This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the showstopper challenge for week four (dessert week) of series three: a four-layer meringue stack.
Imagine a dessert with all the flavours of British summer in one huge – crazily huge – stack of sweet meringue and sharp bright fruit that burst in the mouth and the soothing lap of cream and the scent of violets just at the back of it. So – not a real British summer but the one we dream of in winter, when the rain has pounded down thick and grey for the fifth day running, when the wind whistles its way down your collar, when the ice is slick on the pavement. Days like today and tomorrow and yesterday. So instead we’ll think of summers in the park, summers by the beach, sweet red fruit heavy on the bush, juicy in the mouth. And stickiness – prickle of sweat, sunscreen, the streak of melted ice cream running down the inside of your wrist. We imagine such days as these: wine on the balcony, smell of chlorine at the lido, cut grass, roses nodding. Well, who wouldn’t dream of it?
In this era of fervently seasonal eating it’s probably somewhat outré to point out that strictly speaking you do not have to save this for summer. If you want to indulge in mouthfuls of bright, sharp fruit and curd, mallow-bellied meringue and cream whipped to blowsy perfection in the dark heart of winter, in these difficult, no-longer-festive days, you can acquire raspberries and redcurrants at your local supermarket even now. Yes, they may come from Spain and Morocco and yes, I wouldn’t make this a daily indulgence, as hard as it is (I love raspberries) – the environmental, cultural and economic costs of permanent global summertime are well-documented. But in the cold days, the hard days, our spirits need as much nourishment as our bodies, and our eyes and taste buds are as deserving of stimulation and novelty as our eyes. If you want to go for it, I think it’s okay. I think people are very good at punishing themselves and sometimes a commitment to seasonal eating and supporting small producers can become slightly punitive (“how dare you buy sourdough from a supermarket, don’t you know it’s a fraud and you should support your local organic bakery!?” – not that I have one); we should combine awareness and a global outlook with kindness and forgiveness towards ourselves and others, and this applies to food too.
I have included the recipes I used to make the lemon and passion fruit curds as well as directions for the meringue stacks, blueberry-violet sauce and assembly. I love fruit curds – their sharp, bright flavour; their delicate, almost translucent creaminess; their vivid colours – and I love making them, slowly, stirring the mixture in a makeshift double boiler while drifting away into thought or catching up on the radio. However, it does add to the time of the enterprise, of course, and if you don’t share my enjoyment of making curds (which makes all the wiping up of sticky streaks worth it), do buy it. Lemon curd is two-a-penny in any supermarket, and good reputable preserve-makers such as Tiptree make passion fruit curd.
The full recipes are below the jump. It looks long and yes, it is a multi-stage assembly process, but each individual bit is not so very hard, and, if you choose to buy your curds, should actually come together fairly easily after baking.
British summer meringue stack
Note: I don’t know, strictly speaking, how many people this serves but it is enormous, rich, delicious and sticky, and is not the best keeper (see below). So ideally serve it for company or embrace the fact that it will be a rich, soft, soggy mess after a day.
It is fairly time-consuming to make all the meringues so you could make the meringues a day in advance (and the curds, if making) and store them, once completely cool, in a completely airtight container overnight.
For the meringues
Nigella Lawson’s ‘How to Eat’ is definitive on meringue as far as I am concerned. I have adapted Nigella’s method and proportions on numerous occasions and will probably continue to do so forever. I am only listing it out in full once to avoid boring myself and the room (with subsequent iterations asking you to look above), so do have a read through to ensure you know the appropriate sizes of the circles if you do attempt this.
If you have a very large oven or an oven in which you can bake on multiple shelves, neither of which apply to me, you may be able to bake several meringues at once, which would save hugely on time.
In an ideal world you would allow the meringue layers to cool in the switched-off oven, but no harm done if not.
- 5 egg whites
- pinch salt
- 300g caster sugar
- 2.5 tsps cornflour
- 1.5 tsps white wine vinegar
- Preheat the oven to 180C. Line a baking tray with baking paper and draw a 23cm circle (trace around an appropriately-sized cake tin for ease), then flip the paper over so the side you’ve drawn on is face-down (you should still be able to see the outline of the circle through the paper).
- Beat the egg whites with the pinch of salt until peaks start to form (I always start on a low speed and work up to a higher speed to ensure a more uniform spread of bubbles, and this seems to work for me). Beat in the sugar, sprinkling it in a handful at a time, until the meringue is shiny and forms stiff peaks (how stiff? Well, you should be able to turn the bowl upside down without the meringue sliding out – this is not an urban myth!).
