Meringues, though slight in their ingredients list and airy in their construction, are more than just sugary fripperies - try adding nuts, coffee and chocolate for a substantial treat
Aside from the exertion - or electronically-assisted ease - of the whisking itself, meringues are blissfully easy to make. With just egg whites and sugar as the two base ingredients, there's plenty of scope to experiment with additional flavours in your meringue - perhaps brown sugar, vanilla, chopped nuts, coffee or chocolate. There are only a couple of important things to bear in mind: the first is to make sure that the bowl and whisk you use are perfectly clean and grease-free before whisking; the second is to mix any additional ingredients in after the meringue mixture has reached stiff peak stage (where the meringue, when the whisk is slowly lifted from it, holds in straight, well-defined spikes).
Chocolate meringue roulade with saffron cream
This meringue base is enriched with dark chocolate and cocoa, so it steers clear of sickly sweetness, sitting instead somewhere between the lightness of a conventional meringue and the fudgy depth of a chocolate brownie. I love the shock of golden cream as a counterpoint to the chocolate, but if saffron's not to your taste you can stick to vanilla instead.
100g dark chocolate
5 large eggs, yolks and whites separated
200g caster sugar
5 tbsp cocoa powder
For the filling
300ml double cream
2 pinches of saffron
2 tsp vanilla extract
50g caster sugar
Icing sugar, to dust
1 Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4 and line a 20x30cm roasting tin or swiss roll tray with baking parchment.
2 Melt the chocolate either in the microwave or in a bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water. Once melted, leave to cool slightly then whisk in the egg yolks, 2 tbsp of the sugar and the cocoa powder.
3 Whisk the egg whites in a large bowl until foamy and holding firm (if ill-defined) peaks. Add the remaining caster sugar a little at a time, whisking well between each addition. Continue to whisk until the meringue holds stiff peaks.
4 Mix a quarter of the meringue into the chocolate mixture to slacken it, then gently fold in the rest of the meringue. Work lightly and swiftly, cutting the ingredients together using a metal spoon or spatula. The more air you can keep in the mixture, the better. Transfer to the prepared tin, gently level the top and bake for 25 minutes. The top should have risen to a light crust. Leave to cool on a wire rack, and don't panic if it sinks and cracks a little.
5 While the roulade base cools, prepare the cream filling. Heat 100ml of the cream in a small pan with the saffron until scalding hot then leave to cool to room temperature. The saffron will dye the cream a rich yellow colour. Combine the cooled, infused mixture with the remaining cream, the vanilla extract and caster sugar. Whisk until the cream is thick and smooth, holding in soft peaks. Place in the fridge to chill.
6 Dust a sheet of baking parchment with a layer of icing sugar and turn the cooled roulade base out, upside down, on to it. Peel the original piece of baking parchment from its bottom (now its top) and slather with the chilled cream. Using the baking parchment underneath to help you, roll up gently but firmly from short edge to short edge. Transfer to a plate and put in in the fridge for at least an hour prior to serving, during which time the roulade will firm and set and its flavours will meld.
Toasted almond meringues
I'm not particularly keen on powdery, bright white meringues. But add a little dark brown sugar and toasted nuts to a standard meringue mix and the result is very different indeed. These meringues - which you can also fashion into meringue nests, to be heaped with cream and fresh berries - are lightly toffee-ish, nutty and chewy.
100g whole blanched almonds
3 large egg whites
125g caster sugar
60g soft dark brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Once the oven is hot, toast the almonds for 8-10 minutes, until they're just beginning to tan a golden brown. Leave them to cool completely, then finely chop. Reduce the oven temperature to 150C/300F/gas mark 2.
2 Whisk the egg whites in a large bowl until they're densely foamy throughout, holding in crests and waves. Add the caster sugar a quarter at a time, whisking well between each addition, then continue to whisk until the meringue holds stiff peaks. Break up any lumps in the brown sugar then add this to the meringue mixture and whisk for a further minute. Add the vanilla extract and chopped toasted almonds, folding gently to combine. Take care not to over-mix.
3 Line a couple of baking trays with baking parchment and dollop generous heaps of the meringue mixture spaced a couple of centimetres apart. If making meringue nests, you could use a piping bag, but I'm not convinced it's worth the fuss: just use two spoons to gently nudge the meringue into shape, scooping a hollow from the centre and forming a raised lip around the edge of each one.
4 Bake for around 1 1/2 hours until firm and crisp. The insides will still be very slightly chewy, thanks to the oil from the almonds and the soft brown sugar, but I prefer this to the sort of powdery dryness you find in shop-bought meringues.
Blackberry almond fool
Bitter coffee perfectly offsets the caramel meringue and blackberries. Try to choose a reasonably tart blackberry variety - one that will lift this dessert out of simple sweetness. Blackcurrants also work very well here, though it pays to stew them with a little sugar first.
6 toasted almond meringues (see recipe above)
300ml double cream
5 tbsp caster sugar
2 tbsp very strong black coffee
1 Break the meringues into chunks and shards, taking care not to reduce them to dust. Whisk the double cream with the caster sugar and coffee until luxuriantly thick and holding soft peaks.
2 Cut the blackberries in half and mash very lightly, leaving most berries largely intact but just beginning to release their juices.
3 Divide these components between six glasses or small bowls, alternating layers of meringue, cream and fruit and swirling lightly together to marble them. Serve straight away.
Chocolate meringue roulade, toasted almond meringues and blackberry almond fool are tasty proof that meringues need not be dessert lightweights. Photograph: Jill Mead/Guardian