August is all about fresh fruit, as blueberries, raspberries and blackberries all come into season. This simple and elegant dessert elevates a bowl of berries to something sublime.
The dish is named for Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova, whose dancing was light and elegant, like this dessert. it was invented in Perth, Australia in 1935. Or in Sydney in 1929. Or in New Zealand in 1926 …. If you want to start an argument between an Australian and a New Zealander, ask them which country invented pavlova – both countries claim it as a national dish.
It’s particularly popular in both countries as a Christmas dessert, since that’s often one of the hottest days of the year. You can bake pavlova year-round, although it’s best to avoid really humid or rainy days as it will absorb moisture from the air.
At first glance, pavlova seems to be just a baked meringue topped with fruit. But when it’s done properly, there is a significant difference: a meringue is the same texture all the way through, but pavlova is crispy on the exterior but has a soft centre, almost like a perfectly roasted marshmallow.
While that sounds complex, it’s actually incredibly easy to make as long as you follow a couple of key steps. (There are actually dozens of other tips and tricks to ensure a perfect pavlova – this site lists dozens of them if you really want to get into advanced pavlova baking!) But the basics are: Preheat the oven, then turn it down as soon as you put the pavlova in. Be gentle when handling it. Don’t open the oven door when it’s cooking. And above all, let it cool in the oven – if you bring it out to cool on the counter, it will deflate.
In fact, you can leave it in the oven for hours afterward, or even store it in an airtight container for a day or two, as long as you don’t add the toppings until just before you serve it. Leftovers can be kept in the fridge, but it will lose its crispy texture as the moisture from the fruit and cream soak into the “pav” – still delicious, but just lacking that lovely crunch.
There are hundreds of recipes for pavlova, but they all contain the same ingredients: egg whites, sugar, cornstarch and an acidic element – our version comes from Sally’s Baking Addiction and uses cream of tartar, while others use white vinegar or lemon juice. The acid, cornstarch and sugar all help the egg whites hold air and keep the entire thing from collapsing.
Vanilla is usually added as well for flavour, but it’s optional. Other cooks prefer to put the vanilla in the whipped cream rather than in the pavlova.
Some recipes call for more sugar or less, or as many as six egg whites, but the bigger you try to make the pavlova, the greater the chance of it collapsing. Four egg whites – about 5 ounces of egg – is usually the best way to go.
The sugar should be superfine or castor sugar. If you just have regular table sugar, just pulse it a few times in the food processor. Don’t use icing sugar, which contains cornstarch.
Once your pavlova is ready to serve, top it with a layer of whipped cream and whatever fresh fruit you have on hand. You can also make lemon curd (you have leftover egg yolks, after all), add chocolate shavings or drizzle, a dusting of toasted almonds, or just about anything else you fancy. It’s delicious every time!
4 large egg whites (separate the eggs when they’re cold and let the whites warm to room temperature – they whip better when warm)
1 cup superfine sugar
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (either in the pavlova or in the whipped cream)
Homemade whipped cream (for the topping)
Fresh fruit (for the topping)
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
Use a stand mixer or handheld mixer and beat the eggs at a low to medium speed for about five minutes, until soft peaks form. Add the sugar a couple of tablespoons at a time, beating for 30 seconds between each addition. Continue beating just until the peaks are stiff and glossy, and the egg is thick enough that it doesn’t drop off the mixer when you lift it out – overbeating the eggs can cause the pavlova to deflate.
Use a spatula to gently fold in the cream of tartar, cornstarch and vanilla.
Spread the pavlova in a roughly nine-inch circle on the parchment paper or baking mat. Round the sides over slightly (a dome shape is stronger than straight, completely vertical sides) and put a slight depression in the middle where you will pile the fruit. You can cook it in a springform pan if you want a straight-sided pavlova, but part of the appeal of this dessert is the fact it looks hand-made but has an elegant mix of textures.
You can also make individual pavolvas — this recipe will make six mini pavlovas, each roughly six inches around.
Gently place the pavlova in the oven and shut the door. Reduce the heat to 200 degrees, and bake until it looks firm and dry, around 90 minutes.
Turn the oven off and let it cool in the oven.
When you’re ready to serve, transfer the pavlova to a serving platter, top with whipped cream and berries, then slice and serve. (If the pavlova cracked, which sometimes happens, you can use the whipped cream as “mortar” to hide the cracks and nobody will be the wiser!)
If you made individual pavlovas, you can just pass the cream and fruit and let your guests assemble their own.