Take it from me: Desserts that combine fruit and creaminess and crunch have the edge over, say, a bowl of stewed prunes. Sherry trifle is probably the top dog in that pack, but a strong contender — and a dish that’s easier to put together — is Eton Mess. (Yes, the Brits are the champs here.) The classic rendition is crisp meringue busted into pieces and folded into whipped cream and topped or mixed with strawberries. Other fruit options are permissible, and we often take advantage of that latitude.
From the logistical standpoint, the grand thing about meringue desserts is that they use the whites from eggs whose yolks have gone into things like ultra-yellow pasta or cup custards. It was after making a batch of noodles using whole eggs with a couple of extra yolks that I wound up with two egg whites in the fridge. In a covered container, whites keep for a while; opinions vary on how long, but I’d say a week or even more, and they freeze very well indeed.
With strawberries (and rhubarb) on hand, Eton Mess became a possibility. In our house, it was, in fact, inevitable.
First of all, I preheated the oven to 250 degrees. Then I put my two egg whites and a tiny bit of salt into the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment installed. Yes, I could have whisked by hand, but I’ve discovered that rotator-cuff injuries are no fun at all. Not that anyone is likely to shred a tendon by wielding a balloon whip: I just plain didn’t feel like doing it by hand.
When the foam was starting to hold its shape, I gradually added a half-cup of granulated sugar, then a little vanilla extract, and, in accordance with received wisdom, a scant teaspoon of cider vinegar and continued to run the machine until the whites were glossy and holding soft peaks. At this point I added a teaspoonful of cornstarch, sifted in through a little sieve — a tea strainer in fact — and continued to whisk for another 15 seconds to incorporate the starch thoroughly. (Once the sugar goes in, there’s little danger of overbeating.)
I spread the mixture about an inch and a half thick onto a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet and put it in the oven, where it sat quietly for a good two hours. Start checking after 90 minutes but be prepared for a longer wait: The meringue must be dry/crisp throughout. Yes, it’s okay that it will turn beige: Some of the best-pedigreed meringues I’ve eaten have not been snow-white. Let it cool on the baking sheet; at this point it will keep for a few days in a cookie tin, either whole or broken into pieces — unless the atmosphere is particularly humid. In summertime, try to make the meringue the day you plan to use it.
Moving on to the fruit: I’ve come to agree with my wife, Jackie, that even excellent strawberries taste best when tinkered with, at least minimally. This can mean simply sprinkling them with sugar an hour before you eat with them to get their juices running, or it can mean making a loose jam: the consistency of a compote, almost, but with the berries truly sugar-preserved, not merely stewed. We’d done that already (with a mixture of strawberries and rhubarb), so we were set for Eton Mess.
With the meringue and rhubarb-berry mixture at the ready, assembly was the work of three minutes. While Jackie used a table knife to break up the meringue into irregularly shaped, crunchy shards (some half an inch across, some twice that), I whipped some unsugared, unflavored cream. I folded the meringue bits into the cream, served this mixture and topped each portion with semi-jam (again, sugared strawberries or, say, raspberries or even cherries would be delicious, too).
What a glorious mess!
Edward Schneider’s Cooking Off the Cuff blogposts appear on Fridays.