In my family, there is truly only one acceptable birthday cake and it’s actually not a cake at all. It’s a giant shell of sculpted meringue, filled with vanilla ice cream, strawberries and freshly whipped cream, topped with a shower of toasted sliced almonds. We call it Pinch Pie.
This epic dessert first entered the McClellan celebratory lexicon sometime in the 1940s. My grandma Bunny found the recipe in a woman’s magazine and made it as a Valentine’s Day treat for her husband (in those days, she whipped the egg whites using a hand-powered rotary mixer. It was a true act of love). My uncles quickly figured out that they preferred this dessert to any cake they’d had before and started requested it for birthdays. A tradition was born.
By the time I came along, Pinch Pie’s dominance as the birthday dessert of choice was well-established. During my first eight years of life, I ate Pinch Pie as many as six times a year. With family birthday gatherings taking place at least every other month (sometimes a single dinner would suffice for several), the math worked out in everyone’s favor. What’s more, Bunny had long since graduated to a electric hand mixer, so it wasn’t the burden to make that it once had been.
But as so often is the case, all good things eventually come to an end. In my case, it was the announcement that my parents were moving us out of Los Angeles and up to Portland, OR. We would no longer have regular access to Bunny and her Pinch Pie factory.
So I did what any food-obsessed eight year old would have done. I started begging Bunny for meringue lessons. I figured that as long as I had the skills, I wouldn’t be entirely deprived. And so I watched. I took notes (I still have those original pages, carefully marked up in my elementary school handwriting). I learned her meringue formula.
In the early years, I would call Bunny every time I made the meringue shell for Pinch Pie. She’d remind me to warm my eggs to room temperature and to make sure I separated each one over a small bowl before adding the whites to the mixing bowl (one drop of egg yolk and the whole batch is ruined). She’s ask about the weather in Portland and warn me that it was harder to get stiff peaks if it was raining out (it always was).
Bunny died when I was 14, putting an end to my Pinch Pie support line. But each time I make meringue, I think of her. I imagine she’d scoff at my use of a stand mixer to beat the egg whites, declaring that it takes most the skill out of it. She’d admire my use of Silpats and parchment, as they make the meringue lift easily off the baking sheet (before those two items came along, we struggled mightily with meringues that stuck fast). Most of all, she’s be happy that I was keeping the tradition alive.
Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of baking that required multiple egg yolks, but no whites. Yesterday, I had half a dozen egg whites quietly cooling their heels in the refrigerator. It was time to make meringue. Because it’s holiday time, I decided to make this batch of meringue into cookies, instead of a large shell. This way, they can be added to cookie plates, be taken to potlucks and, with the addition of a dollop of fruit preserves and a bit of whipped cream, be turned into a quick dinner party dessert. I do love flexible food.
Preheat your oven to 250 degrees and line 2 cookie sheets with parchment or Silpats. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine 6 egg whites (at room temperature, please) with 1 teaspoon cream of tartar. Beat on medium high until they have at least doubled in volume and are nice and frothy.
Then add 1 1/2 cups granulated white sugar in half-cup batches, making sure that the first scoop is fully incorporated before adding the next. Finally, when the mixture is looking stiff and glossy, beat in 1 teaspoon vanilla extract.
Then portion the meringue out onto the cookie sheet. I use a 1 tablespoon cookie scoop but you could also spoon all the meringue into a pastry bag or ziploc with a corner cut off. I am particularly unskilled with pastry bag coordination, so I choose to scoop. Bake at 250 degrees for 25-30 minutes. Shorter baking times will leave you with cookies that are still tender in the center, long times will yield a crisper cookie.
Should you want to add flavors beyond vanilla to your meringue cookies, you can add 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, some tiny chocolate chips, or 1/4 cup crushed candy canes. There’s a lot that can be done with this simple cookie, though I like them plain best.
If you’re free tonight from 7:30-8:30 pm eastern time and want to talk about cookies, make sure to hop on Hungry Tigress’s Facebook page. She’s hosting a virtual party where we’ll be talking holiday baking, canning and more. She also has a bunch of terrific preserving books that she’ll be giving away, so it’s worth stopping by!
Thank you so much for sharing this — I love recipes that have such tradition behind them. You’re lucky you had Bunny to teach you as long as you did, and it’s wonderful that you appreciated it even as a child!
I love making meringues! I end up making them after I’ve done a batch of ice cream or two, since that only using the yolks. And now that we’re heading into citrus/curd season, I foresee more abundance of egg whites in my future 🙂
I never thought of serving them that way…neat. I’ve made a bunch of flavors as part of Christmas baking for gifts and they really are super flexible in terms of flavoring. One note I would add, the meringue seems to deal with vanilla very well, but some flavored extracts seem to keep the meringue from stiffening properly if added too early, so follow Marisa’s (and Bunny’s!) steps and add the flavoring, no matter what you choose, only after you get stiff peaks. It also holds coloring well (makes sense to color code them if you’re mixing a bunch of flavors), but again add only after your meringue is ready to go or you might not get nice, stiff meringue. If it doesn’t stiffen up that great, just pipe it into discs, leave a bit more room between them, and they’ll still taste good. Oh, and did I mention that you should carefully hold them by the top and dip them into melted chocolate chips or peanut butter chips then let set up at room temp on wax paper? Mmmmm. I think that was a Tyler recipe from FN’s 12 Days of Cookies a few years ago.
Thank you, thank you, thank you! What a lovely story about a family tradition. My family too, was meringue obsessed. My birthday “Cakes” of choice alternated between Baked Alaska ( a meringue covered chunk of ice cream which I recall as being indescribably delicious) and Lemon Meringue Pie. Sadly, I did not have the foresight that you had as a child and never asked my mom, who passed away at age 43, to show me how to make these treats.
