I don’t remember the first time I learned of Eton Mess, a simple yet refined dessert of soft whipped cream dotted with shards of crushed meringues and juicy, ripe strawberries. What I do remember is thinking, “Ooh, I bet there’s a good story behind this dessert.”
It turns out I was wrong. My research quite sadly revealed that there’s no real story behind Eton Mess. There is plenty of lore—including one story that has the dessert created when a golden retriever sat on, and ruined, a strawberry pavlova. This tale has since been discredited which makes sense; after all, who would really eat something after it has been sat on by a dog?
The only real background information I was able to gather was that it dates back to 1893, was made popular at the British all-boys school, Eton College, and is the traditional dessert served at the cricket match between Eton College and Harrow School. For someone who loves food history, that’s not the most exciting of tales.
Even without a cool back story, there is much to love about Eton Mess. In addition to be being creamy, crunchy and fruity all at once, it is one of the easiest desserts to pull together. And, despite its sloppy name, it presents beautifully.
The first step to Eton Mess is to crush meringue cookies. While I made the meringue cookies from scratch, this is definitely not a requirement, as even I will admit the Trader Joe’s variety is lovely. Whether they’re store bought or handmade, grab ‘em and crush ‘em with your hands, leaving the crumbles and shards haphazard and varied in size—this will guarantee a nice texture.
Next, whip your whipped cream. This is the only step I insist you make from scratch. Making whipped cream by hand is essential here (and really, always) because 1) whipped cream from a can is gross and 2) you want the cream to be lighter and softer than the ready-made stuff. Last but not least, chop up the ripe strawberries and mix them with a little sugar and lemon juice. Blend all three components together and voilà, you’ve got Eton Mess.
Now it’s time for the presentation. Take your whipped cream with crunchy bits of meringue and juicy bites of strawberries both hidden and poking out from its silky peaks, and gently spoon into serving cups. Adorn with a mint leaf, and there you have it: a perfectly elegant, but totally not fussy dessert ready to be served and wow your guests.
Other versions of Eton Mess suggest that you can mix up the fruit, making this an even more versatile dessert. Simply put, back story or no back story, this dessert is the perfect way to start celebrating the fruits of the season. Bon appétit!
Eton Mess Recipe
By Nigela Lawson
This is one of those the desserts that it’s okay to “wing it” with the measurements. It just depends on how many you intend to serve, how big your serving dishes are, and how crunchy or fruity you want the end result to be. For those who find that idea more daunting than freeing, start off with this recipe, courtesy of Nigela Lawson.
- 4 cups strawberries
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 2 teaspoons pomegranate or lemon juice
- 2 cups whipping cream
- 1 packet individual meringue nests*
Hull and chop the strawberries and put into a bowl and add the sugar and pomegranate juice and leave to macerate while you whip the cream.
Whip the cream in a large bowl until thick but still soft. Roughly crumble in four of the meringues nests. You will need chunks for texture as well as a little fine dust.
Take out about half a cupful of the chopped strawberries and fold the meringue cream and rest of the fruit mixture together.
Arrange on four serving plates or glasses or in a mound, and top each with some of the remaining macerated strawberries.
*This is British-speak for meringue cookies.