A friend of mine recently mentioned his success in cooking a dinner with lemongrass, and I was intrigued. I always enjoy lemongrass in Vietnamese and Thai food (especially tom kha gai: that fragrant and delectable coconut milk soup) — but my strongest memory of it comes from drinking it as a simple tea. Nearly every foggy morning of the bygone summer I spent in Ecuador, I’d walk into the kitchen to find it steeped and steaming. Its strands were haphazardly but beautifully wound around the inside of the glass pot, whose warm mist was so fragrant and soothing, I could never pass up a mug.
Hearing about my friend’s savory lemongrass recipe sparked my mission to create something sweet with it. Surprised that I hadn’t tasted or made a lemongrass dessert before, I found myself transforming it into a custard pie, then panna cotta, then coconut cream mousse. While these all had great potential, none were quite right — and ultimately something in me was yearning to return to that nostalgic tea. So I brewed my next batch of lemongrass, turned it into a hot syrup, beat it into meringue, and piped it into sweet, simple treats that offer a whisper of its delicate flavor in a light-as-air form.
(makes about 110 little meringues: each 1.25 to 1.5” in diameter and about 1” in height)
– 1 bunch fresh lemongrass (about 2.5 ounces)
– 1 ¾ cup granulated sugar, divided
– ½ teaspoon salt
– ¾ cup egg whites (about 6 large whites) at room temperature
– food coloring (optional)**
– unsweetened shredded coconut and/or sprinkles (optional)
– candy thermometer
The night before you plan to make the meringues, or up to 3 days ahead of time, rinse the lemongrass and whack it with a meat tenderizer or wrap with a towel and hit with a hammer. With a sharp knife, cut the bruised stalks crosswise into little rings. Transfer them to a small saucepan and cover with 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a low simmer. Let simmer for 1 hour, or until liquid has reduced by half. Cover and let sit overnight, or up to three days in fridge.
When ready to make the meringues, place oven racks on top and bottom thirds of oven. Preheat oven to 200 F. Line 2-3 baking sheets with parchment paper. Place egg whites in a metal or glass bowl and beat on high with an electric mixer (preferably free standing, with whisk attachment). When whites become foamy and white, slowly sprinkle ¼ cup sugar over them while beating. Keep beating until they are opaque and fluffy with soft to firm peaks. Turn off mixer.
Strain the brewed lemongrass through a fine mesh sieve; discard the pieces of lemongrass. Measure out 2/3 cup liquid and transfer it to a clean saucepan or wipe out the one you used for brewing; this will ensure that no fibers of lemongrass end up in your meringue. Add 1.5 cups of the sugar and the salt to the pan; whisk. Fit pan with candy thermometer. Bring to a boil over low/medium heat. Stir with whisk once or twice as mixture boils (use caution; it’s hot!). Watching closely, let the temperature reach 230 F. Quickly turn mixer back on, and carefully pour all of the bubbling syrup into the beating whites. Leave mixer on high and keep beating for 6 to 8 minutes, until the outside of the bowl is at warm room temperature.
If desired, fold in a drop or two of food coloring**, splitting meringue into two bowls for two colors if you wish. Transfer meringue into pastry bag(s) fitted with your favorite large tip, then pipe meringue onto lined cookie sheets. [I like to keep my meringues small (about 1.25 to 1.5 inch diameter and 1″ tall); the baking time here is for this size. Larger meringues will need longer.] If desired, top with pinches of unsweetened shredded coconut (a great complement to lemongrass) or with decorative sprinkles.
Place cookie sheets on both oven racks, baking meringues for 35 minutes. Carefully switch the meringues from top to bottom racks and vice versa, then bake for another 35 minutes. Turn oven off, leave it closed, and let meringues sit inside cooling oven for 45 minutes to an hour (no longer). Remove meringues from oven and quickly transfer to a sealed container. For best results — especially if you live in a humid area like I do — toss a desiccant packet or two into the container (consider borrowing them from your vitamin or pill bottles), and keep the container well-sealed. Eat within three days.
Crisp little puffs of sweetness, these dainty meringues offer a hint of lemongrass that’s most noticeably tasted on the day they are baked. Their light and petite form is as easy to eat as it is addictive, just as their bit of salt balances the sweetness and highlights the delicate grassy refreshment within. A nod to the tea that inspired them, simplicity and scrumptiousness are central to these treats. Sometimes that’s all I need.
Maybe next time… Here I chose the method of beating hot syrup to egg whites (Italian style) in order to incorporate a good amount of liquid for flavor (which isn’t really possible with the Swiss or French methods). The Italian way actually cooks the meringue, so if you don’t want to bake it into little cookies, you can use it to frost a cake or top a pie (and toast it with a torch or broiler, if desired). These meringues would be great drizzled or sandwiched with melted white chocolate, or topped with crushed macadamia nuts. If you don’t have or don’t want to deal with a pastry bag, you can use two spoons to make free-form dollops of meringue on the parchment lined cookie sheets.
**Avoid coloring that contains any oil (meringue’s structural enemy).