Making meringues can be a troublesome task, but with a little attention to detail (and a good set of kitchen scales), fluffy cloud-like perfection can be yours.
I've been a bit obsessed with meringues this week. It started when I asked my husband to knock up some meringue nests for me. I'd scaled down the recipe but forgot to reduce the amount of egg white. What came out of the oven were flat flabby discs with a texture not too dissimilar to polystyrene tiles. I hadn't quite realised that the proportions were so critical (50g of caster to each large egg white), after all meringues look so simple, just two ingredients, though I do know from the phone calls and letters that come into the Good Food office that these innocent little clouds of sugary gorgeousness can be troublesome to perfect.
There are a couple of rules you can't get away from - use eggs at room temperature (to give you more volume) and keep egg yolk or any kind of fat away from the white (as it stops it whisking up so well). I reckon large free range eggs work best but have no scientific proof of this.
Traditional meringues can be the most tricky, so if you're looking for a more relaxing time there's always the pavlova, originally made for Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. The cornflour and vinegar that is added strengthens the egg white and make it more stable and you get the marshmallowy centres from the shorter cooking time.
I love the flavour of brown sugar in meringues, but have found it best not to use too much, half and half with caster works well, as the moisture in the brown sugar can make the meringues too chewy.
A cunning chef's trick for lemon meringue pie, or baked Alaska, is Swiss meringue. Tip the egg whites and sugar in the usual proportions into a heatproof bowl and whisk with a hand electric whisk over a pan of simmering water until you get a thick, glossy and pure white foam, this takes about 5 minutes. You don't even need to cook it in the oven, just spread it over the filling and give it a quick blowtorch or a flash under the grill. This meringue takes flavourings really well, throw in a few chopped pistachios, chunks of chocolate, frosted rose petals or whatever takes your fancy.
Mary Cadogan worked for Good Food magazine for 12 years as Food director. She now lives in the Charente region of France where she runs a cookery school.