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April Pause: Irises in Bloom, Strawberry Meringues with Vanilla Whipped Cream

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When the irises are in fleeting bloom, there’s no better way to enjoy la pause gourmande than with a soft meringue topped with whipped cream and the first fragile strawberries of the season.

I blame Elise’s strawberries.

It’s not that they weren’t absolutely delicious—but they made me break my rule about not cooking—or baking—for la pause gourmande.

These beautiful berries came in the first CSA box of the season. Not quite ripe, a little tart, but dripping with juice tasting of sun-warmed afternoons to come. There were only a handful, so fragile that they begged to be eaten right away.

Strawberries and cream popped into my mind, quickly followed by visions of strawberries oozing luscious red juices onto soft meringues with vanilla whipped cream. Perfect for taking an afternoon pause in the spring garden…

You see how easy it is to slide down the slippery slope.

This April I’ve been taking all my breaks in the garden. Right now the pale purple irises are in florid bloom.

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It’s a fleeting moment—in a week or so their showy Van Gogh petals will shrivel and curl. But the crimson rose buds espaliered on the porch railing are about to unfold. So as Nancy Goodwin once told me, I’ll “look elsewhere in the garden.”

But back to those strawberries…

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In my defense let me say that it takes only 12 or 13 minutes to set the oven at 225 degrees, separate two eggs and beat the whites with a pinch of cream of tartar and ½ cup superfine caster sugar until their peaks are glossy and stiff. (If the peaks flop over a little, don’t worry about it. Just beat them a minute longer and call it a day.) Plop a big spoonful or two for each meringue on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper—2 egg whites will make 3 meringues—and bake undisturbed for an hour.

At the end of the hour turn off the heat, crack the oven slightly and let the meringues cool for 10 to 15 minutes. Then remove the baking sheet from the oven and let the meringues cool down to room temperature. If you’re keeping them overnight, carefully peel off the parchment paper and store in a tightly closed tin to keep the moisture out.

When it’s time for la pause, put one meringue (or three) on your favorite china plate. Uh, oh. Do I see cracks around the base of the meringue? Well, we just don’t care. This is our private pause—and perfection is not the object. It’s about dropping out of the day-to day routine, escaping the humdrum, telling the to-do list it will just have to wait, even if only for an hour.

Brew a cup of your favorite tea—Ceylon or Earl Grey would be lovely, or green tea steeped with dried lemon peel. While the tea is making, smack the top of the meringue with the back of a spoon to crack it and fill the “nest” with a generous dollop of whipped cream sweetened with a little sugar and vanilla. Cut up 7 or 8 luscious strawberries, scatter them over the whipped cream, then put a little more cream on top.

Carry the tea and strawberry meringue into the garden. Pull the old café table up to the irises, or anything else that’s in bloom, and cover it, if you like, with your favorite tablecloth, preferably un-ironed.

Sit down. Sip your tea. Gaze at the flowers. Take a bite. The meringue, almost as fragile as the berries, is melting into the cream. Oh my….

I’m afraid it’s the perfect pause.

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