Saturday, April 16, 2011

French Meringues with Chantilly Cream and Fresh Strawberries

I tried my first French meringue at a tiny little shop set in an outdoor strip mall near our family home in Southern California when I was about 12 years of age. Anchored by a large Sears Roebuck's and set amid a smattering of even less glamorous establishments, a Parisian patisserie it was not. And yet, it was just as enchanting and charming to my pre-tween palate and perspective as if it had been.

Though I can't recall the name of the shop, it was owned and operated by a woman of European heritage, the mother of a school friend. To this day, I believe she made the best meringues I've ever had... billowing clouds of crisp meringue, generously filled with a light, slightly sweet and completely ethereal whipped cream that was then covered with a cascade of fresh, sliced strawberries. They were heavenly.

Given this nostalgic imprint, you'd think that meringues
would be a staple in my little dessert arsenal... but no. It really wasn't until just recently at a friend's dinner that I remembered just how much I loved those meringues. At the end of our dinner, five of us shared a large piece of Boccone Dolce cake... a tower of beautiful meringue layers separated by sweet Chantilly cream and fresh strawberries; the whole thing drizzled with ribbons of dark chocolate. It was heavenly.

And so, when it came time to think of a dessert appropriate for a birthday dinner I was hosting, I immediately thought of meringues... single little pillows of crisp French meringue filled just like the ones I'd had as a young girl.

Meringues are a very easy (and surprisingly light) dessert. They are basically just egg whites and sugar. Not complicated. There are really just two things that you absolutely want to make sure you do... get as much volume in your egg whites as you can, and bake them to a crisp without browning or cracking them. And the only real culprit to impeding either of those two efforts is moisture! So, a drippy (or humid) day is not the day to make meringues.

Most everything you read says to make meringues on a sunny, dry day. However, given the fact that it has been raining here, nearly nonstop, for months (!&?##!!), I settled for a dry and gray day where the clouds hovered high and serene, letting in more light and promise than we've come to expect lately. Not a heavenly day (for meringues at least), but good enough.

The trick is to bake meringues slow and low. Then, let them sit... and sit. There are so many variations on the best way to bake meringues, some that suggest baking for long hours and resting them in the oven overnight, to others that suggest a quick hour of baking and another hour of rest.

After reviewing a few recipes, I ended up melding the recipes of Ina Garten and David Lebowitz. I like the addition of cream of tartar (as recommended by Ina) because it works as a stabilizer in whipping whites, helping to add volume. It also keeps sugar from crystallizing so your meringue will be smooth and silky. And, I like the idea of using some confectioner's sugar (as David recommends) as it takes little or no time to break down. You don't want sugar granules remaining in your whipped egg whites (undissolved sugar attracts moisture).

The resulting meringues turn out extraordinarily light and crisp, brilliantly white, and demurely sweet. The Chantilly cream is a perfect filler for these little pillows, equally light and ethereal, and beautifully flavored with a blanket of fresh strawberries that have just a hint of sweet-tart flavor. Heavenly!