It seems to have been only in the 16th century that European cooks discovered that beating egg whites, e.g. with a whisk of birch twigs (in the absence of any better implement), produced an attractive foam. At first the technique was used to make a simple, uncooked dish called snow, made from egg white and cream. However, cooking such a foam would not have resulted in meringue, for any fat in the mixture, as represented by the cream, prevents the egg whites from taking on the proper texture. (This is why when meringue is made, the fatty yolks have to be carefully separated.) Even if the cream had been omitted, there would have been technical problems. The presence of any particle of sugar larger than a tiny speck causes absorption of moisture and the problem known as ‘weeping’, drops of sticky syrup. The sugar has to be ground very fine and added gradually. Furthermore, the light texture of meringue makes it such an efficient heat insulator that anything more than the thinnest layer of meringue must be cooked very slowly—more dried than baked—or the centre remains raw and collapses in a gummy mass. Nevertheless, snow was a beginning.
When true meringue made its appearance in the 17th century, it still lacked its name and was often called ‘sugar puff’. Sometimes these were flavoured with caraway seeds. Such practices have continued and multiplied. The addition of some other ingredients or flavourings to meringue can create an almost infinite number of variations. One modern example is japonais, where ground almond is added to the egg white; ground hazelnuts or walnuts can also be used. If this meringue is made into larger disks, they can be layered with buttercream or some other filling to create the cake called dacquoise, named for the SW French town of Dax—were it oblong, it would be a gâteau marjolaine.
Small meringues are easier to make than big ones because of the problem of making heat reach the centre. Very small ones are termed meringuettes or croquignoles in French, and are used as a kind of petit four. Modern Dutch schuimpjes are similar, but variously coloured. Medium-sized meringues were found suitable for splitting and filling with flavoured cream; and a layer of meringue continues in use as a topping for various sweet items, e.g. the many sorts of American meringue pie.
The problem of large meringues was solved in the 18th century with the invention of the vacherin, a large meringue case made to contain fruit and cream, or some other sweet mixture. In this connection see pavlova; and, for an even more ingenious use of meringue, see baked Alaska.
© the Estate of Alan Davidson 1999, 2006, 2014 © in the Editor’s contribution to the second and third editions, Oxford University Press 2006, 2014.