Here at Food52, we love recipes—but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.
Being English means that every summer involves two iconic recipes: Pimm's and Eton mess, both of which are essential to any garden party or pub meal. I was first introduced to Eton mess at school. During the annual “Sports Day” at the end of the academic year, all the students and parents would mill about outside by the fields all day. There were events, packed lunches, bottles of water, and hundreds of little plexiglass cups filled with this luscious combination of cream, meringue, and berries.
Due to the pronunciation (ee-ton), I thought this English dessert was called “eaten mess” for a long time before I knew how it was spelled. When I eventually saw it written out, it all clicked! I realized that the dish is named after the all-boys boarding school, Eton College, where it is served at one of the annual cricket matches.
Misspelled or not, it’s a delicious way to use up shards of crackly meringues and to celebrate sweet summer fruit (though you can definitely use autumn's bounty—but more on that below). It's a simple dessert consisting only of whipped cream (and whatever you choose to flavor it with), one firm fruit and one softer one (here, I chose strawberries and raspberries, respectively), and crumbled meringues. If you already have meringues on hand (or if you opt to use store-bought cookies), there’s no baking involved—and you don’t even need a recipe.
Here's how to make a good-old Eton mess:
1. Whip cream. Whisk cold heavy cream until it's billowy and thickened. Whip with a gentle hand: You'll be doing a lot of stirring and folding later on. If the cream looks like it’s starting to separate, stir in a little bit more unwhisked heavy cream.
If you want to add any booze, use a spatula to fold it in gently. Anything sweet is good: Think amaretto, limoncello, or Marsala. If you're feeding guests, you'll want to fill up a medium-sized bowl with whipped cream. Luckily, it's easy enough to whip up some more if you've underestimated.
Remove some of the whipped cream and save it—you might need it later.
More: Follow Alice Medrich's 5 tips for better whipped cream.
2. Prepare your fruit. Hull the strawberries whichever way you want and cut them into bite-sized pieces. If strawberries aren’t in season or if another fruit looks more appealing, choose something else: Chunks of mango, apple, or stone fruit, slices of banana, or a scattering of blueberries will work well.
3. Smush and stir. Add the softer fruit (in this case, the raspberries), slightly squishing them in as you stir. The goal is to flavor the whipped cream with the sweet fruit. Any fragile, delicate, or poppable fruits are great to add at this stage: blackberries, red currants, fresh figs, or even passion fruit.
4. Make meringue crumbs. Add in the strawberries (or the other firm fruit you're using), then crumble the meringues straight into the bowl. If you’re fancy (or Alice Medrich), you can use homemade meringues. Whether you've made the meringues yourself or are using a store-bought variety, they should be quite dry—sticky meringues aren’t great here. You want quite large chunks, as smaller pieces will just dissolve. The idea here is to add some crunch and sweetness. You could get really creative here and use flavored meringues so long as the flavors will work with the fruits you’re adding.
Gently fold the strawberries and meringue into the raspberry-whipped cream mixture, but be careful not to over-mix. If the mixture is looking too dense, fold in some of the reserved whipped cream you set aside earlier.
5. Mess time! If you want to serve the Eton mess cold, cover it and chill it for up to 3 hours in the refrigerator. For extra crunch and freshness, serve with additional berries, leftover meringue cookies, or even torn herbs like mint or basil. You could also finish the mess with fruit syrup, a drizzle of lemon curd, torn fresh herbs, or sliced almonds.
Photos by Armando Rafael