A new generation of bakers has their heads in the clouds

A CAPTIVE OF THE CLOUD ON a plate, a shape-shifting meringue, an essential component of any pastry chef’s repertoire: it can be eaten almost raw, a lightly tan mound of floppy snow on top of a sparkling lemon cake, or baked into crispy pieces. Sometimes it’s barely detectable, folded into a lush buttercream frosting or hidden in an airy angel food cake or delicate macaroon topping. Arguably his most recent main character moment was in the 1980s, when baked Alaska and pavlova dominated dessert dishes.

Now a new generation of pastry chefs and food artists are spotlighting meringue in modern takes on statuesque confections. Among them are 33-year-old Brooklyn artist and chef Jen Monroe, who has made large six-foot-square Rosewater Pavlovas garnished with candied rhubarb bows and stretched sugar needles for her Bad Taste project; Paris-based baker Andrea Sham, 36, who paints meringue discs with powdered activated charcoal and spirulina to create desserts that shimmer like sea foam; Brooklyn-based baker Samantha Raye, 32, who documents her frilly poodle meringue cookies on her Instagram account, @thegeminibake; and Paris Starn, a 29-year-old food artist, also based in New York, who wraps a pistachio chiffon cake layered with strawberry compote and custard in frothy mounds of pastel meringue cookies and porcelain meringue bows.

The exact origins of merengue 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”, roughly described as “very easy and very pretty little sugar jobs”, had already been published in 1692. cookbook by the industrious French chef François Massialot, who is also credited as the inventor of the crème brûlée. However, it’s undeniable that meringue is a miracle of chemistry, made by stirring together egg whites (or aquafaba, for a vegan version) and sugar in stiff peaks. Heated in a bain-marie, it emerges stable and fluffy, just like the Swiss prepare it; Whisk in melted sugar syrup and you have the Italian preparation: stronger, more luxurious, and even satinier.

Long before wire whisks and KitchenAids were invented, wealthy European and American pastry chefs relied on packets of straw or twigs to whip meringue for visually stunning desserts like macarons and île flottante. “I think a lot about how laborious 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 pastry chef Caroline Schiff, 37, whose nostalgic dessert menu at recently revived Victorian-era Brooklyn chophouse and oyster restaurant Gage & Tollner is topped with a baked alaska. The toasted Swiss meringue bouffant, made to order and layered with mint, dark chocolate and Amarena cherry ice cream, is the most popular sweet treat on the menu, easily beating out chèvre tarts and chocolate cakes.

BUT MERENGUE doesn’t always tempt a generation raised on the crumbly, chalky kisses available tubside in grocery stores. “It’s something I’ve been trying to sell to clients, because I love working with it and they never bite,” Starn says. “I’m doing things for Instagram in the hope that others will.” She reversed her own negative opinion of dessert on a 2019 trip to Kazakhstan, where she was enthralled with cookies that featured waves of crunchy meringue on a cookie base. “There was something on the cookie with another cookie on top for decoration that blew my mind,” she says. “Because meringue is chewy and crunchy, it can bring nuance to a dish that it might not otherwise have.”

While maximalist cakes garnished with purely ornamental botanicals like thistles and orchids have recently found viral fame online, bakers who prefer to work with edible toppings are harnessing the potential of meringue as a bold, sturdy garnish with a texture of its own. Julia Aden, who worked at renowned London bakery Violet Cakes before launching her own business, Süss Cake Studio, wraps her signature tiered cakes with billowing waves of leaf-shaped meringue cookies. And in Los Angeles, visual artist Rosalee Bernabe, 33, shapes meringue into fluffy clouds and cheery mushrooms to garnish cakes for Chariot, which she describes as her “psychic pastry project.”

“I love the contrast a baked meringue has: crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside,” says Monroe. Her spectacular Pavlovas are pure celebration food, whether piled with sweet basil cream and thick pink strings made of sugar, like for a recent dinner at the Pioneer Works arts center in Brooklyn, or topped with what Monroe calls a Alphonso’s “Creamsicle Palette” mango curd and candied golden kiwis, like for a friend’s wedding in October. Each bite is a study in juxtaposition of textures, and the dessert as a whole is a visual spectacle. “People lose their minds when you pull out a six-foot Pavlova,” Monroe says. “It’s an opportunity to be sculptural and kitsch, a bit of Victorian silliness that I think speaks to this post-Marie Antoinette dessert moment that we’re having.”

But the joys of meringue are not limited to aesthetic fantasy: it allows restaurants to use leftover egg whites from making fresh pasta with yolk, aioli or custard-based ice cream. “It’s this beautiful canvas that’s affordable for chefs, too,” Schiff says, noting that rising food costs and inflation are giving restaurants more reason to make the most of every ingredient. Fully baked to a Pavlova or Eton mess, the meringue keeps in an airtight container for days, allowing for easy assembly for kitchens without full-time pastry chefs. And as more home bakers gravitate toward an aesthetic that prioritizes messy luxuriance over careful piping, meringue-based dishes provide a dessert option that delights without demanding perfection. “It’s a lower-risk, higher-chaos dessert,” Monroe says. “I was a little drunk putting together a Pavlova, and it came out great. You can’t do that with a cake.