(NYTimes) - The popular English dessert (aka "pudding" in British-speak) Eton Mess, attributed to a yearly celebration at Eton College, is a delectable combination of strawberries, smashed meringues and softly whipped cream.
As desserts go, it's not daunting to make - just a matter of marinating strawberries with lemon juice, sugar and an optional slosh of liquor. "Mess" in this context means "mixture" rather than "messy". Even so, you would not exactly call it elegant, though it has universal appeal.
If you use store-bought meringues, it is ultra-easy. Most bakeries sell meringues, sometimes giant ones, or smaller versions called meringue shells. If neither is available, you could substitute a package of meringue cookies.
You may, however, enjoy the sticky process of making meringues. Just three or four egg whites, whipped for 10 minutes or so with sugar until stiff and glossy, are enough. Electric beaters make the job painless, or use a wire whisk and give your arm a workout.
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It is a bit of a project, but mostly a waiting game. Meringues must be baked for at least two hours in a very low oven. If time permits, letting them dry overnight in a turned-off oven gives the best, crispiest results (though some prefer their meringues with a somewhat gooey center).
If they are not to be used right away, the meringues should be stored in an airtight container. Do not try to make meringues in damp or humid weather because they will not set, remaining weepy and soft, which is not at all what you want.
MERINGUE MESS WITH RHUBARB AND STRAWBERRIES
For the meringues:
4 egg whites
1 cup (200g) sugar (Or use 6 to 8 store-bought meringue shells)
For the mess:
340g rhubarb, chopped (about 3 cups)
1 cup (200g) sugar, plus 2 tablespoons for cream
1 2.5cm cinnamon stick
1 cup (240ml) heavy cream
1 tsp rose water, optional
450g strawberries, hulled and halved or quartered
3 Tbsps chopped pistachios
Mint leaves for garnish
1. Make the meringues: Heat oven to 93 degrees Celsius. Put egg whites in a mixing bowl. Beat at high speed until thickened and foamy, then gradually add sugar and continue beating until whites are glossy and hold stiff peaks, about 10 minutes.
2. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and place 6 to 8 large spoonfuls of whites on it, 5 to 7 centimeters apart. Flatten meringue blobs slightly with a knife and bake for 1 hour. Reduce temperature to 65 degrees Celsius and bake for 1½ hours, until dry and crisp. If time permits, leave meringues in turned-off oven overnight to dry thoroughly. Cool and store in an airtight container.
3. Cook the rhubarb: Put rhubarb in a nonreactive saucepan, add sugar, cinnamon and cloves, and stir to combine. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently; it should become juicy and syrupy in a few minutes. Lower heat and continue cooking until rhubarb is tender but not mushy, about 10 minutes. Cool to room temperature.
4. Whip the cream in a large bowl with 2 tablespoons sugar, leaving it quite soft, almost pourable. Add rose water if using. Break or cut meringues into 2.5cm pieces and add to bowl. In a separate bowl, combine strawberries, rhubarb and all juices and toss to coat. Add strawberry mixture to meringues and cream. Using a rubber spatula, fold everything together.
Transfer to a serving bowl or individual dishes, sprinkle with pistachios and garnish with mint leaves.
Cooks have long taken liberties with the original Eton Mess, adding other kinds of summer berries or stone fruit as they come into season. Indeed, blackberries, blueberries, nectarines and raspberries, alone or combined, make for a fine mess.
With local rhubarb and strawberries in plentiful supply at the market, my mess contains those. I stew the rhubarb quickly with sugar until it is just cooked and syrupy, and then toss the cooled compote with the strawberries. The rhubarb juices supply plenty of sweetness. The cream is barely sugared, since the meringues are sweet, too. For the most luscious experience, be sure to keep the cream very softly whipped. Toss everything together and spoon into individual bowls or pile the mess onto a platter.
If you prefer a more refined version, spread meringues with whipped cream, spoon the fruit on top and call it Pavlova, the dessert named for the early-20th-century ballerina.