My birthday falls in the middle of December and is usually a Christmassy affair. When I was about eight my brother was in the throes of expanding his baking repertoire and had a newfound obsession with Seven-minute White Icing. A simple frosting that involved whipping egg whites, sugar and corn syrup into a frenzy for approximately seven minutes until mountainous white peaks emerged. Its basically pure sugar and my mother reluctantly conceded to it on high days and holidays. I would look on in awe as my brother confidently clutched the hand-held mixer and transformed snotty egg whites into pillows of Christmas snow, at once making him a hero in my eyes.
Our enthusiasm for this meringue meant that my birthday cake was typically a devils food cake with seven-minute white icing tumbling over it and a festive sprinkle of silver balls. The whole family, including the dog, would ceremoniously crowd around the table, with me at the centre. I can still see all their eager faces smiling back at me, anticipating the first slice. My family is often separated by geography and these moments when we all came together are precious memories.
For me, seven minute white icing isn’t just sugary frosting. It means birthdays, Christmas holidays and a family reunited. I can’t even think about it without affection for my brother, who is still a hero to me. My long-winded point is that food, in its many forms, is one of the fundamentals that shape us. So many of my memories are punctuated by food and I’m not unique in this. Every single one of us has a story and the insatiable number of food blogs shows that we’re prouder than ever to tell them. Food is the most photographed subject on instagram and the cookery book market is growing in the face of digital media. We love food and we are food. This is the first in a series of posts paying homage to the humble flavours that make us. Each week I’ll focus on a simple ingredient, its wealth of potential and its place in our culture.
In keeping with the story that started this post, it seems appropriate to begin the campaign with egg whites.
My Thoughts On Egg Whites
From Julia Child to Delia Smith, there are few gastronomic masters who haven’t extolled the virtues of the unassuming egg white. Inexpensive and rife with possibility, egg whites are nothing short of an epicurean marvel. Even the highest quality eggs will rarely set you back more than a few pounds; yet this affordable ingredient is at the centre of so many luxurious recipes. The value lies in their ability to create lightness and add body. Think Soufflés, chocolate mousse, Eton mess and macaroons. All fashioned from the humble little egg white.
The miracle of science means that vigorously whisking egg whites generates a force that unfolds the protein molecules. Aerating the whites causes the proteins to come out of their natural state and we’re left with a body of white foam. To prove effective, the egg white must be fastidiously separated from the yolk and beaten in a very clean bowl. Exposure to any kind of fat will prevent them from being whipped up properly.
Despite the abundance of recipes that egg whites inspire, today I’m keeping it ever so simple with a basic French meringue.
Tips for making meringues
Make sure all your equipment, from whisk to bowl, is meticulously clean.
Rub your bowl with half a lemon before you begin to get rid of any grease.
Egg whites at room temperature attain loftier results when whisked.
Avoid making meringues on rainy days, as the humidity tends to make them a little flaccid.
To test that the meringue is whisked enough, hold the bowl upside down (over your head) to make sure the peaks keep their shape.
Be careful not to over whisk your egg whites, as it may cause them to collapse.
Half a lemon
225g caster sugar
4 large egg whites, at room temperature
- Preheat the oven to 200C. Spread the sugar over a baking tray lined with greaseproof baking paper and cook for about 5 minutes, until slightly melted at the edges. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for a few minutes.
- Turn the oven right down to 120C and leave the door open so that it cools down more quickly.
- Meanwhile, wipe the inside of the mixing bowl with the lemon and add the egg whites. Whisk vigourously (it helps if you have an electric mixer!) until the egg whites are foamy. Then slowly start adding the caster sugar, using a metal spoon, while continuing to whisk the egg whites.
- Continue whisking until the mixture has become glossy and the peaks hold their shape.
- Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper. Scoop up the mixture with a metal spoon and dollop onto the greaseproof paper. I like to keep them swirly and rustic. There should be enough mixture for 6 large meringues.
- Bake in the oven for about three hours, by which time the meringues should be crisp on the outside.
- Turn off the oven, and leave the meringues inside for about 8 hours, or over night, until they are completely cool and sound hollow on the inside.
- Store for up to four days in an airtight container, or freeze for up to three months.