- Very briefly beat in the cornflour and white wine vinegar.
- Dollop onto your drawn circle and smoothen it out so that it is even across the circle, with a flat top and smooth sides (or as flat and smooth as you can manage anyway). Place in the oven and immediately turn the oven down to 140C. Bake for an hour and 15 minutes, or until the top and sides are crisp and firm. They may be lightly golden.
- Ideally this is left to cool in the oven until it is cold, but I just removed it and let it cool on the baking sheet, and inverted it and peeled off the baking paper once completely cold.
- 4 egg whites
- pinch salt
- 240g caster sugar
- 2 tsps cornflour
- 1 tsp white wine vinegar
- Preheat the oven to 180C
- Mix the meringues up as per the method described above. Once whipped up, smooth over into an even circle with a 21cm circumference.
- Place in the oven. Immediately turn down the temperature to 140C and bake for an hour to an hour and 15 minutes, or until the top and sides are crisp and firm. They may be lightly golden.
Third and fourth meringues
- 2 egg whites
- pinch salt
- 120g caster sugar
- 1 tsp cornflour
- 0.5 tsp white wine vinegar
- Preheat the oven to 180C
- Mix the meringues up as per the method described above. Once whipped up, smooth over into one even circle with a 18cm circumference and one with a 15cm circumference. If you can, try and shape the 15cm disc so that the sides are higher than the centre so it is ever-so-slightly bowl-shaped.
- Place in the oven. Immediately turn down the temperature to 140C and bake for an hour to an hour or until the top and sides are crisp and firm. They may be lightly golden.
Adapted from ‘Homemade Memories’ by Kate Doran
- finely grated zest of two lemons
- 125ml fresh lemon juice
- 110g caster sugar
- 2 eggs
- 2 egg yolks
- pinch salt
- 75g unsalted butter, cubed
- Combine the zest, juice and 75g of the sugar in a medium saucepan. Heat on a very low heat, whisking occasionally, until the sugar has completely dissolved.
- In a medium heatproof bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolks, remaining 35g sugar and pinch of salt together vigorously for a minute or so, until the egg mixture is thicker and paler and forms a ribbon (i.e. a ‘ribbon’ of the mixture will set on top of the mix, albeit sinking in quite quickly) when you shake your whisk over the mixture.
- Pour the warm lemon mixture over the eggs, whisking constantly, until thoroughly combined. Place the bowl over a saucepan of gently simmering water (tip: fill the saucepan you used earlier with boiling water, don’t grab another one out of the cupboard. The simmering water will also dissolve any remaining sticky bits so it’s a win-win).
- Stir in the butter. Cook, whisking continuously, until the butter has melted and the mixture has thickened. This can take between 20 and up to 40 minutes. Relax, put on a good radio programme or podcast and just get absorbed in it. It’s good practice to be patient and mindful and lost in something mundane, and the patience here will reward you in a silky-smooth curd that is much less likely to split than one cooked over direct heat.
- The mixture should be thick and glossy once ready, though the exact thickness will depend slightly on your preference (and it is more fluid when warm). Strain it through a fine-mesh sieve into an appropriate container – and if you’re keeping it for any length of time, the appropriate container is a sterilised jar.
Passion fruit curd
Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s ‘How to Be a Domestic Goddess’
- 11 passion fruit (or, you can sometimes get fresh or frozen passion fruit pulp – if so, 2 tablespoons of pulp with seeds is equivalent to one passion fruit; 1 tablespoon of seedless pulp is equivalent to one passion fruit)
- 2 large eggs
- 2 large egg yolks
- 150g caster sugar
- 100g unsalted butter
- Scoop out the pulp and seeds of 10 of the passion fruit and blitz very briefly in a blender or food processor to loosen the seeds. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve.
- Beat the eggs, egg yolks and sugar together until the egg mixture is thicker and paler and forms a ribbon when you shake your whisk over the mixture.
- Stir together the egg mixture, passion fruit juice and butter together in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of gently simmering water. Cook, whisking continuously, until the butter has melted and the mixture has thickened. This can take between 20 and up to 40 minutes. Relax, put on a good radio programme or podcast and just get absorbed in it. It’s good practice to be patient and mindful and lost in something mundane, and the patience here will reward you in a silky-smooth curd that is much less likely to split than one cooked over direct heat.
