Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Magical food: meringues and fairy floss

As a kid I used to think that meringues and fairy floss were the most amazing thing ever; both of them made of delicate swirls of sugar and both with that lingering melting sweetness on the tip of your tongue. They were the kinds of food, I thought, that you'd find in a fairy court; there was something magical about them. Fairy or candy floss or 'barbe a papa' as it's known in French (Papa's beard)was especially so, because when you watched it being made in a park, it was like something being conjured into being--that bit of sugar that spun out into a white or pale pink thistledown blizzard under the clear dome of the little machine and was then swirled onto its stick like a fairytale distaff, a la Sleeping Beauty or Rumpelstiltskin. Then there was the wonder of the way that when you pulled the floss off and crammed it in your mouth, it was like ingesting a waft of sweet cloud which vanished almost instantly as it touched your tongue. The transformation of sugar to thistledown cloud and then to that fugitive sweetness felt like a magic spell and that was probably half of its appeal to the imaginative child I was.
Meringues, too, seemed to me to be food fit for fairies. But more substantial. And they could be made at home. I loved watching Maman whipping up the egg whites till they were like fresh powdery snow and then whipped with sugar till they were glossy with a blinding polish of white. Then spoonfuls of the creamy mix dropped onto the baking tray and baked slowly till at last they came out with a glorious honey-coloured crisp top and inside a pure white melting sweetness that never stuck to your teeth but vanished exquisitely in your mouth. With whipped cream they were simply one of my favourite desserts of all time, and they remain so to this day. That sensual combination of delicious crunch and melt-on-your-tongue sweet cloud of the meringue and the rich luscious smoothness of cream still sends me into raptures. But it's got to be proper meringues, not the ghastly chalky sickeningly sweet concoctions in various chemical colours masquerading under that name in all too many cake shops here. While real meringue is a thing of beauty and simple delight, the false pretenders should be buried in landfill, just like the awful fairy floss you get in shows and fairs these days, which with its vile colours and horrid chemical aftertaste ressembles nothing so much as a kind of giant pot-scouring pad or mini insulation batt, hardly appetising! I don't know if you can get the real barbe a Papa any more--unlike with meringues, I've kind of gone out of the market for that--but thanks to our busy egg-producing hens and the woodstove alight in winter, not to speak of David's skills with whipped egg whites and sugar, I'm lucky enough to still be able to indulge occasionally in that magical dessert, meringues and cream.
David's top tip for the perfect meringue: The most important ingredient in meringue success is cooking time and temp. They should cook slowly in a very slow oven, no more than 100 C, for about two hours(which is why it's so good to cook them in a woodstove, in bottom oven where they simply and very slowly cook all night.) If they are cooked too fast, the tops brown but the insides stay mushy and sticky. Conversely if they are cooked too slowly--if the oven gets too cold, the tops will be sticky as will the insides. Otherwise, it's just a simple mixture of egg white and sugar--50 g of caster sugar for each egg white, plus a pinch of salt.


  1. couldn't agree more - they are definitely magic! i also think anything involving the egg is pretty magical. if i could survive on them (eggs, meringues and fairy floss) i'd be a happy girl.

  2. eggs sure are magical, cathie--transforming into everything from meringues to mayonnaise, souufle to sponge cake, omelette to zabaglione, custard to frittata--and so much more! our hens are so productive we just keep having to think of lots of ways to use eggs, a pleasant task!