Alex Hoffler began a career in marketing before realising that baking sweet treats was her real passion, and starting the Meringue Girls with fellow chef Stacey O’Gorman. They now count Vogue and Alexander McQueen among their clients, and their second cookbook ‘Everything Sweet’ will be published in July. Hoffler lives in Clapton with her partner Neil and 9-month-old baby, Indi…

“When I was young, my mum used to do a dinner called bits and pieces: there was an eggcup with egg and mayo mixed in and she’d give me carrot batons. But if I had friends round for dinner, I’d always beg for a Heinz baked bean pizza. Dad was a pretty good cook – there was often a pot stewing, although my memory of that is the taste of burnt garlic.

“There was a gelato place in Shepherd’s Bush, where I grew up, and I loved picking flavours. I also used to try and make meringues with my dad but they never worked; there was loads of burnt sugar and the meringues were always flat and burnt. They were the nemesis.

“I studied History of Art at university then began a career in marketing before going travelling on my own for seven months after being dumped by my boyfriend. I had time to think and while away, decided to apply for Leiths Cooking School in London. Everyone was surprised because when I was at uni, I never cooked. I lived with four boys and they were all way better than me at cooking – I was terrible. But I decided when I was away that I wanted to be doing something with my hands and cooking felt right.

“While I was at Leiths there was a meringue week coming up and I was like: ‘I’m going to nail this!’ But I had no idea that I’d end up working with them. I graduated from cooking school and took a job in a kitchen in Hackney as a sous chef. It was really male so I got my little corner and took on the cake making and that’s when I met my now-business partner Stacey – she was the only other girl in the kitchen and we bonded over our love of sweet stuff.

“Our head chef was a legend, like a second dad, and he saw that celebrity chef Gizzi Erskine was looking for contestants for Cooks to Market. It’s like a mix of The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den – you apply with a business idea and battle it out on a market stall to make the most profit. If you won, you could pitch to a boardroom of big names – like Harrods, Easy Jet, people with money. I applied initially with cakes. They said no, everyone’s making cakes. Then they said they needed a photo. I happened to have a really good photo of meringues so we applied with that.

“We started practising meringues in the Hackney kitchen, experimenting with loads of colours, then applied and won and Harrods agreed to stock us. They wanted exclusivity but we declined, as we saw we were onto a winner.

At uni, I never cooked. I lived with four boys and they were all way better than me at cooking – I was terrible

We started baking from my house in east London, and made a website, so we were working during the day in the Hackney kitchen and baking at night, when we were approached by a publisher about a cookbook. Now we have a team of eight people, including a head baker, as we don’t bake meringues ourselves any more. The main part of the business is private orders – we might receive a request like: “We want dusty pink meringues with a thyme and lemon scent”, which will be created in our bakery at the back of Broadway Market.

“We’ve just finished our second cookbook: Everything Sweet. We’re branching out and predicting new trends in the baking scene, and we’re also franchising Meringue Girls in the UAE.

“In terms of balancing work and motherhood, if I hadn’t had such a supportive business partner, I couldn’t have had a baby. She took the reigns while I took a step back. I took three months off with Neil, over the summer holidays, and then started bringing Indi in to work with me when she was tiny. She slept most of the time and then I’d have her on my boob while I was on my laptop. But when she got a bit older and was awake more, it wasn’t really working so I had the difficult task of sorting out childcare. I was really stressed until we found our nanny, who now has Indi two days a week, and Neil’s mum takes her for one day.”

Fig and Pistachio Pavlova (Serves 6)

The perfect Summer dessert for a sunny evening in the garden. Easy, too – the pavlova base can be baked a few days in advance, meaning you just need to assemble the toppings when you are ready to serve up.

Ingredients
300g caster sugar
5 large egg whites
100g pistachios

For the topping

  • 8 figs
  • 300g Greek yogurt, or Coyo yoghurt (as a dairy-free option)
  • 4 tbsp clear honey
  • Rose petals or edible flowers, to decorate
  • Preheat the oven to 200°C, fan 180°C, gas 6.
  • Line a deep roasting tray with baking paper, pour in the caster sugar and heat in the oven for about 5 minutes until the edges are just beginning to melt.
  • Meanwhile, put the egg whites into a freestanding mixer bowl or non-plastic bowl – make sure your bowl and whisk are free from grease.
  • Whisk the egg whites slowly at first, allowing small bubbles to form, then increase the speed until the egg whites form stiff peaks.
  • At this point, the sugar should be ready to take out of the oven. Turn your oven down to 100°C, fan 80°C, gas ¼; keep the door ajar to speed up the cooling process.
  • While you whisk at full speed, slowly add the hot sugar to the meringue mixture, a spoonful at a time. Once you’ve added all the sugar, continue to whisk on full speed for about 5-7 minutes.
  • Rub a little of the mixture between your fingers – if you can still feel the gritty sugar, keep whisking at full speed until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is smooth, stiff and glossy.
  • Finely grind 50g of the pistachios in a food processor, or use a pestle and mortar.
  • Add half of the finely ground pistachios to your meringue mixture, along with the rosewater. Fold very gently to incorporate all the ingredients, taking care not to knock out any of the volume.
  • Working quickly, spoon the meringue mixture on to the centre of a lined baking sheet and mould into the shape of a large spiky nest. Use the back of the spoon to make a dip in the centre of the meringue to form a well.
  • Sprinkle with the rest of the finely ground pistachios and bake for about 2 and a half hours. When cooked, the meringue should have a firm base and easily come away from the baking paper. Set aside to cool.
  • Slice the figs into quarters and roughly chop the remaining 50g of pistachios.
  • Place the cooled pavlova in the centre of a large plate. Spoon the Greek yogurt or Coyo into the middle of the meringue nest, allowing it to spill over the sides.
  • Place most of the figs on top of the yogurt and a scatter a few around the plate. Drizzle with honey, scatter over the roughly chopped pistachios and top with fresh edible flowers. Follow the Meringue Girls on Instagram

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