It's difficult to imagine a more appropriate way to end an elaborate, multi-course dinner than a light and airy make-ahead dessert that appears as though it took hours to make. Even better if the dessert pairs wonderfully with Champagne. So we pose the question: What dessert component can be mixed in one bowl in about five minute and can be formed into fancy shapes and flavored in many ways?

The answer is the simple meringue.

The perfect vehicles for sorbets, ice creams and berries, meringues are a good do-ahead finish to dinner or lunch. This basic egg white and sugar mixture takes shape on dessert plates in one of two ways. Soft meringues bake quickly and make airy swirled toppings for pies, while hard meringues bake slowly into light cookies, cake layers, edible bowls to hold fruit or ice cream, or flat disks to fill with mousse or soft cream. Even when broken, meringues can be crushed into a fancy, decorative garnish or mixed into whipped cream or a mousse.

Meringues are light in appearance and light to the taste. And though they are not necessarily low in calories, they have no fat.

Many cooks fear meringues for the same reason that they fear souffles: the challenge of whipping perfect egg whites. And for the meringue cook, a second hurdle immediately presents itself, once the egg whites have been mastered: sugar must be blended slowly yet precisely so that it is completely incorporated.

A few simple pointers on egg whites will help ensure success.

Beating egg whites

Beating egg whites with a small amount of cream of tartar helps stabilize the mixture. Egg whites do not whip properly if they come in contact with fat so always use clean mixing bowls and utensils and remove any specks of egg yolk that might slip into the egg whites when you separate the egg.

Egg whites are properly beaten when they become shiny and form a soft point or peak if you dip a spoon into the egg white and lift it out. The soft-peak stage is reached when the moving beaters form smooth curving lines in the egg whites. I beat egg whites with an electric mixer on low speed until the cream of tartar is dissolved. Then I increase the speed to medium and beat until the soft peaks form. It's easier to check the egg whites and control the results on medium rather than high speed.

Other tips for dealing with egg whites: a copper or stainless steel bowl is preferable. Don't use plastic, glass or aluminum.

Adding the sugar

Begin adding the sugar just as the egg whites reach the soft-peak stage. Adding sugar slowly, about one tablespoon every 30 seconds, allows the egg whites time to absorb it and lets much of the sugar dissolve. I generally use superfine granulated sugar, which dissolves easily into the beaten egg whites. If the recipe calls for confectioners' sugar, it should be folded in after the granulated sugar has stabilized the egg whites.

Types of meringues

The amount of sugar beaten into the egg whites and their baking time and temperature are the two factors that distinguish a soft meringue from a hard one. Most soft meringues have 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons of granulated sugar added to each egg white, but hard meringues use 4 tablespoons of sugar for each egg white. Soft meringues bake quickly at a moderate 325 degrees and the top becomes golden brown. Hard meringues bake slowly at 225 degrees and that low temperature bakes the moisture out while keeping the meringue a light color (of course, such flavorings as cinnamon or chocolate change the color). Baking a hard meringue is actually a drying-out process. As the moisture evaporates, the meringue becomes dry and crisp. Although these meringues feel dry on the outside, the interior becomes firm only after it cools.

Once soft meringues are baked on top of a pie or when hard meringues are combined with a moist frosting or mousse filling, they are best used the same day. When thick meringue shells are topped with whipped cream and juicy fruit, they should be served immediately.

Since humidity puts moisture back into hard meringues and softens them, they should be stored in a dry place. Keeping them in a clean metal tin works for a couple of days, but I find that the freezer is the safest place to keep hard meringues for as long as a month.

Lemon Meringue Cake

(10 servings)

Meringues are a good foil for tart lemons in this cake that has three crisp layers of lemon-flavored meringues filled with lemon curd and whipped cream. Lemon curd is a thick lemon butter sauce found with the jams and jellies in most supermarkets. The best quality lemon curd usually looks opaque rather than translucent.

For the meringue:

Butter and confectioners' sugar for the pan

5 large egg whites, at room temperature 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 cup sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon zest

For the filling:

2 cups heavy (whipping) cream

2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons lemon curd

For the meringues: Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Cut 2 pieces of parchment paper to fit 2 baking sheets. Butter the paper lightly and dust with confectioners' sugar. With the dull edge of a knife, mark two 8-inch circles on 1 piece of the paper and one 8-inch circle on the second piece.

Beat the egg whites and the cream of tartar with an electric mixer on low speed until frothy. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat the mixture until soft peaks form. On medium speed, gradually beat in the sugar. Mix in the grated lemon zest.

Reserve 1 cup of the meringue mixture and set aside. Spread the remaining meringue mixture over the three marked circles. The meringues will be about 1/2 inch thick. Spread the reserved meringue mixture on the empty section of the parchment paper in any shape, 1/2 inch thick. Bake about 1 1/2 hours, until the meringues are crisp and dry and no longer shiny. Remove from the oven and cool on the baking sheet. The inside of the meringues will be soft but not wet and will become crisp as they cool.

