Meringue Cookies for the Holidays

Make delicious, low-fat holiday cookies in a snap with these recipes for basic, lemon, peppermint, fruit, coconut and almond meringues.

| November/December 1989

Look, we both know how it will turn out. We'll postpone the shopping, delay the wrapping, defer the Christmas cards, and stall the relatives who want to visit. Then, when the roast turkeys come home to roost, when we're trying to finish every last-minute thing we wish we had started two months earlier, we'll announce firmly, "No Christmas cookies this year. There just isn't time." And add virtuously, "Who needs all that extra fat anyway, all that butter, shortening, and oil?"

Instantly, friends and neighbors will appear at the door with festive tins of handsome, home-baked goods. And we'll feel lazy, mean-spirited, left out. We'll decide that maybe we will do some baking, even if it is late, even if we are dreaming of a light Christmas.

A good time to make meringues. These sweet, airy confections—crisp, firm cookies, not the soft, moist topping for pies—require about 10 minutes of preparation time and a few staples found in any half-stocked kitchen: egg whites, sugar, salt, and flavoring. Depending on what additional ingredients are added, meringues range from fat-free to reasonably low in that least welcome nutrient. Served alone or with fresh fruit or sherbet, they're a welcome addition to a light meal or a perfect ending to a heavy one.

Essentially, meringues are sweetened egg whites that are beaten and baked. All the bad press that eggs are getting these days belongs primarily to the yolks; the whites are blameless. Sixty of a large egg's 80 calories are in the yolk, along with all the cholesterol and virtually all the fat. (If an egg is contaminated with salmonella, that's in the yolk too.) The white contains a measly 17 calories, 16 of them from protein of such high quality that it is the standard against which other proteins, animal or vegetable, are commonly measured.

Aside from beating the egg whites with sugar and baking them in a low oven until they're dry and firm, there's not much to making meringues. A few fine points: 

  • Egg whites whip up to a larger volume when they're at room temperature. If there's time, get them out of the refrigerator beforehand to warm up. 
  • Meringues don't change shape in the oven; what goes in is what comes out. If there are any misshapen forms or weird little protuberances, round them off with a spoon before baking. 
  • All the recipes except Lemon Meringues call for 1/8 teaspoon of cream of tartar, which lurks somewhere in most kitchens. If you're out, you can substitute another acid—1/2 teaspoon of lemon juice or white vinegar for every two egg whites. 
  •  Meringues should be stored in an airtight container to prevent them from becoming sticky—which will happen especially fast on humid days.

We don't want to overstate the nutritional purity of our seven recipes. While our basic meringues are fat-free and have less than a teaspoon of sugar each, some of the ingredients in the other recipes up the ante. Chocolate chips, coconut, and almonds, alas, all add fat. (They were, of course, among our taste testers' favorites.) Still, we've kept the amounts of the offending ingredients small, and compared with the butter-rich fudge and shortening-based piecrusts that abound during the holidays, even dolled-up meringues are easy on the waistline.

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