I love reading cookbooks with my Sprouts. One day when Daughter 1 was a little over a year old she made a food request specifically known to us by excitedly reacting to a beautiful photograph of spaghetti with tomato sauce on the cover of Saveur Cooks Authentic Italian. This wasn’t a dish we’d yet introduced her to at that tender age (she was barely eating solids at that point) but we made it that evening, resulting in what we refer to as The Great Spaghetti Slurping Episode. Taking the end of a noodle between her lips, she sucked the whole thing completely into her mouth in — I swear — under 1.2 seconds. One moment it was there, and the next it was not. But a big grin was.
That grin stuck with me. I’m always excited to try something the girls find in one of our many cookbooks. It’s a great way to explore new tastes. When Daughter 2 came across a lovely picture of meringues in a copy of Yotam Ottolenghi’s award-winning Plenty this weekend, visions of that spaghetti-induced grin played through my mind. Only this time, I saw a smile inspired by shatteringly crisp bits of meringue and fresh fruit.
And so it was we came to embark on a Sunday of meringues. Daughter 1 all-too-eagerly rallied to the cause, especially after learning that the primary ingredients were to be whipped egg whites and sugar. She even impressed me with her prowess piping from a pastry bag (who taught her to do that?) while Daughter 2 traced circles on parchment paper – GREAT activity for a three-year-old.
We learned some things along the way, too. We made meringue nests to hold our fruit as well as smaller meringue cookies, and it was the cookies that turned out the best. The nests, while impressive, were just a little too large and still sticky even after baking for three hours. That probably had something to do with overly eager meringue piping, resulting in some sections of our nests being thicker than others. The little cookies, on the other hand, were perfectly sized. Just right for portion control, and they dried beautifully while staying perfectly white.
We also learned a bit about meringues in general. There is a great primer in Dessert University by Ronald Mesnier explaining the differences between French Meringues, Swiss Meringues and Italian Meringues. A very informative read, and it was from this cookbook that we borrowed our techniques and egg-to-sugar ratios. Having made meringue cookies before I was familiar with the French Meringue technique of whipping egg whites and then adding sugar, but opted to try the Swiss Meringue style for our Sunday dessert because I wanted something dryer and stronger to hold the fresh pineapple — and that is what Swiss Meringues are best for. It is made by heating the egg whites with the sugar over boiling water before whipping them. Italian Meringues, on the other hand, are recommended when you want a meringue that holds it shape even when it’s not baked: it involves whipping a boiling sugar syrup into egg whites to quickly cook them and can be used for icing cakes or topping pies.
This is an easy and impressive desert, requiring just a handful of ingredients and lots of steps that are good for little hands. I recommend, however, that an adult separate the eggs and oversee the double boiler heating. When separating eggs I find it easiest to use my hands, allowing the yolk to stay cupped in my fingers while the white runs through to small bowl underneath. I also separate one egg at a time into that bowl and then move it to a lager bowl once I’m sure it’s shell-free and isn’t spoiled — eliminating the risk of contaminating the larger bowl of egg whites. For meringues, it’s also crucial to use extremely clean bowls (preferably glass or metal) so that the egg whites whip as fully as necessary.
We amped up the flavor of our meringue by adding freshly-grated ginger at the very end of the whipping process and also splashed some ginger simple syrup on the fresh pineapple that we served with the meringues. Plated with a little candied ginger and some fresh mint leaves, this dessert is a show-stopper. Daughter 1, however, declared the candied ginger “too spicy,” preferring the slightly more subtle ginger flavor in the meringue and fruit. That was easy enough since the dessert is a handful of component ingredients that come together at the last moment.
I’m curious where our cookbook explorations are going to take us next. Stay tuned, but for now, I invite you to come along on this adventure and make some gingered meringues of your own.
Gingered Meringues with Fresh Pineapple
8 egg whites (yolks reserved for another use)
2 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon finely-grated fresh ginger
4 cups fresh pineapple, cut into 1/2 inch by 1 inch wedges (bite sized)
For the simple syrup:
1 cup water
1 cup granulated sugar
6 1/8-inch thick slices of peeled fresh ginger, cut into thin matchsticks
Candied ginger slices (easy to make from the ginger in the simple syrup!) and fresh mint sprigs for serving
Preheat oven to 200 degrees F. and arrange oven racks so that one is in the upper-middle position, and one is in the lower-middle position.
Begin by lining two baking sheets with parchment paper. If making meringue nests, draw 3-inch circles on the paper with a pencil, and then flip the parchment paper over so that the pencil circle is against the baking sheet and your meringues don’t come in contact with the pencil lead. You will be able to see the circle through the parchment paper.
