To celebrate Spring season, this month we turn to a dish that is all about eggs. Eggs are just about the most versatile ingredient known to man, the core uber-food from which thousands of recipes can be made. Few desserts feel as festive, and as sp-egg-tacular, as the crisp-on-the-outside, gooey-on-the-inside, Pavlova.
First of all, it’s pronounced PavlOva, as opposed to the Russian ballet dancer in whose honour it was first made, and after whom it is named, Anna Pavlova. And while you might think that the cake is Russian, it is in fact Antipodean, having been invented in 1926, during the dancer’s visit to Australia and New Zealand. Pavlova’s biographer, Keith Money, wrote that the chef of a hotel in Wellington, New Zealand, was responsible for the cake (so perhaps it is apt that it is often topped by kiwis). The world’s leading Pavlova expert, Professor Helen Leach, concurs, though slightly alters the date to 1929. She should know: she’s compiled over 600 pavlova recipes and penned a book, The Pavlova Story: a Slice of New Zealand’s Culinary History.
Ann Pavlova (1881-1931) was a world-renowned Russian ballerina, prima ballerina of the Imperial Russian Ballet and the Ballets Russes, run by the most famous of all choreographers, Sergei Diaghilev. She is the rock star of the ballet world, starring in The Dying Swan in the very first ballet performance to tour the world. She was celebrated every step along the way, most memorably during her visit to New Zealand.
The recipe for this dish could not be much simpler, and yet your average home cook is often intimidated when it comes to recipes that require the separation of egg white from yolk, and the intensive beating of egg whites. It is also hard to imagine that I’ll know just when to stop whipping the egg white so that it will transform into meringue that contains the ideal combination of crisp and ooey-gooey. This is a silly tick that I need to surmount, and a delicious cake seems the ideal way to overstep it. For a Pavlova is little more than egg white, caster sugar, and fruit. Rather than have it feel like work, I plan to think of myself as a sort of magician, transmuting a simple egg and powdered sugar into a spectacular sweet that will truly astound your guests.
The key to making meringue is to beat egg whites much longer and harder than you think they should be beaten, until they become stiff. The very idea that a liquid can be whacked around until it becomes a solid is quite something, when you think of it, and so my magician’s hat is surely on for this recipe. Once the egg white is stiff, you fold in the caster sugar, turning the dish from savoury to sweet. The Pavlova also contains corn flour added to the stiff egg whites, which gives it the hard shell, soft interior texture that is the sign of a successful dish. If you were to leave out the corn flour, the same basic recipe would give you a meringue, which is crispy all the way through, and breaks into shards, rather than spooning in a more cake-like manner. This can also happen if you overcook your Pavlova. However, if you undercook it, then it’s all gooey, which you don’t want either. Just to make life a bit more complicated, if the Pavlova, once perfectly baked, is exposed to cold air then it can collapse, deflating like a punctured balloon. The trick is to leave it in the oven while it cools down, and only open the over door when the inside of the oven has reached the same temperature as the kitchen. One other tricky aspect is that Pavlova must really be eaten on the day it’s made. The fragile nature of its texture means that it will absorb moisture if refrigerated for too long, making it soggy. You can top the dessert any way you like, with a whipped cream and any combination of fruits, though strawberries, kiwis, passion fruit, and pomegranates are all popular choices.
Pavlova is a deceptive dessert to prepare, since it is simple in terms of ingredients, but, has a number of ways that it can trip you up: insufficient beating of egg whites, too much or too little baking, cooling too quickly or refrigerating. But when it comes out right it is wonderfully festive. At least your job as a home cook will be easier than that of New Zealand’s Eastern Institute of Technology. In 2005, their students prepared the world’s largest Pavlova, which was a whopping 64 meters long—and still tasted good.