- The mixture should be glossy and thick once ready. Remove from the heat and strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Whisk in the pulp and seeds of the remaining passion fruit and decant to an appropriate container (again, if you’re keeping this for any length of time, this means a sterilised jar, but it’s very difficult to not eat this with a spoon compulsively).
- 200g blueberries (I used frozen ones)
- 1 TBS caster sugar
- 1 tsp cornflour
- a few drops of violet extract (NB you could use a violet liqueur instead if necessary but you might need to increase the amount of liquid to get the taste, and if you do that you’ll need to cook the berries down to a jammier consistency to avoid the sauce being too loose. Additional cornflour may also help in this case, but not too much or it will impart its chalky taste)
- Combine the blueberries and caster sugar in a small pan and cook over a low heat until the blueberries start popping and exuding their juices. If this is really not happening and the blueberries look like they’re in danger of scorching, don’t be afraid to kick-start the process by adding a tablespoon or two of water.
- Simmer for a few minutes until all the berries are burst and a little cooked down. Carefully spoon off a few teaspoons of the blueberry juices and mix with the cornflour to slake it. Add this vibrant slurry back to the pot and cook for a few minutes longer, until the syrupy juices have thickened. Remove from the heat.
- Taste the mixture and carefully add a few drops of violet extract, mix it thoroughly, and taste again. Add more extract if necessary. I was using professional-grade violet extract so went very carefully and slowly to avoid an overpowering violet flavour, which could turn it soapy.
- If you need to freshen up the flavours, add a little bit of lemon juice, maybe half a teaspoon or so at a time, mix it in, and taste as you go.
- Set aside to cool. It will cool more quickly if you transfer it to a bowl rather than leaving it in the hot saucepan but no harm done if you don’t want another thing to wash up.
Note: the instructions on how to assemble this might seem a little vague – dollops of this and that to taste. That is because it really, really is to taste – it doesn’t hugely matter if you’ve not distributed the cream evenly or whatnot. The bottom layer should obviously have the most cream and the top the least, but you might also want more cream if your curd(s) or fruit are very tart as it will ameliorate that.
- 500ml double cream
- 150g raspberries
- 150g redcurrants, stripped off the stalk (I like to de-stem redcurrants by pushing the stalks between the tines of a fork and pulling them through)
- 6-8 big, generous tablespoons of passion fruit curd, or to your preference
- 5-6 big, generous tablespoons of lemon curd, or to your preference
- Blueberry-violet sauce (recipe as above)
- four meringue stacks, cooked and cooled (as above)
- In a large, clean mixing bowl, gently whip the double cream until it holds soft, but definitive, peaks. You can do this by hand (which will take a while for such a large volume of cream, but you are unlikely to overwhip) or with an electric whisk, which is quicker but the risk of overwhipping is much higher. If you do use an electric whisk, do so on a low setting and check often to ensure you are not over-beating it.
- Place the largest meringue disc on a serving plate – I like to do this with the bottom side up so that there’s a nice flat surface for the cream etc, but if you prefer the look of the top, just use that side). Dollop a generous amount of the whipped cream over it (let’s say…a quarter to a third as your guide amount, but you can use up to half if you like) and spread it evenly over the surface using an offset spatula (ideally) or the back of a spoon, just shy of the outer edge (otherwise it will spill over when the additional layers are piled on top). Spread over your passion fruit curd evenly over the surface of the cream.
- Place the second-largest meringue disc over the first. Spread with a generous amount of the whipped cream (a quarter to a third of the amount remaining), just shy of the outer edge. Sprinkle evenly with the raspberries and redcurrants.
- Place the third-largest meringue disc over the fruit layer. Spread with a generous amount of the whipped cream (half to two-thirds of the amount remaining), just shy of the outer edge, and smooth over the lemon curd.
- Place the smallest meringue (the 15cm one, which ideally will be slightly bowl-shaped) on top of the lemon curd and dollop in the remaining cream. Spoon over the blueberry sauce and watch it gently settle, glossy and dark, into the meringue and cream.
- Serve with joy and gusto. Cut everyone a wedge with everything. You’ll find if you have a favourite layer, or if you like how everything goes together. The flavours are so complementary and eating it feels really joyful. As the stack sits, over time, it will start to get a bit soggy and weepy and messy. It will taste fine, but will be less presentable, and won’t have that excellent interplay of crisp-soft texture. Do refrigerate it between servings if you can. If you do save it for summer all the cream will go off very quickly on a hot day.