July 11, 2017
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The Eton Mess Is Beautiful, Chaotic, British
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­­Many years of eating, cooking, and writing about food have left Scott Hocker with many stories to tell. In this occasional column he re-creates a dish tied to a distant, or sometimes recent, food memory.

When I first ate Eton mess in 2011 it was less a disarray and more a meticulous calculation. Nubs of crunchy-chewy meringue danced with yogurt mousse and bands of blackberry jam—topped with a jumble of fresh berries, all stacked judiciously in a Weck jar and crowned with a scoop of mint-rosewater ice milk. It was a precise dessert from an exacting pastry chef, Shuna Lydon, who during various positions at Manhattan kitchens always kept her desserts seasonal—yes, as so many pastry chefs do, but also surprising.

I have always been drawn to meringue. The slick chew-and-shatter of French meringue. The sticky give of Italian meringue, a billowy type mounded on fruit pies. I think I ate more lemon meringue pies as a kid than Whoppers from Burger King. But the intersection of saccharine meringue, flowing cream, and ripe, tart fruit in Lydon’s Eton mess at the now-closed Peels in Manhattan’s East Village was everything I had never realized I wanted from a dessert. I knew hers was a florid, scrupulous interpretation of the classic British dessert. So what of Eton mess in its birthplace of England? What was this dish—first mentioned in 1893 and associated with a college founded in 1440 by King Henry VI—like in the country that created it?

Last month, my boyfriend, Brandon, and I wandered the United Kingdom for two weeks. A real vacation! I figured we might stumble on Eton mess during our wanderings, as Eton mess is a firm part of the vernacular of newish restaurants celebrating classic English dishes. Bothering to seek it out, though, was the least of my worries. With jet lag seeped into my bones, there would be no scouring restaurant menus for one specific dessert—er, pudding, as they call dessert in the Kingdom.

Our home base for a few days was Bath, at the foot of the Cotswolds, that absurdly bucolic area in south-central England. We headed north into the heart of those hills late one weekday morning for a hike. Or as they are called in England, a “walk.” I wonder what the Brits call a “walk” without hills and sheep.

Lunch was the first order of business being that we had slept in. Our destination: the Wild Duck Inn, a 16th century pub in the hamlet of Ewen. Ivy stretched over the building’s façade, and the warren of dining areas was like a Victorian garden maze that had transported itself to the 21st century. The food was classic with an eye to freshness: just-caught brill, local asparagus, and potatoes. I eyed the dessert—er, puddings—menu, and there it was: Eton mess with Somerset strawberries.

I hoped this kind of old dessert would still feel dynamic in its homeland in 2017. But we all know time can be cruel. Out came an accumulation of small meringue bumps, dense, rolling whipped cream and deep-red strawberries.

The author and a sheet of meringue.

I was stunned. It was one of the finest desserts I have ever eaten. Clear, concise, and rich. The cream was barely sweet, but hefty with loads of butterfat. The meringue pieces were both crisp and soft. The berries were peerless. If this is a proper mess, may chaos reign across the world for all time.

I tried to replicate the Inn’s Eton mess at home in New Orleans. Meringues are a bugaboo in the weighty, humid summer months of south Louisiana. They go soft and clinging. Still, it’s worth the trouble. I like mine with unsweetened whipped cream. The meringues and the fruit, too, if you are lucky, are plenty sweet. Me, I choose fruit that has sharpness and some kick. Blackberries maybe. I sluiced passion fruit syrup across the mess, adding a yellow shock and more tang.

That’s my mess, though. Do what you like with yours. Everyone’s mess is always ultimately theirs and theirs alone.

Eton Mess

Eton Mess

6-8 servings

Ingredients

  • 2 egg whites, ideally at room temperature
  • pinch of salt
  • pinch of cream tartar (optional)
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • good fresh fruit, such as berries
  • fruit syrup, if you happen to have some

This recipe had so many influences. But Regan Daley’s unsung In the Sweet Kitchen and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Fruit Everyday! are the formative ones. It makes sense, I suppose, that a Canadian (Daley) and a Brit (Fearnley-Whittingstall) informed my meringue ways, as we Americans don’t eat much meringue comparatively. Low-and-slow is the way to think about cooking this kind of meringue.

  1. Preheat oven to 225℉.
  2. You want your eggs at room temperature. If you forgot to take them out of the refrigerator, simply crack the whites into a heatproof bowl and gently warm over low heat above a burner on the stove. In a standing mixer, whip the eggs, salt and optional cream of tartar over medium speed with the whisk attachment until the whites begin to form soft peaks. Continue whipping, adding the sugar gradually about a tablespoon at a time until the whites are glossy and bendy with firm peaks. It should take about 3 minutes. As I read once, you want them sturdy enough for a whole egg to only sink in about ¼ inch.
  3. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Using a teaspoon, plop spoonfuls of meringue onto the baking sheet. You should wind up with about 22 individual meringue blobs. Bake until the meringues are hard outside and no longer sticky to the touch. It will likely take at least 1½ hours. Turn off the oven and leave the meringues inside. (They keep at room temperature for a few days, too, provided they’re kept in an airtight container.)
  4. Beat the cream with an electric mixer until it forms flowing soft peaks. You don’t want to overbeat the cream and have it be too firm. You want to be able to softly coat the meringues pieces with it.
  5. Set aside half the whipped cream and add half the meringues. Toss gently, then scoop the mix onto a serving platter. Intersperse the fruit and remaining meringues among the cream-meringue mixture. Drizzle the optional syrup on top.

Scott Hocker

Scott Hocker is a writer, editor, recipe developer, cookbook author, and content and editorial consultant. He is currently the editor in chief of liquor.com and was previously the editor in chief of Tasting Table.

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