A few years ago, I offered to bring a dessert for our Russian themed book club meeting. Our theme had nothing to do with the current US and Russian political climate, but was literary based around a love story from a classic Russian novella by Sergeevish Turgenev. At the time, the possibility of Russia interfering with the 2016 election was not even a blip in our imagination. Our job was to decipher the leads told throughout a melodramatic Russian love story and form an opinion if “First Love” was the definitive love story written in the 19th century. The task was not as insurmountable as it sounds, but my bigger concern lay with what should I bring for dessert?
After reading the story, and not feeling enthusiastic about it, I waltzed into researching ideas for a “Russian” dessert. It did not take long to discover a meringue dessert created to honor the Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova. Pavlova is a dessert consisting of a meringue nest filled with whipped cream and seasonal fresh fruit. Each bite is a choreographed dance of sensual textures and flavors. It is soft and crispy, sweet and tart, and as light as a ballerina pirouetting on a cloud.
In 1926 and 1928, Anna Pavlova toured with her ballet company to Australia and New Zealand. Her world tours were as anticipated as the Beatles and considered a major event for both countries. Chefs in Australia and New Zealand built on the excitement and honored her by creating and naming a meringue cake in her honor. Both countries have a long-standing dispute over the origin of the pavlova, inspired by the dancer’s tutu. The pavlova turned out to be as captivating as the ballerina’s graceful dancing, growing in popularity around the world for almost a hundred years. There is evidence that neither country created this meringue cake, but they did influence in its legacy. A true love story in its’ own right.
How to Make a Pavlova
Unlike other meringues, like my peppermint meringue cookies, that are crispy through and through, a pavlova has a crispy outside and a creamy-marshmallow center. A small amount of corn starch makes this marshmallow middle possible. The luscious contrast in texture is one reason for the dessert’s popularity.
Making a pavlova is not difficult, but like all meringues they are temperamental. The right conditions, cool dry air, and slowly adding sugar to the developing meringue are key to success. Another important factor is making sure your mixing bowl and beaters, or whisk, are clean. Any oil or fat residue will prevent the eggs whites from developing into an airy cloud. A new trick I just learned is clean out your mixing bowl and beaters with distilled vinegar then wipe the bowl and beaters dry with a lint free cloth. This extra step will ensure your bowl is free of any traces of fat.
Once the egg whites are all glossy and fluffy, bake the meringue in a low temperature oven. Don’t peek. Keep the door shut throughout the cooking and cooling process. Like a soufflé, meringue deflates when exposed to air before it is set.
Meringues are very sweet, so I offset the sweetness with tart fruit and lightly sweetened whipped cream. Adding extra sweet fruit, jams, fruit curds, or sauces makes the pavlova cloyingly sweet. Passion fruit has a tart flavor and is perfect with meringue. If you can find fresh passion fruit scoop out the flesh and seeds and drizzle it over the whipped cream for a dramatic affect. Otherwise you can buy frozen passion fruit pulp in the freezer section of your grocery store. I made a sauce with the passion fruit with a little sugar and reduced it slightly. Resist the temptation to add more sugar. The sauce is tart by itself, but combined with the sweet meringue, the tart flavor subsides.
Switch it up
For a dairy free option, make whipped cream with coconut cream found in full fat coconut milk.
For a vegan option make the meringue with Aquafaba, chickpea water, and use coconut milk whipped cream. Top with fruit and passion fruit sauce.
For more lemon flavor add 1 TB fresh lemon juice to the finished meringue. Fold it in with the lemon zest, corn starch. Omit the vinegar.
Add 1 1/2 teaspoons of unsweetened natural coco powder for a chocolate Pavlova. Fold in the coco powder with the corn starch until no streaks are left. (omit the lemon zest in this recipe)
My pavlova recipe is adapted from Ina Garten, Barefoot Contessa, Mixed Berry Pavlova.
Lemon Pavlova with Passion Fruit and Kiwi
- 5 egg whites about 1/2 cup (125 ml)
- 1 cup 7 oz/ 202 g granulated sugar
- 1 tsp distilled vinegar
- 2 tsp cornstarch
- Zest from 1 lemon
- 1 cup 250 ml heavy cream
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 TB powdered sugar
- 1 kiwi peeled and sliced thin,
- 3/4 cup 185 ml frozen passion fruit pulp, or one fresh passion fruit
- 1-2 TB granulated sugar if using pulp
- Berries and fresh mint to garnish
Preheat the oven to 350°F /180°C and place the oven rack in the middle position.
Draw a 9 inch (23 cm) circle in the middle of a piece of parchment paper large enough to cover a large rimmed baking sheet. Turn the paper over, and place the parchment paper on your baking sheet. The drawn side is facing down. Set aside.
Wipe your mixing bowl and beaters with some distilled vinegar then wipe dry with a lint free cloth.
Add the egg whites with a small pinch of Kosher salt to a bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Turn the speed to medium-high and whisk until the egg whites become foamy and hold soft peaks.
With the motor running add the sugar one tablespoon at a time, whisking between each addition. This will take some time, about 5 minutes, but it prevents the egg whites from deflating. When all the sugar is added, turn the speed up to high and beat until the egg whites are glossy and hold stiff peaks and all the sugar is dissolved, about 2-3 minutes. Test if the sugar is dissolved by rubbing a small piece of whipped egg whites between your fingers. If it feels course, then the sugar has not fully dissolved. If so, continue beating the egg whites or a minute more, but be careful to not over beat the meringue because it will deflate.
Remove the bowl from the mixer and sift the cornstarch over the meringue. Add the lemon zest and vinegar then carefully fold the ingredients into the meringue until evenly combined.
Pour the meringue on to the parchment paper aiming for the middle of your circle. Spread out the meringue to evenly fill the circle.
Place in the oven and turn the heat down to 300°F / 150°C Bake for 1 hour then turn off the oven. Keep the oven door closed no peeking. Cool the meringue in the oven for an hour, or until it reaches room temperature.
You can make the meringue a day ahead and store in an airtight container on the counter. A cool oven is a great place to store the meringue overnight. Do not refrigerate.
Passion Fruit Sauce
Pour the passion fruit sauce into a medium saucepan. Turn the heat to medium-high and add 1 TB of the sugar. Whisk to combine and bring to a gentle simmer. Taste add another tablespoon of sugar if needed. Remember the meringue is very sweet so keep the passion fruit sauce on the tart side. Whisk to combine and simmer. Cook until the sauce begins to thicken and slightly reduces. Turn off the heat and pour the sauce into a heat proof container. Cool to room temperature.
Make the Whipped Cream
Add the chilled heavy cream to a medium bowl and whip with a hand held mixer, or use a free standing mixer, until just starting to thicken. Add the vanilla extract and sugar and beat until soft peaks form. Cover and keep refrigerated until needed.
Assemble the Pavlova
Just before serving, slowly peel away the parchment paper from the meringue. A thin spatula helps release any stubborn parts. Slide the meringue onto a serving plate, then layer with the whipped cream. Scatter the fruit on top of the whipped cream then drizzle with the passion fruit or some of the sauce. Garnish with fresh mint if using.
Serve immediately with extra sauce.
Once assembled, pavlovas do not keep very long because the whipped cream makes the meringue soggy. You can cover any leftovers with aluminum foil and keep in the refrigerator for one day with the understanding some of the crispiness will subside.
Meringues are temperamental to humid condition. Store in an air tight container until needed. A cool oven is the best place to store a meringue, just make sure you don't accidentally turn it on.
You can also make 6 - 8 small nests instead of one big one. Each meringue then gets a large dollop of whipped cream and fresh fruit.
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