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Unraveling the mysteries of meringue

A successful meringue - creamy and frothy - is a real accomplishment. Here are some basic ground rules for making meringue toppings for pies and other desserts: Bring egg whites to room temperature before beating.

Make sure there are no flecks of yolk in the whites; if so, scoop out with a piece of shell.

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Make sure mixing bowl and beater are spotless.

Follow recipe to the letter.

Add sugar very slowly, beating well after each addition so it dissolves fully. If it doesn't dissolve fully, ``beads'' of syrup or sugar grains will form on baked meringue.

Be careful not to overbeat egg whites, especially if using electric mixer. Unless you have a food processor with a special whip attachment, don't try to beat egg whites in this machine.

Properly beaten, a meringue will be glossy and stiff but not dry. If meringue clumps as it is spread, it has been overbeaten.

To rescue, return to mixing bowl, add 1 to 2 tablespoons cold water and beat briefly and briskly.

To keep meringue from shrinking during baking, spread evenly over filling, making sure it touches pie shell all around.

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Here are some basic meringue toppings from ``The New Doubleday Cookbook'' by Jean Anderson and Elaine Hanna (Doubleday, $16.95). Meringue Topping To top an 8-inch pie, use: 2 egg whites, at room temperature 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar Pinch salt 1/4 cup sugar 1/2 teaspoon vanilla To top a 9-inch pie, use: 3 egg whites, at room temperature 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar 1/8 teaspoon salt 6 tablespoons sugar 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Beat egg whites until frothy, using a rotary beater or electric mixer at moderate speed; add cream of tartar and salt and continue beating, adding sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time. When all sugar is mixed in, add vanilla and beat at highest mixer speed, until glossy and peaks stand up when beaters are withdrawn.

Spoon about half the meringue around edge of warm filling, spreading so it touches pastry all around. Pile remaining meringue in center, then spread to cover all filling, pulling into peaks with the back of spoon or twirling around. If you prefer, pipe meringue over filling, using a pastry bag fitted with a decorative tip. Bake on center oven rack 12 to 15 minutes until lightly browned. Cool at least 2 hours before serving. Dip knife in warm water before cutting each slice.

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