Place the egg whites into a deep, clean metal bowl (or the bowl of a standing mixer, which I recommend using for this). Add the sugar, whisk gently to incorporate, and place the bowl over a pot of boiling water so that the bottom of the bowl just barely contacts with the water. Whisk constantly until the mixture registers 125 degrees F. on a candy thermometer (it will be warm, not hot).
After the egg white and sugar mixture has come to temperature, begin to mix it on high speed using the balloon whisk attachment of a standing mixer or hand-held electric mixer. When the meringue has significantly increased in volume and holds stiff peaks, turn off the mixer, spoon a small portion (about two cups) into a clean bowl and add the fresh ginger. Mix the ginger into the 2 cups of meringue with a spoon and return the now-flavored meringue back into the mixing bowl with the rest of the meringue and mix for another 15 – 30 seconds, until the ginger is well incorporated through the entire batch.
Spoon a healthy amount of the meringue into a pastry bag fitted with a plain pastry tip (#5PT works well, but anything fairly large and open will do) and begin to pipe the nests or meringue cookies onto the prepared baking sheets. To make the nests, start from the center of the circles you have drawn and work your way out, covering the bottom completely. Pipe another ring around the outer edge of the base, and then top that with a third ring. If you don’t have a pastry bag or pastry tips, use a zip top bag and snip a small bit of the corner off the bag to make an improvised pastry bag. I’ve used this trick frequently.
This quantity of meringue should make up to 24 nests, or somewhere between 72 and 96 meringue cookies, depending on how large or small you make yours. Space accordingly, though two baking sheets should be adequate. You may even wish to do a combination of nests and cookies, as we did. Allow approximately one inch between nests/cookies. They will not spread as they cook but you don’t want them to touch.
Place the baking sheets with the meringues into the oven, leaving the door to the oven cracked slightly. The meringues are done after two to three hours, when they are completely dry. Rotate the baking sheets after one hour of cooking, and again after two hours if the meringues require more time. Remove from the oven when they are dry and allow them to cool on the baking sheet. They will harden even further as they cool. Peel them off the parchment paper when they have cooled completely and either use them immediately or keep them in an airtight container. They will last up to three weeks.
While the meringues are baking, prepare the simple syrup. Bring 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar to a boil over high heat. Add the fresh ginger matchsticks, stir, and allow the mixture to boil for one minute. The sugar should be completely dissolved. Turn off the heat and allow the ginger to steep in the syrup until it is cool (one hour should do it). Strain, reserving the ginger to make candied ginger.
Pour about 1/2 cup of the now-strained syrup over the 4 cups of pineapple and allow it to macerate in the refrigerator, mixing every 15 or 20 minutes, for about an hour. If your pineapple is not particularly sweet, add more syrup a tablespoon at a time. If you prefer your pineapple to be less sweet, add less syrup. Reserve the remaining ginger syrup for another use (great in cocktails, or drizzled over ice cream or another cut fruit…).
To make the candied ginger, toss the ginger with a little bit of granulated sugar while the matchsticks are still moist. The sugar will adhere to the syrup on the ginger. Allow to dry on a clean plate, and use as garnish.
To serve the nests, fill a meringue nest with 1/2 cup pineapple and garnish with the candied ginger and fresh mint leaves. To serve meringue cookies, spoon 1/2 cup pineapple into a bowl, garnish with the candied ginger and fresh mint leaves, and place two to three cookies along side. Encourage your family and guests to take bites of the meringue with the pineapple — it’s a heavenly combination.
Serves: 8, with leftover meringue nests or cookies. Adjust the amount of pineapple upward and use more syrup, and you can serve as many people as you have nests.
Kid rating: five stars. Both of our girls absolutely loved this dessert. They loved rolling up their sleeves in the kitchen, too, and tasting as they went along as well. As I mentioned above, the candied ginger was not a hit with the girls, but everything else was. Daughter 2 even asked that I pack some for her lunch the next day.
Parent rating: For the cookie and pineapple version, five stars. For the nest version, five stars for presentation, but fewer for the effort of cutting through the nests and eating bites with the pineapple. Our nests were not quite as dry and powdery as they should have been, meaning we had to use knives to cut through them. They would have been FANTASTIC if we could have shattered them with a fork. My husband commented on the ginger flavor of the meringues, which gave them depth without being too strong. A little extra effort is required for the piping, and they do spend a long time in the oven, but this dessert is one that definitely deserves to be on the “impress the dinner guests” list.