Eton Mess. Sounds delicious, doesn’t it? Oh those Brits. Makes you wonder what they were thinking when they named things like Spotted Dick, Jam Roly Poly and Stargazey Pie. So let me tell you about “Eton Mess”. It’s a delightful traditional English dessert said to have originated in the 19th century at the hoity toity British boarding school and is traditionally served on June 4th at the annual cricket game against the rival Harrow School. It always contains ripe fresh strawberries, whipped cream and meringue bits all sort of folded together or if you’re fancy, layered parfait style, in a bowl or cup. The strawberry juices run into the cream, which soaks into the crunchy meringue bits making one delicious mess of a dessert.
I’d known about this dish for years but hadn’t really had a chance to enjoy it until a trip to London a few years ago. We had spent the day wandering the lovely halls and grounds of Windsor Castle, wondering what it would be like to actually live there (the Queen unfortunately was not in residence or I surely would have been invited in for tea). After gawking and daydreaming, we stopped for dinner in a nearby gastropub whose name escapes me, which is too bad because it was really good. Regardless, I spied “Eton Mess” on the menu and knew before I had even ordered my first drink that I would have it for dessert. This is very typical of me, choosing dessert first.
Sitting on that breezy terrace finishing the last of my wine and watching the light change over the imposing castle, I was smitten. The berries were bright, sweet and impossibly red, everything that a strawberry is so often not. Interspersed with smooth cream and crunchy meringue I could have easily ordered a second. It was heavenly. Since strawberry season was long over by the time I returned home, I made a mental note to make it the next summer. Which didn’t happen.
This week, as I wandered from table to table at the farmers market, each vendor showing off better strawberries than the last, I determined it was time. This recipe needs, no requires, good strawberries. Good, juicy, sweet and red all the way through – you know what I’m talking about. I suppose you could probably make it with other berries – raspberries, blackberries, and so forth – as long as they’re ripe and juicy but I don’t think you can officially call it an Eton Mess. Though it would still be delicious. Oh do what you have to do.
Meringue is relatively easy to make if you have an oven that goes low enough (I don’t) and avoid humid or rainy days (I didn’t). Meringues don’t take well to moisture and mine quickly became a chewy due to the humidity. Oh well. Failing that, you can easily buy meringues in the grocery store bakery departments – especially at places like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s where they tend to market them as a fat free treats to yoga pant clad women pushing strollers on their way to SoulCycle. If you don’t feel like turning on your oven or the weather is being difficult this is a really great option.
Any British chef worth their salt has a recipe – Nigella, Delia, Gordon, Jamie. Throw a dart and pick though this is one of those recipes that maybe except for a little guidance on the meringues, doesn’t really need a recipe. You sort of toss this together over here, whip that together over there and fold everything together front and center. It’s easy, delicious and takes advantage of summer berries at their best possible moment. Strawberries, cream, crunch. On a hot summer day, there’s not much better than that.
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: SWOON WORTHY. Seriously, if your berries are really great this will knock your socks off. Even if they’re just OK this will still be pretty good. It’s a big bowl of whipped cream with delicious fruit and crunchy bits mixed in. What can possibly be more delicious than that? Extra bonus points for the name: Eton Mess is a fantastic conversation topic. So dazzle your dinner party guests with a lovely dessert AND your sparkling wit.
6 years ago: Chino Farms field trip for strawberries
5 years ago: Garden Update – choosing between seedlings
4 years ago: Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble Pie with a Lard Crust
3 years ago: Fresh Ricotta
2 years ago: Roasted Strawberry Sorbet
last year: Guinness Crème Anglaise
Other strawberry recipes: Popovers & Strawberry Butter, Strawberry Buttermilk Ice Cream, Strawberry Shortcake, Strawberry Hibiscus Popsicles
For the meringue:
2 large egg whites, room temperature
pinch of kosher salt
½ cup sugar
¾ teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (or vanilla bean paste)
For the strawberries:
4 cups strawberries
2 teaspoons sugar (if you’re hoarding vanilla sugar, use it here)
for the whipped cream:
2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
- For the meringues: preheat the oven to 225ºF and line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Set aside until needed.
- In the clean, dry bowl of a standing mixer, whip the egg whites on medium-high speed with a pinch of salt until they just start to hold their shape.
- Add the sugar a Tablespoon at a time, while continuing to whip to firm peak, incorporating all the sugar and the meringue is stiff and shiny.
- Whip in the vanilla extract.
- Divide the meringue into 6 mounds on the baking sheet, then flatten each one into a disk with the back of a spoon. (Dipping the spoon in water, then shaking off the excess, helps in keeping the meringue from sticking.)
- Bake the meringues for 1 ½ hours, then turn off the oven and leave the meringues in the oven with the door closed, to dry out further. Several hours or overnight is best.
- For the strawberries: Hull and quarter the strawberries. Place in a bowl with the sugar and combine thoroughly. Let macerate for at least 30 minutes to let the sugar dissolve and draw some juices out of the berries.
- For the whipped cream: Whip the cream and vanilla in the bowl of a standing mixer on medium to soft peaks. You want the cream to be soft and just barely hold its shape in a nice mound. Whipping on a low speed takes a while but results in a much more stable cream that will hold for longer than if you had cranked up the speed to high.
- To assemble: Roughly crumble 4 of the meringues discs, medium sized chunks and a little meringue dust is perfect.
- For serving, you have two options – fold the ingredients together or layer, parfait style in a pretty glass.
- For the first method, reserve about ½ cup of the strawberries for garnish and gently fold the remaining strawberries and the meringue bits/dust into the whipped cream.
- Gently fill four glass bowls or glasses. Chill. Just before serving garnish with meringue bits so they stay crisp.
- For the second layered method: in pretty glasses, layer the ingredients separately in this order: meringue bits/dust, whipped cream, berries and juice, meringue bits/dust, whipped cream, berries/juice. Chill. Just before serving garnish with meringue bits so they stay crisp.
- Make ahead: this is an interesting one. The longer it sits, the softer the meringue becomes. I like it when the meringue has softened a bit but still has some texture which seems to be in the 2 hour window but it will still be delicious if the meringue softens completely. Just crumble a few crunchy meringue bits on top for texture if you like.