Eton mess is my quintessential summer pudding. I don’t mean pudding in the American sense, mind you, but if I called it “dessert,” my mother wouldn’t be happy.
I am from London, England, but I’ve been living in the U.S. for two years now. I rarely experience homesickness, though I’ll admit I felt a craving for Pimms during those two July weeks of lawn tennis frenzy at Wimbledon.
Here, the tournament seemed to go practically unnoticed. In London, it is impossible to ignore. Watch parties abound. Plus, I worked at Wimbledon in the catering department for two years, which gave me a unique appreciation of the “champs,” as we call it back home. I was serving canapés at a members-only cocktail party as Andy Murray hit that serve right into the net.
Hoping to bring a slice of British summer to the Cape, I invited my Independent colleagues to a Wimbledon finals watch party. To make it a truly British affair, I told them, I would make Eton mess.
“Eat and mess?” a fellow fellow asked. Not quite, I explained, though the dish is messy.
One theory about the summer pudding’s origins points to events at a 1920s Harrow v. Eton cricket match, where a pavlova — strawberries and whipped cream piled on a meringue — was dropped after a nudge from a mischievous Labrador wanting a nibble. The dessert was salvaged, the story goes, and served in bowls to the boys, who weren’t too fussed. The two-second rule applied in the early 20th century, too, it seems.
I first tried Eton mess at the Broomwood Hall School for Girls, where it bested chef Norma Jean’s sponge cake with custard, her poached pear, and even her chocolate mousse. My traditional school believed young ladies should know how to cook — an archaic concept, I know, but I’m glad that by the time I was 11, I could not only chop an onion, but I had mastered the meringue.
One doesn’t have to go that far, however, to make an acceptable Eton mess. I opted for store-bought meringues for my Wimbledon party. Doing that cuts the preparation time of the whole mess down to about 10 minutes. For the easy version, simply buy some meringues, a punnet of strawberries, and some heavy cream. Whip the cream in a bowl, slice the strawberries into it, crush the meringues on top, stir, and serve in sizable dollops.
I figured that some cooks here will want their meringues homemade. I consulted my bible, BBC Good Food, for the best proportions of sugar to egg whites. That ratio is important, so if you have a scale, use it over American-style measuring cups.
Then there are the ratios used for constructing the dessert itself. I’ve never officially measured the cream, strawberries, and meringue quantities, to be honest. It’s a mess — so I always just eyeball it. I invite you to do the same.
Traditionally, Eton mess is made with strawberries, but since people here on the Outer Cape are picking fall raspberries or blackberries now, they win the day this time.
Late Summer Berry Eton Mess
Makes 10 servings
For the meringues:
4 egg whites
225 g. (8 oz. or 1¼ cups) granulated sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
For the mess:
3 cups raspberries or blackberries
¾ cup heavy whipping cream
1 tsp. powdered sugar
Mint sprigs, as a garnish
Make the meringues:
- Preheat oven to 230° F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Whisk egg whites in a large bowl until they form stiff peaks. Gradually add half the sugar and vanilla extract, whisking until fully incorporated. Add the other half of the sugar and whisk until mixture is glossy.
- Scoop heaping tablespoons of the meringue mixture onto the lined trays. Shape into rough circles, using an additional spoon to help. Since the meringues will be crushed, there is no need to worry about perfect shaping.
- Bake for 1½ to 1¾ hours or until meringues are dry and crisp. Let cool completely on baking sheets.
Make the mess:
- In a large bowl, whip cream until soft peaks form.
- In a separate bowl or a blender, puree a half cup of berries with the powdered sugar and add the puree to the whipped cream.
- Crush the meringues and stir them into the mixture along with most of the remaining berries — hold back a few, as well as some crumbled meringues, to garnish individual servings.
- Serve in small bowls or glasses, garnished with the reserved raspberries, crushed meringues, and mint sprigs.