon and can be pulled into a peak, but will not hold the shape; firm peaks – glossy, firm and smooth, and will form a peak that curls over at the top; stiff peaks – glossy and very stiff, peaks will hold firm and are stiff enough to slice.

Soufflés

Sweet soufflés are based on pure fruit purées or a flavoured crème pâtissière folded together with French meringue. In all cases, it is important that both base mixture and whisked egg whites should be at the correct temperature (room temperature) and consistency, and they should be folded together gently to maintain maximum volume and lightness.

Hot soufflés are baked in a large soufflé dish or small individual ramekins. They need to be properly prepared so that the soufflé mixture rises up the sides of the dish evenly. Brush the base and the inside of the moulds with melted butter in an upwards direction – it may sound silly, but it does make a difference! Then dust evenly with sugar, shaking off any excess. Refrigerate to set the butter while you prepare the mix.

Fill the moulds generously, then level off the top with a spatula to form a smooth, even surface. Use the tip of a knife to run a small indentation around the rim; this helps the soufflé to rise evenly, without catching on the sides.

Recipes in this Chapter

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