For the filling: Beat the cream, confectioners' sugar and vanilla with an electric mixer on medium speed until firm peaks form.

To assemble: Carefully lift one of the cooled meringue circles from the baking sheet onto a cardboard cake circle or cake plate. Spread 1/2 cup of the lemon curd over the meringue; spread 1 cup of the whipped cream over the curd. Top with a second meringue and repeat the layers. Top with the third meringue circle; spread the remaining whipped cream over the top and sides of the cake and swirl in the remaining 2 tablespoons of lemon curd over the top. Crumble the remaining piece of meringue and press onto the sides of the cake. Cover and refrigerate. Serve, chilled, within 24 hours.

Per serving: 372 calories, 4 gm protein, 34 gm carbohydrates, 25 gm fat, 145 mg cholesterol, 15 gm saturated fat, 52 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

Cinnamon Meringue Shell Filled With Pineapple and Strawberries

(10 servings)

Cinnamon flavors this thick meringue shell that is crisp on the outside and has a chewy interior. The shell could also be filled with ice cream, mousse or whipped cream and whatever fruit is in season.

The meringue shell can be prepared ahead and stored in a dry place or frozen, but once filled it must be served immediately.

For this thick meringue, superfine sugar dissolves easily as the meringue bakes. Sold in one pound boxes, this finely ground sugar is found in the sugar section of supermarkets, but you can also process regular sugar in a food processor for about 30 seconds to make fine sugar granules.

For the meringue:

Butter and confectioners' sugar for the pan

4 large egg whites, at room temperature 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 cup superfine sugar

1 tablespoon cornstarch, sifted

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the filling:

1 fresh pineapple, peeled, cored and cut into small pieces

1 pint strawberries, stemmed and sliced

3 tablespoons sugar

1 1/2 cups heavy (whipping) cream

2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Fresh mint (for optional garnish)

For the meringues: Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Butter the paper lightly and dust with confectioners' sugar. With the dull edge of a knife, mark a 9-inch circle on the paper.

Beat the egg whites and the cream of tartar with an electric mixer on low speed until frothy. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until soft peaks form. On medium speed, gradually beat in the superfine sugar. Mix in the cornstarch and cinnamon. Mix in the lemon juice and vanilla. Spread the meringue mixture over the marked circle, forming a slight rim around the outer edge and a depressed center. Bake about 1 1/2 hours in the preheated oven, until the meringue feels crisp on the outside. Cool on the baking sheet. The meringue may crack slightly around the edge; the inside will be chewy and soft. The meringue can be wrapped and stored overnight in a dry place or frozen for up to 1 month.

For the filling: Stir the pineapple, strawberries and sugar together in a large bowl. Let sit for 15 minutes. Beat the cream, confectioners' sugar and vanilla with an electric mixer on medium speed until firm peaks form.

To assemble: carefully lift the cooled meringue from the baking sheet onto a cardboard cake circle or a cake plate. Spread the whipped cream over the meringue shell, leaving the edge of the shell uncovered. Spoon the fruit over the whipped cream. Garnish with fresh mint, if desired. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 266 calories, 3 gm protein, 35 gm carbohydrates, 14 gm fat, 49 mg cholesterol, 8 gm saturated fat, 37 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber Chocolate-Dipped Chocolate

Meringue Sandwiches

(Makes 9 sandwiches)

These chocolate meringue disks, filled with a rum-flavored mascarpone cream, can also be piped into hearts, ovals or a shape that suits the occasion. You will have some chocolate glaze remaining for another use, but it is easier to dip the meringues in a large quantity of glaze.

For the meringues:

Butter and confectioners' sugar for dusting the pan 3/4 cup confectioners' sugar

3 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder

4 large egg whites, at room temperature 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar 1/2 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the chocolate glaze:

1/3 cup heavy (whipping) cream

2 ounces ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 tablespoons light corn syrup

1 cup (6 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips

For the filling:

3/4 cup mascarpone cheese* 3/4 cup heavy (whipping) cream 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar

2 tablespoons dark rum

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the meringues: Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Cut 2 pieces of parchment paper to fit 2 baking sheets. Butter the paper lightly and dust with confectioners' sugar. With the dull end of a knife, mark nine 3-inch circles, 1 inch apart, on each piece of paper.

Sift the confectioners' sugar and cocoa powder together and set aside. Beat the egg whites and the cream of tartar with an electric mixer on low speed until frothy. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until soft peaks form. On medium speed, gradually beat in the sugar. Mix in the vanilla. Fold in the confectioners' sugar mixture in 2 additions, mixing just until no white streaks remain. Fit a large pastry bag with a 3/8-inch plain tip and fill the pastry bag with the meringue mixture. Pipe the meringue onto the 18 marked circles; the meringues will be 3/8-inch thick. Bake about 1 hour and 20 minutes, until the meringues are crisp and dry. The meringues will spread about 1/2 inch during baking. Remove the meringues from the oven and cool on the baking sheet.

