A vision in white appears, bedecked with delicate flowers, billowy ruffles, and satiny trim. Is it the bride, primped and primed and ready to walk down the aisle? No, it is her wedding cake, covered from top to bottom in snow-white meringue.
Ethereal, pure, and seemingly magical, meringue is a little like love itself. But unlike love, meringue is easily explained by science. It is made from nothing more than egg whites, sugar, and a touch of cream of tartar -- a mixture that, when beaten, expands into a thick white froth more than three times its original volume. This is due to the proteins in the egg whites, which separate, as they are beaten, into tiny bubbles that trap and hold air. The cream of tartar stabilizes the whites, helping them maintain their volume, and the sugar keeps the mixture moist and malleable -- perfect for frostings and for piping into shapes.
For centuries before the invention of electric mixers, whipping up a successful meringue was the measure of a pastry cook (and his arm muscles). A cook might have spent weeks constructing ornate sugar and meringue sculptures to serve as an edible centerpiece. No wonder meringue was historically reserved for royalty. The sweet morsels were said to be a particular favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, along with candied cherries and vanilla-bean-flavored "marchpane" (marzipan). By the mid-seventeenth century, meringue was mixed with flour and sometimes nuts, and baked into "bisket bread," or flavored with scented waters or extracts and piped into fanciful shapes that hardened when they were dried in front of a low fire.
Today meringue is used more often as a culinary building block than as a treat in its own right. It's the base of a buttercream before the butter is added, a souffle without a custard, a marshmallow minus the gelatin. But plain, unbaked meringue has a divine, melt-in-the-mouth quality and an alluring sweetness all its own. When it's smoothed onto cakes, its airy consistency adds volume while its natural sheen lends a subtle glow. Slowly crisped in a low oven, baked meringue becomes a delightfully crunchy decoration. And toasted meringue -- which has been quickly seared in a hot oven -- has a golden color and an appealing caramelized taste reminiscent of the campfire marshmallows of childhood.
Meringue also takes on other flavors beautifully. Since there's no butter or other fats in meringue, there's nothing to compete with any flavorings you decide to add. This makes meringue an especially good vehicle for delicate, floral flavors such as orange blossom, jasmine, or rose, which are all too easily obscured in richer dishes. Another benefit of using meringue is that you can put any type of cake beneath it. Since meringue is opaque, even the darkest of chocolates won't peek through. And it lends itself to fanciful, sculptural decorations. "Meringue is a fun, versatile medium to work with," says Claudia Fleming, pastry chef at New York City's Gramercy Tavern. "It's got a silky, almost fluffy, texture, and when you pipe it, it makes such pretty, soft designs." Top a classic wedding cake with crunchy individual flowers, textured panels, or soft, piped furbelows.
Or skip the cake entirely and let meringue be the star. Our graceful, tiered Tropical Coconut Pavlova consists of layers of soft-baked meringue, tender and light in the center but with a contrasting crisp exterior. And if you're truly adventuresome, consider the drama of serving each guest an Individual Baked Alaska -- a small ice-cream cake piped with meringue. As a final, flamboyant touch, an eggshell, left over from all those egg whites, is filled with rum, balanced on top of the cake, and set ablaze. It's a spectacular ending to a day spent in celebration of a joyous beginning.