(Image credit: Anjali Prasertong)

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!

(Image credit: Anjali Prasertong)

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

Serves 8

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
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.

Recipe Notes

  • 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.

(Images: Anjali Prasertong)