Heavenly looking as well as heavenly tasting, meringue is simply egg whites and sugar whipped and baked into fluffy, billowy clouds. The French style is traditional, but for sky-high meringue pies and the incomparably glamorous dessert known as pavlova, we turn away from tradition.
French meringue is called for often in dessert making: It gets folded into cake batters, baked as is for cookies, used to top pies, and shaped into pavlovas. But we’ve found that a towering topping of French meringue doesn’t cook through on our lemon meringue pie, and a pavlova made with French meringue requires too much guesswork to determine when it has reached the correct doneness temperature. That’s because French meringue is the fussiest style. The sugar must be added to the egg whites at precisely the right moment: too soon and the meringue won’t inflate properly; too late and the meringue will be gritty.
So we favor one of the other two styles of meringue, where the sugar is dissolved right from the start. Italian meringue involves making a sugar syrup and beating it into egg whites as they are whipped. Swiss meringue involves gently warming sugar and egg whites in a bowl over simmering water until the sugar is dissolved and then whipping the mixture. These meringues are most commonly used for buttercream frostings.
We like the lighter Italian meringue for topping meringue pies. The sugar syrup of our Italian meringue transforms egg whites into a tall, extra-fluffy topping that cooks through and is stable enough to resist unattractive weeping, one of the banes of lemon meringue pie.
Using the firmer Swiss meringue for pavlova guarantees success, with a couple of alterations. The typical temperature for the egg white
mixture before whipping is 140 degrees, but heating the whites to 160 degrees causes them to become more tightly knit. Increasing the amount of sugar draws more water from the egg whites so the meringue’s exterior crisps up during baking, to achieve the desired textural contrast between crisp outer shell, marshmallowy interior, and pleasant chew where the two textures meet.
1A FOR ITALIAN MERINGUE Bring sugar and water to vigorous rolling boil and cook until mixture is slightly thickened and syrupy. Remove from heat.
2A Using stand mixer fitted with whisk, whip egg whites on medium-low speed until frothy. Add salt and cream of tartar and whip, gradually increasing speed, until whites hold soft peaks.
3A With mixer running, slowly pour hot syrup into whites. Add vanilla and whip until meringue is cooled, very thick, and shiny.
1B FOR SWISS MERINGUE Combine sugar and egg whites in stand mixer bowl over saucepan of simmering water. Whisking gently, heat until sugar is dissolved and mixture registers 160 to 165 degrees.
2B Using stand mixer fitted with whisk, whip mixture on high speed until it forms stiff peaks and is smooth, creamy, and bright white.
3B Scrape down bowl, add vinegar, cornstarch, and vanilla, and whip on high speed until combined.