We have a fine tradition of baking, and our passion for cakes, slices and biscuits shows no sign of abating. Meanwhile, the occasions when we’re asked to bring a plate keep cropping up. My mother is known for her excellent baking, and I have clear memories of childhood birthday parties where the table groaned with cakes and savoury baking treats to tempt my friends. At the tennis club, Pat’s plate of food was always the first to disappear. So she was miffed recently, when making tea and coffee for the mums who’d brought their offspring to a special playgroup morning tea, that several young women brought packets of dry crackers as their contribution. “Lack of time, imagination or skill,” we wondered.
Meringues are a wonderful standby to have in your repertoire, as they can be whipped up quickly and are always a hit. Regardless of the recipe, everybody’s meringues seem to be slightly different. Mine are crunchy on the outside with a chewy, almost marshmallow-like interior. They always turn blush-pink, because of the slight caramelisation of the sugar, in contrast to the pristine white commercial variety, which I find dry.
Meringues – a combination of egg whites, caster sugar and a drop or two of pure vanilla – are best made with a large cake mixer, although a hand-held electric beater will still produce a fine meringue. The whites must be beaten until very stiff and should be glossy and peaky. I always use baking paper on the oven tray so the meringues don’t stick. If your meringues weep, it’s because they’re undercooked. They should go into an oven that’s quite hot, so the meringue exterior is crisp, then have a prolonged period at a lower temperature. This ensures the interior is set, but not dried out. Other baking tips: if you run out of caster sugar, whizz regular white sugar in a food processor for about a minute. It will become fine-grained. When baking, always use eggs and egg whites at room temperature rather than straight from the fridge. You will get more volume.
Having used all those egg whites, you are left with a problem of what to do with the yolks. There’s béarnaise and beurre blanc sauce, or lemon honey and passionfruit curd, but anything with too much butter is not good for your health. My mother and her friends have a terrific recipe to use egg yolks. They call it the “pavlova sponge”, as it uses the four leftover egg yolks and whips them into a light-as-air sponge that’s delicious with cream, jam and fruit. It has appeared at countless tennis parties and afternoon teas.
I was asked to take a treat to the Hospice Strawberry Festival late last year, and after using a dozen egg whites, I suddenly thought: “I could use those yolks to make cupcakes to take along, too.” I’m not sure which was the bigger hit, the meringues or the cupcakes, both topped with cream and strawberries. We sold out within half an hour.
- 4 large egg whites (at room temperature)
- 250g caster sugar
- ½ tsp pure vanilla essence
- 300ml cream
- berries to decorate
Preheat the oven to 140°C. Beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Gradually add the sugar, a spoonful at a time, and continue whisking. Beat in the vanilla essence. Line a large baking tray with baking paper, then place well-spaced dessertspoonfuls of mixture on the paper. Bake for 50 minutes. (The outside should be crisp.) Turn off the heat and allow the meringues to stand in the oven for an hour or more to help set the insides. Remove the meringues from the oven and leave on a rack to dry out and completely cool. Store in an airtight tin. Whip the cream until firm but not turning buttery. To decorate, place the meringues on a serving plate and pipe or spoon a tablespoonful of cream on top. Decorate with fresh berries or slices of kiwifruit, orange or stone fruit. To prevent stone fruit from discolouring, toss the fruit in a mixture of sugar and lemon juice. Makes 30 meringues.
“PAVLOVA” SPONGE CUPCAKES
- 4 egg yolks
- 120g caster sugar
- 75g flour
- ½ tsp baking powder
- pinch of salt
- ½ tsp pure vanilla essence
- 50g butter, melted
- 4 tbsp boiling water
- zested rind of 1 lemon
Preheat the oven to 170°C. Beat the yolks and sugar until thick and light. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt, then fold into the egg mixture with the vanilla. Melt the butter, then fold through with the boiling water and lemon rind. Spoon the mixture into paper baking cups. Bake for 15 minutes until risen and golden. Cool, then decorate with cream or icing (see recipe below). Makes 7-8 large or 16 small cupcakes. Can also be made in a 20cm cake tin. Store for up to three days in an airtight tin.
DECORATION FOR CUPCAKES
- 150ml cream, whipped
- 1 packet jelly crystals, dissolved in water
- and set
- 75g butter
- ½ cup icing sugar
- 1 lemon, juice, and zest cut into strips
To make into butterfly cakes, cut a small circle about 3cm deep from the middle of each cake. Cut this little piece in half to form the “butterfly wings”. Whip the cream and spoon a little into the centre of each cake. Decorate with berries or cubes of jelly, then position the wings in the cream. To make the icing, melt the butter, then beat in about 6 tablespoons of icing sugar and 2 teaspoons of lemon juice. Continue beating until smooth. Ice the top of each cake, then decorate with lemon zest.