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.
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.
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.
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:
4 egg whites
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon white vinegar
For the topping:
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon sugar
2 cups diced fresh fruit
Standing mixer with whisk attachment or hand mixer
1. Prepare for Baking: Preheat the oven to 275°F with a rack in the lower third of the oven. Line a baking sheet with parchment. 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 white vinegar together in a separate bowl.
2. Whip the Meringue: See the post Whipping Egg Whites for reference on this step. Make sure your mixing bowl and beaters are very clean with no residual fat or grease. Pour the egg whites in to the bowl and begin beating at low speed. Gradually increase the speed to medium.
When the egg whites have reached soft peak consistency and the beaters leave trails in the whipped whites, begin adding the sugar 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.
Continue whipping 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 mix.
3. Shape the Meringue: Use a spatula to scrape all the meringue onto the parchment in the center of the circle. Working from the inside out, spread the meringue to fill the circle. Smooth the sides if desired or leave it in billowy lumps.
4. Bake the Meringue: Put the meringue in the oven and immediately turn down the heat to 250°F. Make for 60-70 minutes for one large pavlova or 50-60 minutes for mini-pavlovas. The pavlovas are done when the outsides are dry to the touch, are very slightly browned, and sound hollow when tapped. It's fine if cracks form in the crust.
Turn the oven off, but leave the pavlova inside with the oven door ajar. Let sit until the pavlova is completely cooled, or overnight. 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!).
5. Finish the Pavlova: Just before you're ready to serve, make the whipped cream. Combine the cream, vanilla, and sugar in a mixing bowl and whisk until stiff peaks are formed. Spread the whipped cream over the pavlova, leaving a little bit of an edge. Top with fruit and serve within an hour or two. (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.
• Do 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.
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(Images: Emma Christensen)