For the chocolate glaze: Heat the cream, butter and corn syrup in a medium saucepan over medium heat until the mixture is hot and the butter is melted. Do not let the mixture boil. Remove the pan from the heat and add the chocolate chips. Let the chocolate melt for about 30 seconds. Stir the glaze until the chocolate has finished melting and the glaze is smooth. Pour into a small shallow bowl and cool until the glaze has thickened slightly, about 15 minutes. Sweep half of the top side of nine of the meringues through the chocolate glaze to cover half of the top of each disk. Place on a wire rack to cool until the glaze is firm.

For the filling: Beat the mascarpone, whipping cream, confectioners' sugar, rum and vanilla in a large bowl with an electric mixer until blended. Increase the speed to high and beat until firm peaks form. The mixture can be made up to 3 days ahead and stored in the refrigerator.

To assemble: Arrange the remaining 9 meringues so that the flat bottom faces upward; spread 1/4 cup of the filling over each meringue bottom. Top each with a chocolate-glazed meringue. Serve chilled within 24 hours.

* Note: Mascarpone is an Italian cream cheese. It is available in the specialty cheese section of most major supermarkets.

Per sandwich: 316 calories, 4 gm protein, 32 gm carbohydrates, 19 gm fat, 58 mg cholesterol, 12 gm saturated fat, 96 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiberToasted Almond

Meringue Cookies

(Makes 36 cookies)

The toasted almonds used here produce a crisp meringue rather than the chewy one that untoasted almonds would. The small amount of flour added to the meringues helps them keep their rounded shape during baking. These cookies bake initially at 325 degrees to color them slightly, then at 275 degrees until the tops become crisp.

Butter for the pan and confectioners' sugar for dusting the pan

1 1/2 cup toasted blanched almonds, chopped or slivered 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar

2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

4 large egg whites, at room temperature 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar 3/4 cup superfine sugar 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract 1/4 teaspoon almond extract

Confectioners' sugar for dusting the tops of the cookies

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line two heavy baking sheets with parchment paper. Butter the paper lightly and dust with confectioners' sugar.

Process the almonds, confectioners' sugar and flour in a food processor until the almonds are finely ground.

Beat the egg whites and the cream of tartar with an electric mixer on low speed until frothy. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until soft peaks form.

Reduce the speed to medium and gradually beat in the superfine sugar. Mix in the vanilla and almond extract. Use a rubber spatula to fold in the almond mixture. Drop well-rounded teaspoons of the meringue mixture 1 inch apart on the prepared baking sheets.

Bake in the preheated oven for 5 minutes. Decrease the oven temperature to 275 degrees and bake another 15 minutes, until the tops of the meringues feel firm and dry. The edges and bottoms will be golden. Cool the cookies on the baking sheet for 5 minutes. Transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely. The cookies become crisp as they cool. Dust lightly with powdered sugar. Store tightly covered at room temperature. Serve within 3 days.

Per cookie: 49 calories, 2 gm protein, 6 gm carbohydrates, 2 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 6 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

Butterscotch Meringue Pie

(8 servings)

This butterscotch pie is topped with swirls of golden soft meringue. Using superfine sugar prevents the meringue from weeping--that is, from having liquid ooze out of the top.

For the filling:

2 cups whole milk

2 ounces ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

4 large egg yolks

1 cup packed dark brown sugar

3 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 baked 9-inch pie crust

For the topping:

4 large egg whites, at room temperature 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

6 tablespoons superfine sugar

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

For the filling: Heat 1 1/2 cups of the milk and the butter in a heavy medium saucepan until it is hot and the butter melts. Do not boil.

In a medium bowl, whisk the remaining 1/2 cup milk, egg yolks, brown sugar and flour until smooth. Slowly whisk the hot milk mixture into the egg-yolk mixture. Return the mixture to the saucepan and cook over medium heat until the mixture comes to a boil and thickens, stirring constantly, about 8 minutes. Strain the pudding into a bowl and stir in the vanilla. Cool 15 minutes.

For the topping: Beat the egg whites and the cream of tartar with an electric mixer in a large bowl until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in the superfine sugar. Pour the warm butterscotch filling into the prepared crust. Spread the meringue over the filling, mounding it toward the center; the meringue should cover the edges of the crust. Bake about 20 minutes, until the top is evenly golden. Cool 1 hour. Refrigerate and serve chilled. Pie will keep for 2 days.

Per serving: 390 calories, 6 gm protein, 53 gm carbohydrates, 18 gm fat, 136 mg cholesterol, 9 gm saturated fat, 213 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber