Never underestimate the pleasures of meringue. Simple to the point of plain, meringue delivers delight with every messy bite. As neat as you may be, it’s impossible to eat a meringue without producing a pile of shards and crumbs, and that’s part of the cookie’s charm.
In France, you can find meringues everywhere: Pastry shops sell jumbo-size cookies in colors that rival Easter eggs; supermarkets sell small, spirally meringue kisses in boxes and bags; and even home cooks who rarely bake will make a batch of meringues to use up extra egg whites and serve with ice cream or fruit.
Because they are made of just egg whites and sugar, meringues can be flavored in as many ways as you can imagine . . . or not at all. Even a plain meringue is a treat. My favorite meringue is mint–chocolate chip (it reminds me of the mint–chocolate chip ice cream that I used to get as a child at Howard Johnson’s — although they colored their ice cream green and I leave my meringues white), but I also like coffee–chocolate chip, rose, almond and lemon. See Playing Around for recipes.
A word on size: This recipe makes hefty snowball-size meringues, but the mixture lends itself to small cookies and cookies in shapes other than round. Play around and discover what you like most. And, while you’re playing, try piping out the meringue; it’s beautiful piped through an open star tip.
Plan Ahead! The whites must be at room temperature to get the volume that makes meringues so lovely, so leave them out, covered, for 1 hour or more before setting to work. Also, you‘ll need to dedicate your oven to the meringues for a minimum of 3 hours. If you’d like, you can make them in the evening and let them camp out in the oven overnight.
Center a rack in the oven and preheat it to 250°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
Push the 1 tablespoon granulated sugar and the confectioners’ sugar through a fine-mesh sieve; set aside.
Working with a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, or in a large bowl with a hand mixer (make sure your tools are impeccably clean and free of even a trace of fat, grease or yolk — egg whites’ enemies), beat the whites, cream of tartar (or vinegar) and salt on medium-high speed until the whites form soft peaks, about 3 minutes. Slowly add the 3/4 cup (150 grams) granulated sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time; it will take 5 minutes or even a little longer to get all the sugar into the whites, but, as persnickety as it seems, it will be worth your patience. After all the sugar is incorporated, beat for another 2 minutes or so. You’ll have stiff, glossy, beautifully white peaks. Switch to a flexible spatula and fold in the reserved sugar mix.
I like to shape the snowballs with a large cookie scoop, using a heaping scoop for each meringue. Yes, you get a kind of blob, but one with a nice round top. Alternatively, you can use a tablespoon — or serving spoon — and really pile on the meringue before turning it over onto the baking sheet. No matter how you choose to shape the meringues, leave at least 2 inches between the snowballs.
Bake the meringues — don’t open the oven — for 1 hour and 15 minutes. The snowballs will have puffed and cracked but not colored (though they might be pale beige here and there, and that’s fine). Turn off the heat and prop the oven door open with the handle of a wooden spoon. Leave the meringues to finish baking and drying for another 2 hours, or for as long as overnight.
When you’re ready to serve the meringues, peel them off the paper or mat.
Kept away from humidity, the meringues will be fine for days (if not weeks). Store them in a tin or just put them on a plate and leave them uncovered. In French pastry shops, they are kept uncovered in baskets or on trays, piled one on top of the other.
If you’d like to color the meringue, scoop some of the finished meringue into a bowl and add food coloring, drop by drop and mixing after each addition, until you have a color that’s a shade or two darker than you’d like. Fold the colored meringue into the rest of meringue. You don’t have to be thorough — leave the mixture streaky, and it will form beautiful patterns when baked.
Add 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract to the meringue after the ¾ cup sugar has been incorporated.
Add 1 teaspoon pure almond extract to the meringue after the 3/4 cup sugar has been incorporated. Sprinkle the tops of the snowballs with sliced almonds before baking.
Mint–Chocolate Chip Snowballs
Add 1 teaspoon pure peppermint extract or oil to the meringue after the 3/4 cup sugar has been incorporated. Just before scooping, fold in 1/3 cup finely chopped semisweet or bittersweet chocolate or mini chocolate chips.
Lemon or Orange Snowballs
Add 1 teaspoon pure lemon or orange extract or oil to the meringue after the 3/4 cup sugar has been incorporated. If you’d like, just before scooping, fold in about 1/4 cup finely chopped candied lemon or orange peel.
Green Tea and Pistachio Snowballs
Whisk 2 teaspoons matcha green tea into the sifted sugars. Just before scooping, fold in 1/3 cup finely chopped pistachio nuts, salted or not.
Add 1 teaspoon pure rose extract to the meringue after the ¾ cup sugar has been incorporated. If you’d like, tint the snowballs pale red or rose pink and sprinkle the tops with pink sanding sugar before you bake them. For further embellishment, you could fold in some crushed rose tea leaves just before scooping the meringue.
Coffee-Chocolate Chip Snowballs
Add 1 1/2 teaspoons instant coffee or espresso to the meringue after the 3/4 cup sugar has been incorporated. Just before scooping, fold in 1/3 cup finely chopped semisweet or bittersweet chocolate or mini chocolate chips.