Friday, May 22, 2009

Strawberries Are Here

On Wednesday at the Union Square market at the Kernan Farmer stand I saw what I have been waiting for all these long cold months (while chewing on my apple) the first Strawberries this season. I asked the farmer how it was he was so a head of the pack with his strawberries and he said it was all about how much further south his farm was compared to upstate New York (he's in south Jersey).

A quart was $7 and worth every penny. The berries were on the big side, full of flavor some sweeter others are more tart. Immediately I walked over to Neil's place of work and had him join me downstairs for a taste.

Last Saturday I had asked the gal at Berried Treasures farms from Delaware County, NY, how long it would be before she had her berries, she told me a month. She has the reputation of having the sweetest, best berries in the market. They are pretty damn good and tend to be smaller then most.

My favorite strawberries dessert is something called Eton Mess, it's really easy and not something you see very often at restaurants. Years ago when I lived in Toronto and had just finished university I worked at the fanciest restaurant in town, if not the entire country called Fentons, it was there I discovered Eton Mess a boozy sweet tart creamy pile of heaven.

People have their own ideas about this dessert , it's simple to make, this version is the Proustian memory of what I remember Eton Mess tasted like at Fentons. Oh and about the name supposedly from what I have found on the inter-web this is the traditional dessert serve at Eton College in England on June 4th, although it's unclear why, but I'll go out on a limb and say it's because strawberries where in season and that in and of itself is something to celebrate.

Eton Mess

Stem and hull about a pound of strawberries, chop them in half, keeping smaller ones whole and bigger ones maybe quarter. Place in a bowl and add 1T of kirsch and 4T sugar you can add more, but in this instance I like the berries to be a little on the sour side to give them a nice contrast to the sweet baked meringue, taste them after they have macerated and adjust to your taste, better to have to add sugar then to make them too sweet. Stir the berries minimally with a wooden spoon to just incorporate the sugar and kirsch (some people use port or other liquors, or you can just omit it all together), cover the bowl and place it in the fridge while you make the baked meringue.

Place 4 egg whites in a chilled bowl. You can use a whisk, but if you have a Hobard or hand held it will make it a much less athletic experience. Beat the whites until they are frothy then add
1/2 t cream of tartar and continue to beat until soft peaks start to form, then gradually add 1 cup of sugar. Whisking/beating until it the meringue forms stiff peaks. It should have a glossy, luscious look to it. Make sure the sugar has dissolved, if you use regular sugar I suggest pulsing it in a food processor until it is ultra fine, or if you want use Castor sugar. If you think the meringue is done taste a bit of it and if it seems granular keep beating or simply feel the meringue between your fingers, it should feel smooth and silky.

Preheat the oven to 250F

Cover a cookie sheet with a piece of parchment and using a spatula spread the meringue mixture into a 1" or so mass all over the parchment. No need to be fussy here as it is just going to be broken up after cooking. Baked for an hour or more until the meringue comes away from the parchment easily, turning the cookie sheet half way through to ensure even baking.

When done turn the oven off and leave in the oven with the door slightly ajar for another 30 or so minutes.

Remove from oven and cool, once cool using your hands break it up into bite size chunks.

Just before you are ready to serve whipped 1 cup of heavy cream in a large bowl. Throw in a few hand fulls of meringue chunks and using a slotted spoon add the strawberries, trying to use a little of the sugar juice as possible. Stir only to incorporate. Using a large spoon plop a heap of mess on a plate. Serve the strawberry juice on the side if you wish, I like this dessert to look a mess not some prettified pink thing. The aspect of discovery, the boozy berry the sweet crunch of the meringue suspended in airy cream can't be beat.


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