The simplest dessert
When it comes to choosing a recipe, length does matter. Short, simple recipes always appeal to me. Carefully chosen ingredients that you can count on one hand. A gentle tousle, a sprinkle of this or some other straightforward preparations and it’s done. The good ones are balanced, even elegant, and seemingly more elaborate than they are. These are worth having up your sleeve.
The second thing that matters to me when choosing a recipe is authenticity – the historic, the classic or the ‘original’ versions. Unsurprisingly, many of the best recipes are ones that go unchanged for decades, even centuries, because – let’s face it – other than a variation here or there, why would you change something so good?
This is partly why the first recipe book I reach for when researching any Italian dish is Pellegrino Artusi‘s Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. It’s been around for 120 years but many of the 790 recipes are surprisingly modern, still prepared the same way today. They are classics for a reason, there’s no fusion muddling of flavours that have no reason to be together, they follow traditions that speak of the land and the season and, well, they’re simply good.
So when I went along to a French Pastry Masterclass as part of the fabulous Eat Drink Blog conference in Perth last weekend, it was refreshing to see pastry chef and author Emmanuel Mollois take us back a century to prepare some extremely simple, classic French desserts: beautiful choux pastries and marinated strawberries with cream and meringue.
I knew I’d love Mollois’ masterclass as soon as I heard him say that the first cookbook he usually refers to is Escoffier’s opus, Le Guide Culinaire, published over a hundred years ago. Legendary for being pivotal in the development of modern French cooking, Escoffier is to France what Artusi is to Italy. Know where the recipe comes from and before complicating things, go simple, instructed Mollois. There are things we can’t invent but there are things we can improve, he said, while whipping, folding, piping and preparing these lovely, basic recipes.
The strawberries, which Mollois called in his distinct French accent, fraises romanoff, or strawberries Romanoff, are an Escoffier classic: strawberries are soaked in Grand Marnier and sugar then usually served with whipped cream blended into softened ice cream, “American style,” as Escoffier called it.
Mollois instead topped his marinated strawberries with thick, freshly whipped cream hiding little pieces of crumbled Swiss meringue. Slightly reminiscent of Eton Mess or even Pavlova (both are a combination of meringue, berries and cream, how can you go wrong?), it was a crowd pleaser that reminded me of the go-to dessert that my Tuscan mother-in-law puts on the table in the summer whenever anyone comes around for dinner: strawberries and cream. About an hour before dinner, she simply sprinkles sugar over whole, washed strawberries and chills them in the fridge while they make their own juice, vibrant and sweet.
Mollois himself recounted memories of his mother’s strawberries marinated in red wine, the alcohol cooked off, and orange zest. Fresh strawberries marinated in alcohol is also a favourite in Italy, with many subtle variations. In one of my favourite restaurants in Florence, Trattoria Sostanza, you might find in the spring they’re serving for dessert some wild strawberries with red wine simply splashed over the top of them – a little tarter in taste, but divine.
Ada Boni – another legend in terms of significant historical cookbooks, this time a bible of Roman cuisine in particular – has a recipe for strawberries with marsala. She notes that you can substitute sherry or any sweet white or red wine for the marsala.
Either way, one taste of these marinated strawberries, served with whipped cream and crumbled meringue and I was decidedly hooked – it’ll be this a favourite dessert this summer and I’ll have to mention the meringue idea to my mother-in-law so she can update her repertoire. Just a little improvement to her classic.
Strawberries in wine with cream and crushed meringue
More than a recipe, this is perhaps an assembly or simply an idea, inspired by Emmanuel Mollois’ masterclass, which was in turn inspired by Escoffier’s strawberries “Américaine” or strawberries Romanoff. For a very informative series of posts on French, Italian and Swiss meringues, you can’t go past the research Emma of Poires au Chocolat has done.
- a punnet of strawberries, rinsed and topped
- 1-2 tablespoons of sugar
- some wine, marsala or Grand Marnier
- 300 ml of whipping cream
- some crushed, baked meringues
Cover a punnet of fresh strawberries, halved or whole, with the sugar and some alcohol of choice, Escoffier (Grand Marnier), Boni (marsala) or Sostanza (red wine) style. For a non-alcoholic version, a splash of orange juice or balsamic vinegar works interestingly. Chill for an hour.
Meanwhile whip the cream to peaks, then fold in some crushed meringue prepared the day before (or bought – I get it, we’re all busy!). Assemble the dessert by spooning a bit of the strawberries into the bottom of a glass or jar, then topping with the cream. Serve immediately.