Eton Mess

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

I've long wanted to try this mythical dessert called "Eton mess." I can't even remember when I first heard of it. It must've been from the time Prince William was still a student at Eton College in Eton, England.

Eton mess is served every year on June 4th to celebrate the school's annual cricket game against the Harrow School. During the 1930s, the dessert was served at the school's "sock shop" (tuck shop or ... I'm not sure what the American equivalent of any of those terms might be. Soda shop? Deli? Café and bakery?) It seems that no one is terribly sure where the name "Eton mess" comes from, but obviously, the dessert originated at Eton College, and it does look quite messy. According to Wikipedia, the word "mess" could be used to mean "'a quantity of food', particularly 'a prepared dish of soft food' or 'a mixture of ingredients cooked or eaten together'" in this context. Traditionally, Eton mess is a mixture of strawberries, meringue and cream, although meringue and cream replaced the original ingredient of ice cream.

To me, British desserts can be extremely hit-or-miss. Some of them, despite their unappetizing exteriors, are amazing (like sticky toffee pudding). Some of them, despite their appealing exteriors, are average at best (trifles). I wasn't expecting a lot of Eton mess, but I figured it couldn't be anything close to bad if it's been served at one of the most distinguished schools in England for over a century. So ... why not?

I searched the internet for the most traditional recipe I could find and work with, and decided to use this recipe from Delia Online Cookery School (via the "How to Cook Book Two"), with some alterations.

Eton Mess
Yields one massive trifle-sized serving or 3-4 individual-sized servings
Requires at least 12 hours, including inactive time (meringues should be made the night before)

1 pound of fresh strawberries, hulled
3 large egg whites
1 pint of heavy cream (or double cream, if you can get your hands on it)
6 ounces of caster sugar (you can make this by running sugar through a coffee bean grinder)
1 rounded tablespoon of confectioner's sugar

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees Fahrenheit (the recipe says 300, then 275, but I found that this made the meringue turn brown).

Place egg whites in a clean, medium-to-large bowl and whisk until it forms soft peaks that tip over slightly when you lift your whisk. Add the caster sugar, about a tablespoon at a time, while continuing to whisk.

Line baking sheets with parchment paper and place dessertspoonfuls of the meringue on your sheet. Place your sheet on the center shelf and bake for about an hour. Be sure to check on it every so often to make sure they do not go brown. They don't need to look like the typical meringue cookies, as they will be crumbled and mixed with cream in the final dish. When you feel the meringues are done, turn off your oven and leave them in the oven to dry overnight, or at the very least until the oven is back to room temperature.

Chop the strawberries and place half of them in a blender, along with the confectioner's sugar. Blend until it has become puréed, and strain them through a sieve to remove seeds.

Take the heavy cream and whip it until it becomes a whipped cream. This will take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes or so if you're doing it by hand.

When you are ready to serve, break up the meringues in a mixing bowl, add the fresh strawberries, and fold in the whipped cream. Gently fold in about 2 tablespoons of the strawberry purée until you achieve a marbled effect, and divide the mixture into your serving dish or dishes. Dribble the remaining purée over the top, and enjoy!

I'm not usually a fan of whipped cream, but this was really nice and refreshing. It was a fancier version of strawberries and cream, and the meringue really gave the dish an interesting texture and sweetness. I thought the whipped cream was quite rich, so I can't imagine what the original recipe (made with double cream) is like! What I enjoyed most about it was how fresh the whipped cream made the entire dessert taste, as if I had plucked all the ingredients from my very own backyard and imaginary farm. Highly recommended if you want to try something fresh and light.

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