My motto this sticky, hot, and did I mention sticky and hot summer, has been: Keep calm and make Eton Mess.
Although the British are not particularly well-known when it comes to cuisine, when it comes to desserts, they generally surpass themselves. If you don’t believe me, just check out the names of British desserts. In British English biscuits are cookies, scones are biscuits, and puddings are sometimes cakes. And then there are the really weird and fun names, like trifles (which are nothing to sneeze at, featuring beautifully layered slices of pound or sponge cake with fruit or jam and whipped cream), fools (fruit purees folded into whipped cream), and, my absolute favorite, spotted dick (a custard with dried fruit that resembles the spots on a dog).
A close runner up to Spotted Dick would be Eton Mess, a name that I love because it manages to capture the dichotomy of British culture in nutshell, i.e., that which has its lip all stiff and upper vs. the less tidy and planned out way in which the British actually tend to conduct their affairs. A classic British dessert, Eton Mess is a combination of crumbled up meringues that are mixed together with whipped cream and berries (usually strawberries). Beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing all the way to the current day, Eton Mess has traditionally been served at the festivities attending to the annual cricket match between two of Britain’s most prestigious institutions: Eton College and Harrow. The titular “mess” probably refers to a meal shared by groups of people (like schoolboys, soldiers, or cricket match attendees). Given the unstructured assembly and rough appearance of the dish, however, “mess” might just just as easily mean untidy.
The making of such a well-pedigreed dessert is actually surprisingly simple–indeed, the hardest part of the whole thing is the meringues. You can, of course, buy meringues, but they are surprisingly easy to make at home, requiring nothing more at their core than egg whites, sugar, an electric mixer, and an oven. Traditionally, the egg whites are beaten until frothy and sugar is slowly added in to avoid deflating the mixture, reducing it to a soupy mess. But using a trick I learned from The Joy of Cooking, I warmed the sugar and egg whites in the mixing bowl over simmering water until the sugar is dissolved. Easy-peasy. I folded in melted chocolate and chopped hazelnuts because I am contrariwise and, hello! I defy even the most snobbish of food purists to deny the deliciousness of these additions.
Hazelnuts, (mostly skinned), ready for a coarse chop:
Streaky meringue, ready to be scooped out onto parchment-lined cookie sheets. The meringue can be piped out if you like, but since mine had streaks of chocolate and little bits of nuts and since I am supremely lazy, I just dolloped mine out by large spoonfuls.
The meringues aren’t so much baked as they are dried in a low oven for several hours. This treatment crisps the outside of the meringues, so that they shatter you when bite into them, leaving the inside soft and marshmallow-like. Mmmmmm.
Assembly of the Eton Mess is almost embarrassingly simple: crumble up a meringue into the bottom of a bowl. Dollop a spoonful of whipped cream (lightly sweetened, or if you’re a freak like me, unsweetened) and a handful of berries. Garnish with some more crumbled meringues and a few more berries.
The final dessert proves that the British were really onto something when they concocted this mess. The sweet, crispy, and marshmallowy meringues combine with the cool and creamy texture of whipped cream and the tartness of fresh berries to create a dessert that is more than the sum of its parts.