Dating as young, broke college students forced Gabe and I to be creative with our date nights. The truth is we didn’t see this as much of a limitation, we were just happy together. Our homework was done together, every meal in our college cafeteria was eaten together and we did a whole lot of nothing, together.
After a particularly hard final or just because we felt as if we needed it, Gabe and I would lavish ourselves with junk food and junk movies. These evenings happened more regularly than recommended but we always looked forward to them. You’ll cringe when I tell you the menu but like most meals, what matters most is who was there when you shared it.
Frozen pizza and Salsitas with side of Ben and Jerry’s.
At the end of the evening we would reluctantly say a sweet goodbye then saunter off each to our own dorm rooms, most likely feeling a bit ill from dinner and already eager to see one another again.
On the nights when we wouldn’t overindulge in junk food we spent hours in the upper lounge of our dorm where we would cozy into plush, purple faux leather chairs and talk, mostly nonsense. When the words ran out we grabbed blank sheets of paper and began doodling. We created intricate worlds with fat, goofy looking cows; their necks a single line, bodies plump and speckled with black squiggly spots.
I loved watching Gabe draw. While I, the art major, focused on realism, he showed that it’s okay not to take yourself too seriously. His drawings of cows continue to make me laugh. I asked him to draw one for you – ridiculous right?!
For our date night last week I was feeling particularly tired and could not will myself to pull together a nice meal for just the two of us. But dessert I could handle. It was as if the memory of our early dating days surfaced as I sent Gabe to the store for Cool Ranch Doritios while I made us an Eton Mess in which I simmered tart dried cherries in a hearty red wine along with cardamom, vanilla bean and a bit of sugar. The cherries looked plump like the cows in Gabe’s drawings as they soaked up the wine and made a syrup of what liquid remained.
Earlier in the day the kids and I crafted with meringue. I made snowflakes and they did some doodling of their own with the piping bag in the form of squiggles that intended to be stars.
While the cherries cooled and the kids slept quietly in bed I whipped up some lightly sweetened cream. Some of the meringue doodles became crumbs for the sake of our dessert and were layered in between the sweet drunken cherries, cream and bittersweet chocolate that was roughly chopped.
The Eton Mess resembled nothing of the desserts we would indulge in on those junk food nights but the zesty chips, snuggling on the couch and doodling we did on the iPad made it feel like a date – one in which we were very familiar with.
This time our drawings had purpose as we are working on a coloring book for the kids for a Christmas present. I may have envisioned an evening like this as a giddy, young college girl dating a handsome, young college boy. As you do, I imagined our lives together, hoping my future involved Gabe. But this reality is so much sweeter than any girlish vision. I’m so much happier now, eating Eton Mess with a side of chips drawing pictures for our three children – than I ever could have dreamed.
Eton Mess is a classic English dessert usually consisting of strawberries, cream and meringue. I’ve taken a few liberties with my version; using dried cherries, adding wine and dark chocolate.
I’m often the harshest critic of my own food. Often you won’t see me utterly gushing over a recipe I created as I’ve often found a minute flaw but this one, oh this one is damn good. This dessert shut the critic up so I was able to enjoy each bite. The ones in which a good portion of every layer cozied up on the spoon along with a large chunk of bittersweet chocolate – those were my favorite.
There are several components here but they could all be made in advance, just hold off on the final assembly until you are ready to eat.
1 cup dried tart cherries
3 cardamom pods
¼ cup sugar
1 cup wine
1 spent vanilla bean (The meringue calls for a vanilla bean, save that one and use here).
Combine everything in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Over low heat simmer until the wine is reduced down and is nearly like syrup. Let cool completely.
Cherries can be made one week in advance. Cover well and store in the fridge.
adapted from marthastewart.com
If it’s just meringue you are after I love making these with a bit of peppermint extract. Topped with some crushed candy canes or dipped in chocolate after baking – they make a fine holiday hostess gift.
½ cup egg whites (from about 4 large eggs)
1 ¼ cups sugar
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
1 vanilla bean
In the bowl of a stand mixer add the egg whites and sugar. Place the bowl over a medium size pot filled with simmering water. Whisk continuously until the sugar is dissolved and the egg whites are warm.
Place the bowl on the stand mixer. Add the cream of tartar. Start the mixer on low then gradually increase to high. Continue to whip until stiff glossy peaks appear – about 10 minutes. Add the salt and vanilla bean. Mix to combine.
To pipe the snowflakes I drew a rough pattern on the back of a piece of parchment using a permanent marker. Flip the parchment over so the drawing is on the back side and place on a baking sheet. Use a small round tip (about ¼”). Place the pastry tip in a large piping bag. Fold the bag down about three inches then fill with meringue – don’t fill to the top as this will create quite a mess. Fold the bag up, twist the top and use your left hand to guide the tip while the right hand rests just under the twist in the bag and gently applies pressure (if you are left handed simply switch the hand placement. Pipe the snowflake onto the parchment following the pattern you drew.
Bake meringue in a 275*F oven for about an hour, or until the meringue is completely dry. If the meringue starts to color, turn down your oven. Or turn it off and let the residual heat dry the meringue.
For the Eton Mess you will just need 1 cup of meringue crumbles so you don’t need to pipe snowflakes for that. I let my kids have fun with the piping bag on a baking sheet lined with parchment then used some of their creations for the Mess.
Meringues can be stored in an airtight container for two weeks. If they get soft you can redry in the oven.
Assembling the Mess
2 cups cream
2 Tbl sugar
1 cup meringue crumbles
1 cup chocolate, roughly chopped (I like a mix of shavings and big chunks)
Stewed cherries (recipe above)
Whip the cream with 2 tablespoons sugar until soft peaks form.
Traditionally Eton Mess is just that – a mess. All the components are combined then spooned into a serving dish. Here I combined elements of two classic British desserts as I layered mine more like a Trifle. I like seeing the vibrant wine hued cherries contrast against the meringue and cream. You can combine it all however you wish.
I started with the lightly sweet cream then added some meringue crumbles, on top of that cherries then bits of chocolate. A snowflake meringue capped it off.
All the components can be made in advance but I recommend assembling just before serving as the meringue will get soft as it sits.