Pavlova, Schaum Torte, Boccone Dolce, Eton mess. All are variations on a theme: Sweet, crisp meringue, light and billowy as a cloud, topped with fresh cream whipped just to perfection and counterbalanced with the tartness of brightly colored, fresh-picked berries. Clearly this is a match made in heaven. But where did it all begin?
Apparently, way back in the 17th century Austro-Hungarian empire, when a dessert called Spanische Windtorte became popular. This elaborate creation involves stacking rings of baked meringue, covering them with more meringue and baking again to form an intricately decorated shell, which is then filled with whipped cream and berries and topped with a meringue lid, giving it the appearance of a cake.
No one is quite sure how it got its name, although the Hapsburg dynasty, which covered much of Central and Eastern Europe for nearly 400 years, also ruled Spain from 1516 to 1700. Spanische Windtorte began appearing in Austrian cookbooks in the 19th century, and in 1884, Sigmund Freud’s fiancée, Martha Bernays, declared in a letter that she would make him “what is considered the fanciest cake ever created in Vienna, the Spanish Windtorte.” Even today, small baked meringue kisses are known in Austria as Spanischer Wind.
While it looks difficult, if you take your time and follow the instructions carefully, you don’t have to be a master pastry chef to pull it off. In fact, this is one bake that I accomplished almost within the time frame given to the bakers in the Great White Tent.
As this was a technical challenge, the recipe I used is Mary Berry’s. Because of the lessons I learned with my crème brûlée, the one thing I did differently was to weigh my egg whites, using the British equivalent of 1 large egg white = 20 grams.
Mary’s recipe uses two types of meringue — French meringue, which is simply egg whites and sugar beaten until stiff peaks form, then baked so that it forms a crisp, airy shell, and Swiss meringue, in which egg whites are whisked over a bain-marie until they reach about 160°F and then whisked further to form a dense, marshmallowy texture. The French meringue is piped onto parchment paper to form two 8-inch circles, which become the base and lid of the torte, and three 8-inch rings, which are stacked to form the “walls” of the torte.
After these are baked and cooled, more French meringue is used to “glue” the rings, one on top of the other, onto the base. Then the entire shell is covered with meringue and baked again. Once this is cooled, Swiss meringue is piped decoratively all around the torte and on top of the lid, both of which are baked again to set the meringue.
Finally, the hollow torte shell is filled with whipped cream and berries, and the outside is decorated with fondant violets. As Mary describes it in this episode of the Great British Baking Show: “It’s an extravaganza of beautiful meringue decorated with delicate little violets.” (Or as Paul Hollywood describes it in the Masterclass episode, a “posh Eton mess.”)
While it truly is a sight to behold, there’s no way to serve it in a way that preserves its beauty. Once the meringue is cut into, the whole thing pretty much falls apart. It also needs to be eaten right away, as the meringue will begin to dissolve once the moisture from the whipped cream seeps into it. The meringue shell could probably be made a day before, as long as it’s kept in an airtight container until you’re ready to fill and serve it.
Even so, it’s a dessert with a huge wow factor, so if you want to impress your friends and family, make it for your next dinner party or holiday festivities. I was able to invite friends over for a spontaneous sugary feast. Though the meringue is very sweet, the whipped cream and berries offset the sweetness to make a light and airy, refreshing dessert.
You can find Mary’s recipe here, but I’ve adapted it for American bakers below.
Mary Berry’s Spanische Windtorte
For the French meringue shell:
For the fondant violets:
For the Swiss meringue decoration:
- 4 large egg whites (approx. 80 grams total)
- 1 c. + 1½ T. superfine (baker’s) sugar
For the filling:
- Cut three pieces of parchment paper to fit three large baking sheets. Draw two 8-inch circles on two of the sheets and one 8-inch circle on the third sheet (for a total of five circles). Preheat oven to 250°F.
- To make the meringue shell, add the egg whites and cream of tartar to the large, spotlessly clean bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, and whisk on high speed until the whites form stiff peaks. Add the sugar, a tablespoon at a time, whisking continuously until thick and glossy.
- Spoon two-thirds of the meringue into a piping bag fitted with a 5/8-inch plain tip. Pipe a small amount of meringue onto the corner of each baking sheet and then place the parchment sheets on top, using the meringue to stick the paper to the metal. (Make sure the side that the circles were drawn on is on the bottom so the marks don’t rub off on the meringue. Don’t worry, you can still see them through the paper.)
- Pipe a thick ring of meringue around the inside one of the circles and continue in a spiral until the entire circle is filled. Repeat with a second circle. These will be the base and top of the torte. Repeat the process with the three remaining circles, except don’t fill in the circles, so you’ll just have three rings of meringue. These will be stacked to form the sides of the meringue shell. Bake for 45 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool on baking sheets.
- While meringues are baking, make the fondant violets: For each violet, roll two small pieces of lavender fondant and three small pieces of purple fondant into little balls (about the size of a pea), for a total of 26 lavender balls and 39 purple balls. Place all the balls on a piece of wax paper about an inch apart and top with another piece of wax paper. (If your fondant is sticky, sprinkle with powdered sugar.) Use a rolling pin or your finger to flatten each ball into a circle about ½-inch in diameter. These will form the petals. Then roll 39 tiny balls of yellow fondant for the stamens.
- Using a small paintbrush and a tiny amount of water, stick the petals and stamens together to form a violet, with two lavender petals on top and three purple petals on the bottom, and three yellow stamens in the center. Repeat to make 13 violets. Leave them to dry for at least an hour.
- When meringues have thoroughly cooled, gently slide one of the filled circles onto a 12-inch, ovenproof (to 250°F) serving plate. (Alternatively, leave on parchment paper on a baking sheet and transfer to a serving plate later.) Spoon the remaining meringue into the piping bag and pipe eight blobs of meringue evenly spaced around the edge of the circle. This will form the “glue” to stick the next layer on. Gently place one of the rings of meringue on top of the blobs and press down very lightly. Repeat this process with the remaining two meringue rings.
- Roughly pipe the remaining meringue around the sides of the torte to cover the rings. Use an offset spatula to smooth out the meringue so the sides are smooth and straight like a cake. (I had enough meringue to cover the inside, as well.) Bake on the serving plate (or baking sheet) for 45 minutes. Then remove from oven and leave to cool.
- For the Swiss meringue, set a large, heatproof mixing bowl over a pan of gently simmering water. Pour the egg whites and sugar into the bowl and whisk until the sugar is dissolved and the meringue reaches 160°F.
- Remove bowl from the pan and continue whisking with an electric mixer until meringue is cool and stiff. Spoon into a piping bag fitted with a large star tip. Pipe a pretty border around the base, middle and top edge of the meringue shell. Pipe a border around the outside edge and the middle of the filled meringue circle that will be the lid. Bake both the shell and the lid for 30 minutes. Then remove them from the oven and allow to cool. If you left the meringue on the parchment paper, now transfer it to a serving platter. (I actually left the parchment underneath the meringue and cut around it so it wouldn’t show. If you do that, just make sure you don’t serve the paper to your guests!)
- Use tiny blobs of leftover meringue to stick six violets around the middle piped border on the side of the cake, six violets around the edge of the lid and one violet in the center of the lid.
- To make the filling, whip the cream and powdered sugar together until soft peaks form when the whisk is lifted from the bowl. Whisk in the orange blossom water (if using) and gently fold in the berries. Spoon the mixture into the cooled meringue shell. Top with the decorated lid. Serve immediately.