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The “Meringue” Way

“To make white bisket bread.
Take a pound & a half of sugar, & an handfull of fine white flower, the whites of twelve eggs beaten verie finelie, and a little annisseed brused, temper all this together, till it be no thicker than pap, make coffins with paper, and put it into the oven, after the manchet is drawen.”
– Recipe for the “white biskit bread” in the book of recipes started (1604) by Lady Elinor Poole Fettiplace (c.1570 – c.1647) of Gloucestershire.
(Fettiplace, Eleanor Poole (1994). Hilary Spurling (ed.). Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book. Translated by John Spurling. Bristol (U.K.): Stuart Press. Volume 1, page 23) noted by Muster (ref.)

Made from egg whites and sugar, whipped up to a finesse with a binding agent (salt, cornstarch or gelatin) and an occasional acidic ingredient (lemon, vinegar or cream of tartar) or flavorings of vanilla, coconut or almond; meringue had graced the dessert menu especially to highlight a special occasion or simply enjoy the pleasures of an exquisite delight. The origin till date, is a point of contention for food historians.

The name “meringue” had first appeared in cookbook by François Massialot (1692) (“XXVIII: Des Meringues & Macarons”. Nouvelle instruction pour les confitures, les liqueurs et les fruits (in French). Paris: Charles de Sercy. pp. 186–188). While the word “meringue” had first appeared in English in an English translation of Massialot’s book (1706); two considerably earlier seventeenth-century English manuscript books of recipes give instructions for confections known as “white bisket bread” and “pets” of what are today are recognizable as meringue. The other claim was that meringue was invented in the Swiss village of Meiringen and improved by an Italian chef named Gasparini between the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century.

“To make Pets
Take a pownd of Drye fine searsed [sifted] suger, & beat the whites very wel then take off froutgh [froth] & put your suger, bye litle & litle in to it — contineually stiring it & beating it with a spoone ore laydle, and when it is exceedingly well beaten, then have some pye plates ready buttred & wipe the buter of because the lesse buter it hath the beter, then drope them upon the plate & put in to every drope a carieway seede or coriander then let your oven be very temparate and watch them with a candle all the while & if they be right they will rise and looke very white, it is good at the first to set a scilet [skillet] of water, with them in to the oven,& when they be thowrow [thoroughly] drye then take them out, you must in the mixing of them put 12 graines of muske & 12 of Abergrisse [Ambergris] which you must bruse with suger before you stire it in to the egge & suger.”
– Recipe for a baked beaten-egg-white-and-sugar confection (1630) is given in a manuscript of collected recipes written, by Lady Rachel Fane (1612/13 – 1680) of Knole, Kent. (Barry, Michael (1995). Old English Recipes. Jarrod (archived at the Centre for Kentish Studies, Maidstone, Kent). p. 64f.)

The faster they are beaten, the better is the flavour. The key to the formation of a good meringue is the formation of stiff peaks by denaturing the protein of egg whites by pure mechanical shear force. Today these light, airy and sweet confections are made at home (more chewy and soft, and crisp exterior), though the commercial ones still thrive. Interestingly, meringues were traditionally shaped between two large spoons (still done so at the home kitchens) till Antonin Carême piped the “meringue through a pastry bag”.

Over the years, various techniques have been improvised to bring forth the French or basic meringue, Italian, Swiss and even the vegan meringue. From biscuits, desserts to embellishment, each meringue based recipe like the lemon meringue pie, baked Alaska, dacquoise, Esterházy torte to mention a few, all have a story and art of their own to tell. With meringue taking the form of whimsical shapes such as mushrooms; or piped into a crisp basket that is baked and filled with cake, fruit, or flowers are few of the many reasons why these delicacies are here to stay and transform the art and flavours of dessert.

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