Despite being named after a world-class ballerina, I can't help but think of the pavlova as a rather humble and homely thing. I love the way the billowy whipped cream slumps into the cracked surface of the meringue, making a cozy nest for the fruit to rest. But perhaps the pavlova was named for the way it tastes: an arabesque of sweetness, a leap of airy confection, the beloved pas de deux of fresh fruit and cream. Like Anna Pavlova herself, it's perfect.
What Is Pavlova?
The hallmark of this beloved New Zealand and Australian dessert is that amazing, plate-sized layer of meringue. It's crispy on the outside, but soft as marshmallows on the inside. Two things help accomplish this dual texture: one is beating the egg whites to soft peaks before beginning to add the sugar, which gives the meringue an airier texture; the second is adding a splash of vinegar to the whipped meringue, which helps it form a crust while keeping the middle soft.
Tips for Baked Meringue
- Use clean equipment. Make sure your bowl and beaters are very clean with no residual fat or grease. If you don't have a clean bowl bowl, those egg whites won't whip.
- Start at low speed and add sugar gradually. When the egg whites have reached soft peak consistency and the beaters leave trails in the whipped whites, begin adding the sugar mixture a few tablespoons at a time, waiting a few seconds between each addition.
- Beat the meringue longer than you think for stiff peaks. Continue beating until the meringue holds stiff peaks. Stop the mixer and sprinkle the vanilla and vinegar over the meringue.
How Do I Know My Pavlova Is Done?
A perfectly baked pavlova should be pale and look dry, but a skewer inserted in the meringue should come out with a thick sticky, marshmallow-like consistency. If you aren't sure about the pavlova's doneness, turn the oven off, open the door and leave the meringue for up to an hour.
How to Top Pavlova
A whipped cream topping is my favorite for a featherlight dessert, but lemon or other fruit curds are also traditional — not to mention a good way to use up the leftover yolks! Either way, pile the pavlova high with fresh-cut fruit. Whatever is in season and totally ripe is what you should use.
How to Serve Pavlova
This is a dessert that is meant to be eaten straight away, with abandon, and with friends. You can make the meringue layer ahead of time, and provided the weather isn't insanely humid, it will keep in an airtight container for several days. But once you pile it with whipped cream and fruit, it needs to be eaten within a few hours or the meringue starts to soften and weep small beads of liquid sugar.
My recommendation: make it, eat it, love it. You might even feel like doing an arabesque or two once your plate is clean.
How to Make Pavlova
What You Need
For the meringue base:
1 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
4 large egg whites
For the topping:
1 cup cold heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 cups diced fresh fruit
Standing mixer with whisk attachment or electric hand mixer
Measuring cups and spoons
- Prepare for baking: Arrange a rack in the lower third of the oven and heat to 250°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Trace a 9" circle on the parchment using a cake pan or dinner plate as a guide. (If making mini-pavlovas, use drinking glasses as guides.) Flip the parchment over. Mix the sugar and cornstarch together in a small bowl. Mix the vanilla and vinegar together in a separate bowl.
- Beat the egg whites: See the post Whipping Egg Whites for reference on this step. Place the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. (Alternatively, use an electric hand mixer and large bowl.) Make sure your bowl and beaters are very clean with no residual fat or grease. Beating on low speed, then gradually increase the speed to medium.
- Beat in the sugar: When the egg whites have reached soft peak consistency and the beaters leave trails in the whipped whites, begin adding the sugar mixture a few tablespoons at a time, waiting a few seconds between each addition. While doing this, gradually increase the speed so that you are at maximum speed once all the sugar has been added.
- Beat to stiff peaks: Continue beating until the meringue holds stiff peaks. Stop the mixer and sprinkle the vanilla and vinegar over the meringue. Beat for another 20 seconds to fully combine.
- Shape the meringue: Use a spatula to scrape all the meringue onto the center of the large parchment circle, or divide among all the circles if making mini meringues. Working from the center out, spread the meringue to fill the circle. Smooth the sides if desired or leave it in billowy lumps.
- Bake the meringue: Bake for 60 to 70 minutes for 1 large pavlova, or 50 to 60 minutes for mini-pavlovas. The pavlovas are done when the outsides are dry to the touch. The interior of a properly cooked pavlova should be marshmallowy. It's fine if cracks form in the crust.
- Cool the meringue: Remove the meringue from the oven and move to a cooling rack. Cool completely. At this point, the pavlova can be wrapped in plastic or sealed in an airtight container and kept for several days unless your house gets very humid (in which case, eat your pavlova right away!).
- Assemble the pavlova: Just before you're ready to serve, make the whipped cream: Place the cream, vanilla, and sugar in a bowl and whisk until stiff peaks are formed. (Alternatively, you can whip the cream in a stand mixer or with an electric hand mixer.) Place the meringue(s) on a serving plate, dollop the whipped cream on the meringue, and spread the whipped cream evenly over the meringue, leaving a little bit of an edge. Top with the fruit and serve within 1 to 2 hours. (Do not refrigerate; the meringue will quickly soften.)
- Make it and bake it: Bake the meringues as soon as you're finished whipping the egg whites. If you let the egg whites stand for too long, they start to collapse and make a meringue that's less wonderfully airy.
- Make ahead: The meringue layer can be made several days ahead and kept tightly wrapped in plastic or in an airtight container until you're ready to assemble the pavlova. However, meringue does not keep well in humid weather. Assemble the pavlova right before eating.
This post has been updated, originally published July 2012