And thank you for the “tip” re lining your baking sheet with parchment. I baked Almond Meringues last week and lost the battle to get most of them off my baking sheet in one piece.
Geh! Scoop!!!!! I, too, resent piping bags but I’ve been trying to come up with a way to make meringue mushrooms for our Buche de Noel — scoops! I even have a few different sizes to try. Thank you!
What a beautiful story and tradition! I basically taught myself how to make meringue, too, though it was slightly trickier because I was doing it with honey (no sugar) and it took me a while to figure out how to make proper meringues, especially making them crunchy. I learned quite a bit of science from doing it; water attracting cells, water repelling cells…I wrote about it all in a post on my blog. (I learned about how the weather can affect it, too.) Until I figured it out and mastered it, I’d considerered meringue as my bane. As it happens, I have some egg whites in the freezer right now!
Thank you for sharing this story.
You know the best recipes always make me cry? I never really got to do this with my grandparents…I’ve had to glean what I could from the handwritten recipes and cookbook notations I inherited.
My mom taught me to make meringue after it was in a science cooking book I bought as a child. We usually added chocolate chip cookies and my mom has been obsessed ever since.
Perfect timing on this article for me – last night I was trying a recipe to make meringue cookies, and the egg whites just would. not. get. to. stiff. peaks. I finally gave up and tried baking them anyway, and needless to say they didn’t turn out. I had taken the egg whites out of the fridge right before making them, so I bet that’s what I had done wrong. You have inspired me to try again.
We all called my grandma “Bunny” as well : )… so many fond memories of my Bunny in the kitchen cooking and baking. Aaahh, I miss her so much!
I love it! You have such great family stories Marisa. And, now I know how to make meringue so hopefully I can do it up right! We always did crushed candy canes & chocolate chips in ours…but I want a Pinch Pie!
What a lovely story – thanks for sharing. I was just reading in our local paper to make meringue cookies (make a thumbprint depression before baking) and fill with lemon curd. They can be served immediately (meringues are crisp) or left for 24 hours and the meringues turn marshmallowy. Sounds divine. I have a bag of meyer lemons and will try your recipe.
I luuuuv meringues! I do them with a little of red food colouring and cranberries. Then they look a little like small pink clouds 😉
Those are my favorite as well. Thanks for the easy recipe. I’ve quite making them for years because the recipe I had called for leaving the oven door open over night. I’m too impatient for that kind of baking. I love the look in the jar as Well!
What a lovely post! I this might be my favorite of yours so far. Thanks for sharing such a beautiful memory. 🙂
We also love making meringues! I will have to try a big meringue shell sometime soon. My problem is that the cookies get crumbly after cooling, could this be a humidity issue? I’m in dry Colorado but run a humidifier in the house.
That was a story to warm my heart on this dreary day! Thanks for sharing! You are a wonderful storyteller!
And just how does one make a Pinch Pie? I know I’ve probably seen it, but can’t recall now how a meringue shell is made!
I’ve cooked professionally and used a piping bag and rather well for the simple things, but love that scoop idea! Simple and much less messy!
I absolutely love meringues or “remanges” as my six year old goddaughter calls them – bless her! I always found it hard to get the mixture stiff enough until I used a magimix and now they come out great. I shall be making some for Christmas full of whipped cream and my lovely Blackcurrant Jelly, Yum, Yum!!
Oh so lovely….and the perfect recipe to make soon after I make baked custard.
Go-to-bed-cookies (because you preheat the oven, put them in, then turn the oven off) are one of my fondest memories of my grandmother. Her version included regular chocolate chips, but not too many, it worked out that there were just a couple in each cookie.
New reader chiming in to say how much I loved reading the family history associated with your meringue recipe! All of your tips (and Bunny’s) will come in handy when I attempt to make meringues for the first time this weekend – wish me luck. My goal is to recreate the Mont Blanc dessert served at our favorite little family run restaurant in Rome; I thought it would make a lovely Christmas Eve dessert, this being chestnut season and all. If all goes according to plan, we’ll have created a new family tradition too! Thanks again!
I love these meringues – they are so pretty. I’ve actually never tried to make meringues, maybe next Christmas…. For some reason, I never think of these when planning out my holiday treats even though I loved them as a kid.
Oh. My. God. These were so easy to make…just got done making them with chocolate mini morsels and cocoa powder and they are divine! Going to make another batch with peppermint candy! Good thing I have my own hens for the eggs! Thank you for a great idea!
who knew 6 egg whites would make so many cookies! these are delicious!
Just discovered your blog and I’m loving it so much! When I first moved to Portland I called my grandmother because my meringue kisses were not up to par and she informed me of the rain issue. So far, sub-par meringue making conditions are still the worst flaw with this place that I’ve found. Also, your silpat and parchment comment made me think of her too. When I first learned to make meringues as a kid we would cut up brown paper grocery bags to line baking sheets. The crunchy sound of pulling a meringue off of the paper is a sound I won’t soon forget.
Thanks for the great blog!
LOVE, LOVE, LOVE your site ~ I, too, have a lone pioneer woman spirit lurking inside! I just put up some spiced pickled green beans, some sweet-hot pepper relish and spiced apple butter (smells like fall)!
Keep up the yummy work!
Chiming in well after the party is over. In Australia and New Zealand meringue shells are known as pavlova.
Nigella has a wonderful recipe for a chocolate pavlova which includes balsamic vinegar. Add extra vinegar if you like your meringue shells soft on the inside.
I like to make these at Christmas and before baking them I add green and red M & Ms to the cookie than bake. Fun!! I just drop the two colors on top .
My mom used to make these around the holidays and always added chocolate chips. Sometimes we would color the meringue too. I still make these every so often. Since I have ducks, their egg whites make the best meringue. Great recipe!!