by Laura Silber
As a pastry chef, I had always thought of meringue desserts as members of a class of stuffy old-school recipes, desserts served in fancy hotel restaurants populated by smartly dressed ladies in hats and white gloves, and dapper men in suits with pomaded hair. It was sort of a charming culinary anachronism, along with Bavarians and beef consommé. During my time in restaurant kitchens, I baked meringue desserts only under duress, and although people ordered them steadily and ate them happily, I remained indifferent to their appeal.
But then there was one evening years later at a friend’s birthday party when the hostess made a Pavlova.
“Oh, how charming,” I thought to myself while she presented it. “I’ll have one bite to be polite.” The meringue was huge, filling the china platter, homemade vanilla whipped cream smothered with a mixture of lightly sugared fresh strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, and peaches. The fruits had been slightly crushed with a spoon to release their juices, which ran down in brilliant crimson and purple over the cream and pooled around the base of the meringue.
The first bite was truly a revelation, and one that I still remember vividly. In 20-plus years of cooking professionally, I’ve tasted a lot of things, and there are about a dozen first-taste experiences that I cherish the way some girls sigh about a first kiss. I ate two full helpings of Pavlova that evening and would have begged a third had the other guests not already polished off the platter.
What distinguishes a Pavlova meringue from other meringues is the cornstarch and vinegar in the recipe, which results in a delicately crispy exterior, and a soft sweet interior reminiscent of toasted marshmallow. The construction of the dessert itself is less about the meringue in particular, and more about the interplay between the meringue, the cream, and the fruit. When you bite into a well-composed Pavlova, you taste a combination of flavors, textures, and temperatures all at once: the tart punch of the juice-laden fruits juxtaposed with the cold smoothness of the cream, the satisfying shatter of the meringue’s sweet crust, and the surprising textural depth of the interior.
The dessert was first presented in 1926 to honor the Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova’s tour of New Zealand and Australia. Although both countries have claimed credit for the dessert, most accounts indicate a chef at a hotel in Wellington, New Zealand, as the recipe’s author. The original presentation included fresh berries and sliced kiwis. The delicate cloud of meringue was meant to represent the ballerina’s tutu, and the cream and brightly colored fruits her bodice and skirt overlay, which was embroidered with roses. Most American versions of the recipe call solely for berries, but the addition of peaches into the berry mix is a stroke of regional inspiration that echoes the fleshy fruit of the original kiwi version.
One can diverge from the original recipe by adding chocolate or almond to the meringue, using whipped cream made from coconut milk instead of dairy cream, or changing the fruit topping, which can be fresh or cooked depending on the season. As long as the fruit and cream skirt drapes the meringue tutu, it is still undeniably a Pavlova.