Meringue Cookies for the Holidays

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PHOTO: WALTER WICK
Meringues are a perfect holiday treat for those with little time for baking—or little room in their diets for traditional rich holiday desserts.

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.

Basic Meringues

2 egg whites
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Lightly oil a baking sheet, and line with waxed paper.
(Don’t oil the paper.)

Beat egg whites on medium speed until foamy. Add cream of
tartar, and beat on high until whites hold stiff peaks.
Gradually beat in sugar, keeping mixer on high and
sprinkling the sugar over the whites a tablespoon at a
time. Add salt and vanilla extract, and beat on high until
mixture is smooth and glossy and holds soft peaks.

Drop by teaspoonfuls onto baking sheet, rounding off any
that are shaped unattractively. Bake in a preheated
250°F oven 1 hour, or until meringues are firm. Let
cool on baking sheet a minute or two, or until they lift
off easily; place on rack to cool. Makes about 30-35.

Lemon Meringues

1 lemon
2 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
1/4 teaspoon lemon extract
Few drops of yellow food coloring (optional)

With a lemon zester, remove peel from a clean lemon in
short, thin strips; or grate peel, being careful not to
include any of the bitter white pith. Set aside.

Beat egg whites on medium until foamy; add lemon juice, and
beat on high until whites hold stiff peaks. Gradually beat
in sugar. Add salt, lemon extract, and, if desired, a few
drops of yellow food coloring–enough to tint the
mixture pale yellow. Beat on high until mixture holds soft
peaks. With a rubber spatula, gently fold in the lemon
zest. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto baking sheet lined with
waxed paper, and bake in a preheated 250°F oven for 1
hour. Cool on the baking sheet for a minute or two, until
meringues come off paper easily; place on rack to cool. Makes 30-35.

Peppermint Meringues

2 ounces peppermint-stick candy
2 egg whites
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Pinch of salt

In a food processor or blender, process candy until chopped
medium fine. Reserve 30 of the larger chunks that remain,
and set the rest aside.

Beat egg whites on medium speed until foamy; add cream of
tartar, and beat on high until whites hold stiff peaks.
Gradually beat in sugar. Add vanilla and salt, and beat
until mixture is smooth and glossy and holds soft peaks.
Fold in chopped candy. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto baking
sheet lined with waxed paper, and place a piece of candy on
top of each meringue. Bake in preheated 250°F oven for
1 hour. Cool on baking sheet for a minute or two, then
remove to rack to cool. Makes 30-35.

Fruit Meringues

2 egg whites
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon brandy, rum, or vanilla extract
1/3 cup chopped, mixed, candied fruit
Candied fruit for decoration

Beat egg whites on medium speed until foamy. Add cream of
tartar, and beat on high until whites hold stiff peaks.
Gradually beat in sugar, add salt and extract, and beat
until mixture holds soft peaks. Fold in fruit.

Drop by teaspoonfuls onto baking sheet lined with waxed
paper, and place a piece of candied fruit atop each
meringue. Bake in preheated 250°F oven for 1 hour. Cool
on baking sheet for a minute or two, then remove to rack to
cool. Makes 30-35.

Chocolate Chip Meringues

2 egg whites
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup mini chocolate chips

Beat egg whites on medium speed until foamy; add cream of
tartar, and beat on high until whites hold stiff peaks.
Gradually beat in sugar. Add salt and vanilla, and beat
until mixture holds soft peaks. With rubber spatula, gently
fold in mini chocolate chips. Drop by teaspoonfuls on
baking sheet lined with waxed paper, and bake in a
preheated 250°F oven for 1 hour. Cool on baking sheet
for a minute or two, then remove to rack to cool. Makes 30-35.

Coconut Meringues

2 egg whites
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
1/4 teaspoon coconut extract
1/4 cup shredded coconut

Beat egg whites on medium until foamy; add cream of tartar,
and beat on high until they hold stiff peaks. Beat in sugar
gradually. Add salt and coconut extract, and beat on high
until mixture holds soft peaks. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto
baking sheet lined with waxed paper, and top each meringue
with shredded coconut. Bake in a preheated 250°F oven for 1 hour. Cool on baking sheet for a minute or two, then
transfer to rack to cool. Makes 30-35.

Note: Coconut is easier to sprinkle evenly and lightly if
it dries in a pan for a couple of minutes in the preheating
oven.

Almond Meringues

1/4 cup sliced almonds
2 egg whites
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
1/4 teaspoon almond extract

Place the almonds on a cookie sheet, and toast them in a
350°F oven 4-5 minutes. Process in a food processor or
blender until finely ground.

Beat egg whites on medium speed until frothy; add cream of
tartar, and beat on high until stiff peaks form. Gradually
beat in the sugar. Add salt and almond extract, and beat on
high until mixture is smooth, glossy and forms soft peaks.
With a rubber spatula, gently fold in the ground almonds.
Drop by teaspoonfuls onto the cookie sheet. Bake in a
preheated 250°F oven for 1 hour. Cool on baking sheet,
then remove to rack to cool thoroughly. Makes 30-35.

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