Brits have a genius for naming food—bangers and mash, spotted dick, toad in the hole, fools and faggots—but some names make a smidgen of sense, if in an oblique way. Take the Eton mess, which is not some cadet catastrophe, but instead part of an institutional meal, in this instance of a school though the term also applies in the military.
An Eton mess is a dessert, a mixture of meringue chunks, whipped double cream and fruit, most traditionally strawberries, but other summer fruit—blackberries, peaches or plums—are used. As the name implies, it’s said to have originated at Eton College, originally simply ice cream or cream with strawberries, but then the toffs took hold of it and thus the meringue and double cream. A variation of the Eton mess made with bananas and served at Lancing College is of course called a Lancing mess.
In our humid Southern summers, a traditional (“French”) meringue isn’t quite practical, so instead make what is called—God only knows why—an “Italian” meringue. Heat a cup of sugar and a half cup of water to the “raging torrent” stage of boiling then cool until steaming. Whip four egg whites at room temperature in a bowl that’s been wiped with half a lemon; once the whites make soft peaks, SLOWLY drizzle in the hot sugar syrup and keep whipping until quite stiff. Spoon this meringue on a lightly oiled sheet pan and bake in the oven until dry through, then break into chunks. As to the double cream, which has at least 10% more milkfat than whipping cream and has not been ultra-high heat processed, you simply can’t find it here, and while some of you will certainly find this reprehensible at the very least, my solution is to substitute whipped melted vanilla Häagen-Dazs.
Messes are best assembled as soon before serving as possible, since the meringue will certainly become soggy in a very short time. You can pretty them up with chopped nuts if you like.