I promise not to bombard you with ‘this is the quintessentially British summer dessert.’ However … you don’t have to go far at this time of year to find bowls of Eton mess being served up in pubs, bistros, and kitchen tables across the land. Why? Because, in its original form, it is simple to make, contains seasonal ingredients and most of all it is downright delicious. However, as you might expect, the Nosey Chef has taken this classic to the next level, with a modern twist. But, first the story.
As you might imagine from its name the origins of this dish have something to do with a rather well known English public school. And, as ever there are a number of different versions relating to it’s origins. However, it is generally accepted that it first appeared in print in 1893 following an incident at the annual Harrow versus Eton cricket match, where the pudding of meringue, berries and cream – destined for the mouths of the hungry players – was dropped on the ground. Rather than let it go to waste, it was scooped up into a bowl and served.
From about 1930 a dish of either strawberries or bananas, with meringue and cream, was served in the Eton ‘sock shop’ (known as the ‘tuck shop’ to the rest of us). Although, is not clear whether or not this was actually called Eton mess, the observation is in keeping with the views of old Etonian and former Tory minister William Waldegrave. Writing in the Eton Cookbook compiled by his wife Caroline Waldegrave, he is adamant that, whilst banana and strawberry mess were available, there was not and never has been anything called Eton mess. I wish Mr Waldegrave all the best in his quest to stop an entire nation from referring to strawberries, cream and meringues as anything other than Eton mess – ‘Good luck Sir!’
There are countless recipes for Eton mess that simply combine meringues with cream, fruit and a coulis. But I thought it would be fun to try out some molecular techniques to produce a slightly more up-scale dessert. Some might call it ‘deconstructed’, nonetheless, I guarantee it will impress your guests and is a relatively simple introduction to the fascinating world of molecular and modernist cuisine.
Eton College can be found at Windsor, Berkshire SL4 6DW, United Kingdom.
Modernist Eton mess
- 1.5kg strawberries, English of course
- 140g fructose
- 6g malic acid (available from specialist online suppliers)
- 1 tbsp icing sugar
- Handful of torn basil leaves
- 500ml double cream
- 1 vanilla pod
- 6 meringues
For the compressed strawberries you will first need to make a strawberry broth. Run 500g of whole strawberries through a countertop juicer. This will yield about 500ml of juice. If like most of us you don't have a spare £2.5K to purchase a culinary centrifuge, leaving the juice to settle for a couple of hours should suffice for domestic purposes. Then add the lactic acid and the fructose, and chill.
Take the remaining 500g of strawberries, also left whole. Place these into the marinading container of your vacuum sealer, pour in the broth. Vacuum and place in the fridge for a couple of hours. This is the sciency bit; the vacuum causes the intracellular contents of the strawberries to boil very briefly. This breaks down the cell walls and allows the sugary broth, which is more concentrated than the watery, intracellular contents, to diffuse into the cells. The result is a berry that looks cooked but is firm and bursting with juice, with a pleasant tang from the malic acid. If you don't have a vacuum sealer you could simply place the berries and broth in the freezer for an hour, then remove and leave to marinade for 2 hours.
The strawberry and basil coulis, is a simpler affair. Whizz 500g of strawberries in a blender with a handful of basil leaves and the icing sugar. Pass through a fine sieve or chinnoise and chill.
Coarsely crush the meringues and place into a bowl. Ideally use French meringues, which you can make or buy, as these have the crunch that is needed to give the required texture.
Pour the double cream into another bowl. Split the vanilla pod lengthways, scrape out the seeds and add to the cream. Whisk into soft peaks, but be careful not to over do it or you will end up with butter. Gently stir in the broken meringues, which provides enough agitation to stiffen up the cream to the desired consistency.
Pack the meringue and cream into a rosti ring and arrange in the middle of a large serving plate. Remove the ring to leave a neat tower. Very 80's, I know.
Cut a compressed strawberry into quarters, mop up any excess juice and arrange carefully on top of the tower. Pour small pools of coulis around the outside and serve.