MAKING A Valentine vacherin is harder than MasterCarding a bouquet, but then, our lives and emotions revolve too much around the florist and the commerically made card anyway.

Here's a chance to prepare something really special, a wedding of strawberry meringue, preserves, fresh fruit, vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. It takes time, and the instructions seem complicated, but they're really not. Besides, if you make any mistakes, you can eat them and start over with plenty of time to spare: The shell, which keeps forever, can be prepared weeks in advance and the filling, inserted at the last minute, is as simple as scooping ice cream.

This dessert is prepared in stages. The first is to make the heart's bottom, sides and top. The second stage is to glue all these pieces together with another batch of meringue and bake once again. The third stage, the easiest and shortest, is to fill this giant meringue shell with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream and strawberry preserves.


First meringue: 1 pound (2 cups) thawed or fresh strawberries 2 cups sugar 8 egg whites Butter and flour for cookie sheet

Second meringue: 8 ounces (1 cup) thawed or fresh strawberries, crushed 1 cup sugar 4 egg whites

For strawberry preserves: 8 ounces (1 cup) thawed or fresh strawberries, crushed 1 3/4 cups sugar Juice of 1/2 lemon 1/4 pouch liquid pectin (about 2 tablespoons)

To assemble: 8 ounces chocolate chips 1/2 pint whipping cream 1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 1 teaspoon rum 1 pint vanilla ice cream, softened 1 cup strawberries, sliced

To make first meringue pour strawberries into 3-quart saucepan, mash with a potato masher and add sugar. Boil vigorously, uncovered, stirring occasionally. When the mixture thickens, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook slowly, stirring constantly. The strawberries will scorch at this point if not stirred constantly. The strawberry syrup is ready when it reaches the soft-ball stage (238 degrees on a candy thermometer); at this point, the syrup, when dropped from the spoon into a cup of cold water, can be formed into a soft ball. Just prior to this stage, threads at least 2 inches long will hang from the spoon after a drip falls. When this happens, turn off the heat, because the syrup will coast to the hotter soft-ball stage.

Whip the egg whites on highest speed of electric mixer until they stand in soft peaks, and slowly add the strawberry syrup. The strawberry lumps will disappear into the meringue. Continue whipping until stiff. Grease and flour 4 cookie sheets. Fold a piece of typing paper in half lengthwise and cut out a 10-by-8-inch heart. Place the paper heart in the middle of a sheet and trace around in the flour; repeat with other sheets. You will need to make 5 hearts in all. That means that one tray has to have 2 hearts on it. It's all right if they touch; meringue doesn't expand while it bakes.

Using a pastry bag and a number 5 plain tip, start at the traced line and fill the insides of 2 hearts. Then pipe a line inside the outline of the three remaining hearts and pipe another line on top of each. You should now have 2 solid hearts and 3 double-tiered heart rings.

If there is any meringue remaining, pipe out small hearts. They are made with two strokes, starting at the rounded end of the heart and pulling the meringue to a point.

Bake all 4 trays at 225 degrees for 30 minutes, then reduce the heat to 200 degrees for 1 hour. The meringue should have firmed up a little. This meringue, however, does not become crisp until cool. Remove from oven and allow to cool on trays.

When the hearts are cool, prepare second batch of strawberry meringue as above, using the crushed strawberries, sugar and egg whites.

Place one of the solid hearts in the middle of an ungreased cookie sheet and pipe dots of meringue every 2 inches around the edge. Set 1 of the double heart rings on top, pipe more dots, set another heart ring on top, pipe more dots and set the final ring. With a spatula, smooth more meringue around the sides, both inside and out -- just as you would ice the sides of a cake. Now pipe a decorative edge, using an overhand motion or piping dots and pulling or piping and zigzagging. If there are any small hearts left from the first batch, press them decoratively into the sides of the heart. Bake at 190 degrees for 5 hours, turn off the oven and leave overnight or until ready to fill. Note: Store in a dry place, away from heat, if heart is made days in advance.

The remaining strawberry meringue can be used for decorating the lid (the second solid heart) by stirring 1 or 2 cups confectioners' sugar into the mixture to make a thick paste. For a more intense red, add food coloring. With a number-one tip pastry-decorating tube or a waxed paper decorating tube write your message across the top.

To make strawberry preserves bring crushed strawberries, sugar and lemon juice to a boil, add the liquid pectin, stir 1 minute while boiling and remove from heat. Chill until cold. (Reserve sliced strawberries for arranging on top of the ice cream and whipped cream, before covering with the preserves.)

Assemble when the shell is dry. Melt chocolate chips. Use some of the chocolate for decorating the lid and brush the rest evenly around the inside of the meringue shell. This "waterproofs" the interior for the ice cream and whipped cream. Then whip cream with confectioners' sugar, vanilla extract and rum. Place shell in center of serving dish and gently pack the softened ice cream around the inside of the shell. Scoop the whipped cream into the center. Smooth and cover with fresh strawberries and strawberry preserves. Top with second heart or leave it slightly ajar, exposing the strawberry interior. This can be refrozen or served immediately. To serve cut down (like a pie) with serrated knife.