A dessert from Down Under
Oh, lost opportunities. In 1931, Anna Pavlova, lodestar of the Imperial Russian Ballet and dancer of the “Dying Swan,” refused a surgery that would have cleared her lungs, but rendered her unfit to dance. She died of pleurisy before she hit 50. In 2013, I traveled to New Zealand for two weeks and failed to procure the national meringue-based dessert named for Pavlova. Tragedies both large and small.
I fully intended to hit up some pavlovas. It was marked on my list under “See mountains, sheep and glaciers,” but, alas, I was too long away from civilization, tramping my little brains out, cooking over campstoves, and I blew it. Hence my obsession with pavlovas now that I’m stateside.
For those of you unacquainted, let me introduce you to the pavlova, known in Australasian streets and eateries simply as “pav.” Imagine the most dreamy, ethereal, melt-in-your-mouth, cumulous-cloud of a dessert known to man. A cream-colored “cake” of pure meringue, crisp on the outside, marshmallowy-light on the inside, topped with luscious mounds of whipped cream and an onslaught of berries or other soft fruits.
Unlike its namesake, the pavlova is not of Russian provenance. The story goes that the famous ballerina’s visit to Australia and New Zealand in 1926 inspired chefs to invent a dessert evocative of her airy lightness and her tutu decked with cabbage roses.
For those of you unacquainted, let me introduce you to the pavlova, known in Australasian streets and eateries simply as “pav.” Imagine the most dreamy, ethereal, melt-in-your-mouth, cumulous-cloud of a dessert known to man.
Aussies and Kiwis have been going at it for some time over who gets credit for inventing their favorite dessert. Food historians have been consulted; old cookery books scoured and waved in the opposing nation’s face; letters from family members of long-dead chefs submitted.
Aussies have been accused of “stealing the ball from the little kid” per usual. Kiwis have been accused of “riding the coattails of their more popular and well-deserving neighbors.”
Reasonable voices interject: “Why, oh why, must we fight over egg creams in a world of nuclear proliferation, resource depletion and climate disruption?” And: “Um wasn’t meringue invented, like, 400 years ago, before Australia and New Zealand even existed. Mightn’t neither of you be the first to have masterminded the pavlova?”
It’s a point that’s likely never to be settled until New Zealand crumbles into the sea or Australia burns to desert. Or pavlovas lose their cachet. Which, I think, will never be. The pavlova, you see, has achieved a certain kind of perfection.
That is why both the Kiwis and Aussies trot out the pavlova for holidays and fêtes of all sorts. Pavlova consumption naturally reaches its zenith in summer, when fruit is freshest and foofier dishes prevail.
At this very moment, it is summer in the southern hemisphere. I just spent two weeks there loading up on sweet cherries, peaches and kiwis.
Upon my return, I combed the dessert menus of Albuquerque and failed to locate a pavlova. I would have to make my own—not an easy feat for someone who suffers from severe merangst (the angst one feels when called upon to make a meringue).
To ward off my considerable merangst, I read every pavlova primer I could get my hands on until I conquered my fears. Even though my first pavlova kind of cracked and collapsed, it was still excruciatingly lovely and delicious. I covered most of the damage with whipped cream. At the first bite, clouds parted, flowers bloomed, lambs licked, swans died.
I’ve baked three pavlovas in the last week. JoyofBaking.com’s recipe was the most luscious, flavorful and beautiful.
Until we get a pavlova shop, this is our only solution, Albuquerqueans. We must concoct our own pavlovas in our own homes! We must top them with prickly pears and pistachios and say we invented it! We must name it after our own famous ballerina, ole Whazhername. Into the fray, I say! The pavlova must be ours.
4 large egg whites
1 cup castor sugar (or table sugar pulverized in a food processor)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon white vinegar
1/2 tablespoon cornstarch
Preheat oven to 250. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and draw a 7 in. circle on the paper. This is your meringue zone. Turn the parchment paper over so the markings don't seep into the meringue.Separate egg whites and yolks carefully; Even a smidge of yolk will compromise the meringue. Fresh eggs work best. If you are squeamish about ingesting raw eggs, you can use pasteurized. Be forewarned that you’ll have to beat pasteurized eggs much longer for the same fluffy results.Beat the egg whites with the whisk attachment on your mixer at medium speed until it begins to hold soft, whipped-cream-like peaks. Slowly add the sugar, one tablespoon at a time, beating now on high speed until the meringue takes on a high gloss and forms sharp stiff peaks. Check that the sugar is fully dissolved (pinch some meringue and rub between your fingers to test for grittiness). If not, keep beating. Beat in vanilla extract. Sprinkle the cornstarch and vinegar on top of the meringue and gently fold in with a rubber spatula. Now for the fun part! Scrape the meringue out of the bowl onto the parchment paper circle. Sculpt a cake, smoothing the sides and indenting the top with a slight crater. Bake for 60-75 minutes until the outside is crisp and toasted to a very pale beige. Turn off the oven, open the oven door a crack and let cool completely in the oven (at least three hours). If your oven door is rigged to an automatic light, you'll have to put duct tape over the trigger switch on the door (trick the oven into thinking it's closed). You don’t want a warm oven light screwing with your meringue. Expect some cracking as it cools. You can even expect some caving, but no worries, you can cover any damage with the whipped cream.When completely cool and dry, heap with sweetened whipped cream and the soft fruits of your choice. Serve immediately! Store in a cool, dry, airtight container until ready to dress, up to three days.Inhale.