by Mary Mahabir, White Swan Tea Room, 01600 719782
At this time of year there is always a delicious selection of fresh summer berries to choose from, whether we’re fortunate to grown them in our own gardens, use the Pick-Your-Own opportunities available at local farms, or buy them from shops and markets. Wherever they’re from, the summer berries at this time of year are truly delicious and worth taking centre-stage in any recipe.
A childhood summer favourite was a blackcurrant crumble. Blackcurrants picked on a warm summer’s day were washed and tipped into a Pyrex dish before being smothered in sugar and topped with crumble. My mother’s crumble mix consisted of a large lump of soft butter, brown sugar to taste, and enough flour to create a topping that resembled rough breadcrumbs when mixed together with a fork. She did not worry if there was too much butter or not enough flour. What mattered was that the topping would be crisp around the edges and golden in the middle. The crunch of the crumble around the edge of the dish was always made slightly chewy by the blackcurrant juice as it burst through and stained the golden topping. All would be served with custard or dollops of thick cream.
Nowadays, I use less sugar to sweeten the fruits when making crumbles. If extra sweetness is needed then you can use granulated sugar substitutes. If you prefer less flour, then substitute up to half of it with oats. For a smoother topping on your crumble, pop the oats in a blender for a few seconds before mixing them with the butter and sugar. At home I serve crumbles with flavoured low-fat yoghurts to cut the calorie content although a spoonful of thickly whipped cream can elevate a humble crumble to dizzy heights.
In the White Swan Tea Room, our most popular summer berry dessert is Eton Mess. Originally created over 100 years ago, it was a mix of broken meringues, strawberries and thick cream. We use a broken meringue base which is then topped with thickly whipped cream and smothered in a tumble of fresh summer berries. We always use strawberries in our Eton Mess for our afternoon tea desserts but as the season progresses we add raspberries and red currants and any other summer berries that are at their peak. The secret to any good dessert like this is not only to have the ripest fruits, but to have the best meringue you can make too. Shop-bought meringues are quick and easy to use but making a good meringue is almost as quick and definitely as easy. Why not give them a try and make your own to go with your summer berries?
The meringue recipe we use in the tea room couldn’t be any easier. The most important thing is to whisk the egg whites properly, and to bake the meringue in a cool-ish oven. We only use egg whites and sugar, and sometimes a little drop or two of vanilla extract. Nothing else is added to the mixture.
Weigh your egg whites before whisking them. You will need double the quantity of sugar so if you have 100g of egg whites you will need 200g of sugar. You can use caster or granulated sugar but the meringue will have a slightly finer texture if you use caster sugar. Whisk the egg whites with an electric beater, slowly at first but increase the speed to its fastest setting, until they are stiff and form peaks when you scoop up the egg whites. Be sure to have the sugar ready to tip into the mixing bowl. Start whisking the egg whites again on a medium speed and add the sugar in a slow trickle until it’s all combined in the mixture. Keep beating on a medium-high speed for at least three minutes. Add three drops of vanilla extract for each egg white if you want to flavour the meringue.
Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper and either spoon the meringue mix onto it with a teaspoon to create small mounds, or fill a piping bag and pipe small meringue ‘kisses’ onto the tray. They need approximately one centimetre between each meringue for the kisses and twice that distance for larger meringues. Bake meringue kisses for at least 30 minutes on 110C, longer for anything larger, until they are crisp and lift easily from the baking tray.
For Eton Mess, crush meringues into the bottom of a small wine glass, top with a spoon of thick cream, and cover with lots of juicy summer berries. Top those with more thick cream and pop a meringue kiss on top or sprinkle more crushed meringue over the cream. Dust with icing sugar and serve. Alternatively, sandwich the meringues together with thick cream, pile up into a mound on a plate, and serve with lots of summer berries tumbled over them. So delicious!