A cloud captive on a plate, a meringue is a shape-shifter, an essential component of any pastry chef’s repertoire: it can be eaten nearly raw, a lightly bronzed heap of wobbly snow atop a glossy lemon pie, or baked into crunchy smithereens. Sometimes it’s barely detectable, folded into lush buttercream frosting or hidden in the delicate shell of a macaron. Its most recent main character moment was arguably the 1980s, when baked alaska and Pavlova dominated dessert plates.
Now, a new generation of pastry chefs and food artists are highlighting meringue in modern takes on sculptural sweets. Among them are the Brooklyn-based artist and chef Jen Monroe, who has made sprawling 0.5-square-metre rose water Pavlovas with candied rhubarb bows and pulled-sugar spires for her project Bad Taste; the Paris-based baker Andrea Sham, who paints meringue discs with powdered activated charcoal and spirulina to create desserts that shimmer like sea foam; the Brooklyn-based baker Samantha Raye, who documents her frilly, poodle-shaped meringue cookies on her Instagram account, @thegeminibake; and Paris Starn, a food artist, also based in New York, who encases pistachio chiffon cake layered with strawberry compote and pastry cream in frothy heaps of pastel meringue cookies and porcelainlike meringue bows.
The meringue’s exact origins are a matter of debate. Its creation is commonly attributed to a chef named Gasparini in the Swiss town of Meiringen around 1720, but a recipe for “meringues”, described roughly as “small works of sugar both very easy and very pretty”, had already been published in a 1692 cookbook by the industrious French chef François Massialot, who is also credited as the inventor of the crème brûlée. Undeniably, though, meringue is a miracle of chemistry, which one performs by agitating egg whites (or aquafaba, for a vegan version) and sugar into stiff peaks. Heated over a double boiler, it emerges stable and fluffy, the way the Swiss prepare it; beat in molten sugar syrup and you have the Italian preparation: sturdier, plusher and even more satiny.
Long before wire whisks and KitchenAids were invented, pastry cooks for wealthy Europeans and Americans relied on bundles of straw or branches to whip up meringue for visually impressive desserts like macarons and île flottante. “I think a lot about how labour-intensive it must have been when people started making baked alaska back in the 1860s, and how opulent it must have been to enjoy it, because it’s such a process,” says the pastry chef Caroline Schiff, whose nostalgic dessert menu at the Victorian-era Brooklyn oyster and chophouse Gage & Tollner is crowned with a baked alaska. The toasted bouffant of Swiss meringue — made to order and enrobing layers of mint, dark chocolate and Amarena cherry ice cream — is the most popular sweet on the menu, outselling chèvre cheesecakes and chocolate tortes with ease.
But meringue doesn’t always tempt a generation raised on the brittle, chalky chocolate available at grocery stores. “It’s something I’ve been trying to sell clients on, because I love working with it so much, and they never bite,” says Starn. “I’m making things for Instagram in the hope that others will.” She reversed her own negative opinion of the dessert on a 2019 trip to Kazakhstan, where she was entranced by cookies that featured waves of crisp meringue on a biscuit base. “There was something about the cookie with another cookie on top of it as decoration that blew my mind,” she says. “Because meringue is both chewy and crunchy, it can provide nuance to a dish that wouldn’t otherwise have it.”
While maximalist cakes garnished with purely ornamental botanicals like thistles and orchids have recently found viral fame online, bakers who prefer working with edible toppings are embracing meringue’s potential as a striking and hardy decoration with a texture all its own. Julia Aden, who worked at the renowned London bakery Violet Cakes before launching Süss Cake Studio, wraps her signature tiered cakes with rippling waves of leaflike meringue cookies. And in Los Angeles, the visual artist Rosalee Bernabe shapes meringue into puffy clouds and cheery toadstools to adorn cakes for Chariot, which she describes as her “psychic pastry project”.
“I love the contrast that a baked meringue has: shattery on the outside and pillowy on the inside,” says Monroe. Her dramatic Pavlovas are pure celebration food, whether piled high with sweet basil cream and chunky pink chains made from sugar or topped with what Monroe calls a “Creamsicle palette” of Alphonso mango curd and candied golden kiwis. Each bite is a study in textural juxtaposition, and the dessert as a whole is a visual showstopper. “People lose their minds when you bring out a six-foot [1.8-metre] Pavlova,” says Monroe. “It’s an opportunity to be sculptural and kitschy, a bit of Victorian silliness that I think speaks to this post-Marie Antoinette dessert moment we’re having.”
But meringue’s pleasures aren’t limited to aesthetic fantasy: it allows restaurants to use up extra egg whites left over from making yolky fresh pasta, aioli or custard-based ice creams. “It’s this beautiful canvas that’s also affordable for chefs,” says Schiff, noting that rising food costs and inflation are giving restaurants more reason to make the most of every ingredient. Fully baked for a Pavlova or Eton mess, meringue keeps in an airtight container for days, enabling easy assembly for kitchens without full-time pastry chefs. And as more home bakers gravitate towards an aesthetic that prioritises messy exuberance over careful piping, meringue-based dishes provide a dessert option that delights without demanding perfection. “It’s a lower-stakes, higher-chaos dessert,” says Monroe. “I’ve been slightly drunk assembling a Pavlova, and it went great. You can’t do that with a cake.”