Sheet cakes decorated with red, white and blue berries for the Fourth of July are the summer version of Halloween's graveyard dirt cakes — sort of comforting in their ubiquitousness, but not terribly appealing and usually produced more for looks than taste. But I must have a soft spot for holiday-themed desserts because this year I've made a revamped version of a graveyard cake and now this, a sophisticated spin on a red, white and blue dessert. Instead of soggy sheet cake, light and airy meringue shells are the base for a bright strawberry sauce, fresh whipped cream and handfuls of sweet summer berries. And this recipe is gluten-free!
It always surprises me that pavlovas aren't more popular here in the States, especially given the popularity of gluten-free desserts in general. When I serve them, there is usually at least one guest who has never heard of pavlovas, and is always amazed at how good they are — light yet decadent, full of fresh fruit and whipped cream, with the special crisp-but-soft texture of the meringue base.
Making mini pavlovas is no more difficult than baking one big shell. I use the top of a pint glass to trace circles on parchment paper, then flip the paper over and spread the whipped meringue evenly over the circles. You end up with eight meringue nests; each makes a dessert just right for one person. (If you need fewer than eight, the pavlova shells freeze well for up to one month.)
I find that the sugary meringue needs a tart sauce to cut through the sweetness, so I make a very quick strawberry sauce with just enough sugar to balance out the flavors. Add a dollop of freshly-made whipped cream and an assortment of your favorite summer berries and you have a dessert that is fancy enough for grown-ups, but full of the sweet, summer flavors that appeal to the kid in all of us.
Mini Summer Berry Pavlovas with Strawberry Sauce
1 pound strawberries, hulled and cut into quarters 1/4 cup granulated sugar 1 teaspoon lemon juice 1/2 cup heavy cream 1 tablespoon powdered sugar 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 8 mini pavlova shells, baked and cooled 2 cups fresh berries (any combination of raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, or sliced strawberries)
Combine the quartered strawberries, granulated sugar and lemon juice in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring, until sugar has dissolved and the liquid at the bottom of the pan is simmering. Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Using a blender or food processor, process the fruit into a smooth sauce. Transfer to a covered container and refrigerate until cool. (Sauce can be made and refrigerated up to 3 days in advance.)
Combine the cream, powdered sugar and vanilla in a bowl and beat with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form.
To assemble, place a pavlova shell on a plate and top with a spoonful of strawberry sauce, a dollop of whipped cream and a scattering of fresh berries. Repeat with remaining shells. Serve immediately.
The baked pavlova shells, once cooled, can be kept in an airtight container for several hours, or frozen for up to 1 month. Thaw for 2 hours at room temperature.