This deliciously sweet dessert of crisp meringue, softly whipped cream and drippingly ripe fruit has just about everything leaning in its favour. It is well renowned across the globe, and yet still retains iconic status in its homeland, the Antipodes. It is a celebratory sweet, so will be found at all sorts of occasions - from birthdays to barbecues - from warm parties to wakes. The moniker of the dessert also has good breeding - named in honour of the famous Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova.
However, this sugar-laden and homely front hides a rather pervasive and sometimes tumultuous past. You see, Aussies and Kiwis have argued for literally generations over who was the one and only, completely original creator of this dessert. Someone from the other side of the world would naturally find this disagreement if not a tad boring and redundant - then at least a little odd. However, trust me on this one - if you want a 10 second pop-lesson on how Australians and New Zealanders view each other - look no further than the Pavlova. Neither side will ever get hostile when discussing Pav, indeed from a distance those discussions will always resemble good-natured and harmless banter. It will however, pay for you to observe the situation a little bit closer. Through the friendly jest and smiles, there will always be a curl of the upper lip, accompanied by a slight snarl, which will tell you in no uncertain terms that this Pavlova ownership business is very serious indeed.
I am not even going to weigh into the debate, and in any case, I genuinely believe at this stage of the row, no one is ever going to uncover the true origin. So while flustered and sugar-dusted Aussie and Kiwi cooks battle it out, lets you and me retire from the melee, and concentrate on this yummy dessert instead.
So if you aren't familiar with this sweet, what exactly is a Pavlova? The main component is meringue, or whipped egg whites and sugar baked in the oven until crisp. This is traditionally cooked into a large cake-shaped disc, split horizontally, then filled with whipped cream and fruit, and served forth to adoring (and often drunk) guests. I'll be blunt - as a child I always found Pavlova wanting. The meringue was either too chewy, or the cream was a little soft - and mostly, the fruit was under-ripe and just not the yummy-scrummy thang it should have been.
Segue to the present, and for some Gawd-unknown reason, I decided to whack a Pavlova inspired sweet on our new dessert menu. However, before I even picked up a whisk there were two things I was determined would be different about this particular Pav. Starting with no whipped cream. Too many Pavlovas I ploughed through as a child had whipped cream that was whisked hours before serving. Housed between meringue and set on a hot summer Sydney kitchen bench, the whipped cream soon turned into an unpalatably soft, yellowy mess. No - cream was definitely out, sneakily replaced by a scrumptious passionfruit curd.
Pavlovas use certain fruits according to tradition, and generally these include in descending order; strawberries, passionfruit and bananas. I have no problem with these fruits. What I have a problem with, is using them when they are out of season and unripe, just because tradition says that we should. No - our Pavlova would use only one fruit, and a perfectly ripe fruit at that. This left one matter undecided - the presentation, and I certainly wasn't going to whip out LP sized discs of meringue. Enter ascorbic.
'Scorby is a fine pastry chef, and has often been willing to listen to my fumblings when it comes to all things sugar. Quite a while back, I bemoaned to him the fact that I couldn't get a nice looking Pav on the plate. ascorbic was to the point and inestimably helpful;
"...Oh man, don't stuff around, just quenelle them..."
This is what he meant. A quenelle is an egg-shaped mixture pretty central to classical French cuisine - but don't let that put you off, because they are neither difficult nor redundant. Instead of slathering the meringue out into a large disc shape, two warmed spoons are used to lift and shape the egg whites into comely spheres. When cooked, the top is merely cracked with the back of a spoon, filled with passionfruit curd, and then scattered with ripe, sweet fruit. It now not only tastes great, but it also looks a million dollars, and I owe it all to ascorbic.
So are you keen to try it out? Not convinced yet? Well, listen to this; once the meringue and passionfruit curd are made, they will keep well for at least a week. So a spunky and impressive dessert such as this will only take as long to put together as it takes you to slice up some ripe fruit.
Little berry and passionfruit Pavlovas
You can do this by hand with a balloon whisk - but it is so much easier in a mixmaster, so take this option if it is available. Place the egg whites in a bowl and whip until they are opaque and are very fluffy. Just beyond the soft peak stage. While the mixmaster (or your poor arm) is running, add the sugar in a steady stream. Keep whisking until the whites turn very pale and glossy - this will take at least 5 minutes. Stop the motor and feel a little of the meringue between your fingers. It should feel totally smooth, with no sugar graininess at all. If needed, keep whisking until you get to this stage.
Heat your oven to a very, very low setting. If you have a gas oven with a pilot light, then use that - leaving the oven off entirely. If not, set the temperature to about 90° C (180° F), which is about as low as most domestic ovens will go, but still not low enough for our purposes. To get the temperature lower, wedge a wooden spoon in the oven door so it remains slightly ajar.
Line a baking tray with non-stick silicone paper. Fill a bowl with hot water and add two spoons, letting them warm up. Using one spoon, lift out an amount of meringue. Using the second spoon, turn and shape the egg white until it is sorta egg-shaped, then dump onto the lined baking tray. Continue until all the egg white is used. Place the tray into the very low oven and cook overnight, or for at least 8 hours.
IMPORTANT. Please, please... if you are leaving the meringues in the oven over night, make sure the oven is at a low enough temperature so that they won't burn. If you are at all not sure, cook them at a higher temperature, for a shorter period, and while you are awake.
Remove the meringues from the oven. They should be still white in colour - or only lightly browned. Let cool for 10 minutes and check if they are crisp. If they are still soft, they will need to be returned to the oven for another hour or so.
Cool and remove to an airtight container. These will keep well, covered and at room temperature for at least a week - seriously.
Place a medium to large saucepan on the heat, half fill with water and bring to the boil. Choose a heatproof bowl that sits snugly on top of the saucepan, and off the heat whisk together all the ingredients. Place the bowl on top of the saucepan and turn the boiling water down to a mere simmer. Whisk until the butter has melted and incorporated, and the mixture has thickened and looks very rich. This will take around 10-15 minutes.
Pour into a container and chill until set, by which time the curd will be a very thick, spoon-able consistency.
For each serve, place 2 pinky-nail size dollops of passionfruit curd on a plate, so as to stop the meringues from sliding around the plate. Place a single meringue on top of each dot of curd, then using the back of a spoon, crack open the top of each meringue. Don't worry if it gets a little messy, it's all charm. Dollop a good amount of passionfruit curd on top of each meringue, then scatter with the berries or fruit of your choice. Drizzle over some syrup and dust with a little icing sugar, then serve forth to wide-eyed guests.
This is a pretty sweet dessert, so a fairly decadent wine will be needed to partner it. A botrytis affected semillon definitely has the sweetness to stand up to this dessert, however, a late harvest riesling, while not as sweet, will provide a tangy fruitiness that will accompany the Pav in rather suave and effortless fashion.
- BlakJak adds that Kiwi fruit were always an addition to his pavlovas of yore. I seem to remember green discs atop many pavs when I was young as well, so if Kiwis are in season, then by all means use them.