eat. Last September while visiting my friend Sara Jane in Northumberland (her village is spittin’ distance from the Wall), she made a smashing dinner of roast pork, fabulously crispy roast potatoes, and several different veg. I didn’t think I’d have room for dessert, but when she set it on the table, I had an immediate change of heart: there before me was a bowl of what looked like luscious whipped cream mixed with bits of fruit. Ah, cream!
“What is it?” I asked.
“Eton what?” Turns out Eton Mess is a hallowed dish of the English public school of the same name, composed of whipped cream, fruit, and pieces of meringue. It dates back to the 19th century, and was originally made with bananas, but is now traditionally made with strawberries. The dessert is still served at the annual cricket match between the Eton boys and their nearby rivals from Winchester College.
As to the “mess” part, well that’s a bit obvious once you take a look at the dessert: a big bowl of creamy glop.
I can tell you that Sara Jane’s Eton Mess was amazing: the tart strawberries perfectly cut the richness of the cream, and the crunchy meringue pieces provided a lightness that was simply heavenly. I’ve got to make this when I get home, I vowed.
Since I had egg whites left over from my lemon curd, I decided to make meringues and use them in an Eton Mess to take to our French conversation group’s annual Bastille Day luncheon.
I’d never made meringues before, but they turned out to be quite simple, using only two ingredients: egg whites and sugar.
If your egg whites have been in the refrigerator, take them our and let them come up to room temperature before starting (this hastens the rather long and tedious whipping process).
Preheat the oven to 190°F. Line a baking pan with non-stick parchment paper (I used one of those silicone baking liners).
Beat 4 egg whites until foamy, and then sprinkle in 1 ½ cups superfine sugar, a little at a time, whipping in between.
Continue beating until the mixture becomes stiff, and shiny like satin. Be patient: this can take 10 or even 15 minutes, if you have an old mixer like mine. (My hand mixer is from the 1950s, and towards the end of my mixing process one of the beaters came loose and caused them to jam:
You’ll see when you make them that the meringue batter is very sticky. So rather than get myself completely covered in the sugary goo, I decided to just dump the beaters into a bowl of water in the sink to soak, figuring the whites were sufficiently beaten to work. They were still a bit soft, but ended making perfectly good meringues.)
Spoon the meringue batter into a pastry bag fitted with a large star tip,
and pipe the cookies out onto the baking sheet:
As you can see, mine were a little droopy and could have stood more beating, but they held their form enough to work.
Bake the cookies for about 3 hours, or until they are dry. You can test them periodically, breaking one open to make sure it’s hard all the way through. You don’t want chewy meringues for an Eton Mess, as it’s the crunch you’re after. (Some folks say to put a wooden spoon handle in the oven door to allow the moisture to escape, but I didn’t do this as it meant my oven light would have been on for 3 hours.) Here are what my cookies looked like when they were done (I flipped them over to cool):
To put together the Eton Mess:
(Note: it’s best to wait until shortly before service to compose the Mess, so the meringues don’t get soggy.)
Whip 1 pint of heavy cream (adding 2 T sugar and 1 t vanilla extract) until stiff:
Have ready your meringues, whipped cream, and fruit. Although strawberries are traditional, I opted for berries—a mix of raspberries and blackberries—so the dish would be bleu-blanc-rouge for the Fête Nationale:
Break the meringues into bite-size pieces (you should have about equal parts meringue and whipped cream):
Mix half the whipped cream with half the meringue pieces in a large serving bowl:
Top with half the berries (I used two baskets total for the dish):
Repeat for a second layer:
Spoon into bowls and enjoy the Mess!
[By the way: Some of you may have noticed a recipe in yesterday’s USA Weekend magazine (you know—that throwaway thing in everyone’s Sunday newspaper). This is pure coincidence; I’ve been meaning to write this blog for a couple of weeks. And I prefer my recipe to theirs, which seems way too sweet.]