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Meringue in Cake Decorating

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Layer cake with meringue frosting
Brian Hagiwara/Stockbyte/Getty Images

The different types of meringue can be used with great success in all cake decorating. You can frost and pipe decorations on all your creations with Swiss and Italian meringue buttercream and make design elements with baked French meringue. The variations for the buttercream versions are endless such as chocolate, vanilla bean, raspberry, mocha, caramel and even lemon. All three types utilize the same basic ingredients but the technique differs to create specific end products.

Any type of meringue can be a little tricky to make but following a few rules can increase the chances of success. This is not a product where you can showcase your creativity with dashes and pinches. Stick to the recipe and follow the instructions to the letter.

French Meringue: This is the meringue made most often by home chefs and requires the least work. It is simply white sugar beaten into egg whites and is also the least stable of the three types. You can bake this type in the oven after piping it into nests, disks, mushroom shapes or even mice! If you want to create a truly decadent cake try adding ground nuts to French meringue and baking disks to put in between cake layers. The crunch and texture is amazing.

Swiss Meringue Buttercream: This meringue buttercream is the best, easiest and tastiest icing to use when decorating cakes. It is also very stable and resilient. If you do not add the butter and flavoring in the last stage you can bake this type of meringue with great success for design elements such as birds, rosettes and disks. Swiss meringue seems like it is a lot of work but this icing is very forgiving if mistakes are made. For example, if the buttercream looks like scrambled eggs after the butter is added continue to beat it on low speed until it cools a little and it will thicken up. This buttercream needs to be at room temperature when consumed because if chilled it will solidify and lose its fluffy texture and sweet taste.

Italian Meringue: Italian meringue buttercream is very similar to Swiss meringue buttercream except you whisk a simple sugar syrup into beaten egg whites instead of using a water bath. It is a lovely light icing that is not too sweet and perfect for decorating cakes and cupcakes because it is firm, stable and glossy. You will need a candy thermometer for this process and a little experience with creating soft ball stage sugar (240 degrees F-245 degrees F). This type of meringue is not usually attempted by home chefs because cooking sugar can be intimidating the first time but it is well worth the effort.

Tips and Techniques

  • Make sure your equipment is completely clean without any traces of grease residue. Grease will make it harder to get your egg whites as foamy as you need them to be. Do not use plastic bowls and try wiping the stainless steel bowls with half a lemon to ensure no grease.
  • Try adding a little lemon juice or cream of tartar to your whites after the addition of the sugar to produce a more stable foam. It is awful when your meringue falls flat after all your work. The addition of cream of tartar will also produce a crisper meringue.
  • Use a mixer (scrupulously clean) to create your various meringues because it will save a lot of time and a very sore wrist!
  • Caster sugar is a great option for meringue products although granulated and icing sugar can also be used in a recipe. Each type will produce a different texture and flavor in the finished product. However, icing sugar should never be used alone because the meringues will be very sweet with no depth of flavor.
  • Be careful not to add the sugar too early in the process. The whites need to be at the soft peak stage or your meringue will fall flat and never achieve the lightness and high peaks that are desired.
  • If you are making French meringue for crispy disks or baked decoration elements try not to overheat the meringue in the oven or they will end up a darker color than is desired. Try wedging the oven door open a little with a dish towel to avoid an overly hot baking environment. You are actually drying the meringue out not cooking it so try for a 70C oven for best results. Get a good oven thermometer to ascertain the temperature of your oven before you end up with ruined creations.
  • You can use egg whites from a carton or egg whites separated by you for meringue. There is a slight difference in volume (fresh whites whip up a bit more fluffy) but you won't waste the yolks using a carton of whites.
  • When you are making Swiss meringue make sure the water in the pot under your bowl is not too close to the bowl or simmering too violently. You will end up with scrambled eggs instead of fluffy white meringue. Also make sure your bowl has cooled down after the whites are fluffy before adding the butter or the butter will melt instead of incorporating evenly.
  • Swiss meringue buttercream and Italian meringue buttercream can keep for about a week in the fridge in an airtight container. Take it out when you need it and allow the buttercream to come back to room temperature before rewhipping it. You can also freeze these buttercreams up to 8 weeks.

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