What is more lovely and graceful than a ballerina — especially one as celebrated as the Russian dancer Anna Pavlova?
The beautiful and delicate dessert of baked meringue piled high with whipped cream and topped with fresh fruit is said to have been named after the famous dancer.
The Pavlova, like many a beautiful and seductive lady, has caused a long-standing duel. Feuding over what country invented the famous dessert are Australia and New Zealand.
Keith Money, a biographer of Anna Pavlova, claimed that a hotel chef in Wellington, New Zealand, created the dish when Pavlova visited there in 1926 on her world tour. Opposition claims that Bert Sachse created the dish at the Esplanade Hotel in Perth, Australia, in 1935.
Wherever it originated, we are glad it’s here and this light and airy, relatively simple dessert may be the perfect ending to your Valentine’s dinner.
The Pavlova begins with a meringue base. “Meringue” — the very word frightens many a good cook.
I am always reminded of my little sister, who, upon her first attempt at making a lemon meringue pie, called me and asked if the meringue topping should “pour.”
A perfect meringue piles like soft clouds; it does not pour.
Following are some tips to help you create a beautiful meringue:
Any time you are canning, making candy, baking or just preparing a new recipe, it is a good idea to have the ingredients measured and ready so that you are not looking in the pantry for an item called for in the recipe at a crucial moment.
When working with meringue, some cooks will tell you to be knowledgeable about eggs in general (water molecules and amino acid proteins) and how whipping air into
the protein makes it foam and stiffen.
Although I did study the anatomy of an egg with my grandson in preparation for his science test, I think most important for making a meringue is a free standing electric mixer. Chefs might argue that a whisk and a copper bowl are what you need to make a meringue, and while that may be a great workout for the upper arm, I like my Kitchen Aid.
The main ingredient of a meringue is egg white. There are differing opinions on whether or not all eggs are created equal. A chef at the Culinary Institute in Dallas told me that he did not think one could tell the difference between organic or any other type of egg marketed in today’s grocery. Personally, I buy humanely certified or free range eggs based not on the taste of the egg, but the lifestyle endured by the chicken.
There is a difference in size of eggs. Ina Garten, The Barefoot Contessa, will almost always specify the eggs in a recipe as “large” eggs.
When making a meringue, start by bringing large eggs to room temperature. This is a very important step. You can leave them on the counter to come to room temperature or put them in a bowl of warm water for 10 or 15 minutes.
When you are cracking and separating the egg, make sure that no yolk gets into the white. There is a little gadget called an egg separator that you can use to help ensure a clean separation.
Make sure that your mixer bowl and beaters are clean and grease free. Begin at a lower speed and work up to a higher speed. This helps add volume. Add the sugar one tablespoon at time to make sure it fully dissolves. Using caster or superfine sugar helps in dissolving the sugar. Central Market carries sugar formulated especially for baking.
When you have baked and cooled your Pavlova, decorating it is the fun part. Endless choices of fruit or seasonal berries finish the beautiful dessert.
I chose strawberries for my Valentine Pavlova. Other possibilities include strawberry and kiwi or pineapple, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries — whatever fruit is in season or might complement your table décor.
Google “Pavlova” and you will find a variety of pictures of fruit combinations to top your dessert.
When you are ready to serve the Pavlova, have fruit prepared and cream whipped.
Presenting the Pavlova on a footed cake stand makes a lovely centerpiece.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
4 large egg whites, room temperature
Pinch of salt
1 cup super-fine sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch (sifted)
1 teaspoon white-wine vinegar or distilled white vinegar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Sweetened Whipped Cream
Fresh fruit or berries for topping
- Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Using an overturned bowl, sauce pan lid or a cake pan as a guide, trace an 8 or 9-inch circle onto parchment. Turn parchment over, marked side down.
- Beat at low-medium speed egg whites and salt to soft peaks.
- Gradually add sugar. Raise speed to medium-high, and beat until stiff peaks form.
- gently fold in vinegar, cornstarch and vanilla.
- Using a rubber spatula or a large spoon, spread meringue into marked 9-inch circle on prepared baking sheet, forming a slight well in center.
- Turn oven down to 200 degrees and bake until outside is firm and bottom lifts easily off parchment, about 1 and 1/2 hours. The inside should still be marshmallow soft. Turn off the oven, keep the door closed, and allow the meringue to cool completely in the oven, about 1 hour or overnight. It will be crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. When cool, carefully remove from parchment. Pavlova can be stored in an airtight container for up to 2 days.
- To serve, gently spread the top completely with sweetened whipped cream.
- Spoon or arrange the fruit or berries into the middle of the Pavlova, leaving a border of cream and meringue. Serve immediately.