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In the dessert spotlight: easy, elegant Pavlova

The Baltimore Sun

Imagine a dessert perfectly matched to this unfolding season, one with vertical aspirations and pockets of light - an edible basket of fruit called a Pavlova. Assembled from a meringue cloud, pillowed with cream and spilling over with an abundance of fruit, a Pavlova is also a disarmingly easy dessert with an unexpected, rustic elegance.

Piled high on a tray or even a wooden board and carried out as the coda to a late-spring patio dinner, it makes the kind of impression a cook dreams about.

There's something inherently funny - even slightly perverse - about naming an oversize, rustic dessert topped with a tumble of fruit for a waiflike Russian ballet dancer. That's part of the Pavlova's charm, of course. Invented in either Australia or New Zealand (both lay zealous claim to it) in the early 20th century, the meringue dish honors the legendary Anna Pavlova, who visited both countries in the 1920s. Fresh strawberries, kiwis and passion fruit combined to top the original.

Now the national dessert of both countries, the Pavlova has come down to us as a kind of edible symbol, not only of balletic art, but of colonial ingenuity. Unlike its ornate meringue cousin the "vacherin," a beautiful if rather fussy dessert, the Pavlova is composed of a free-form meringue upon which whipped cream and fresh fruit are piled with lovely abandon. That's it. No piping bags, no careful composition.

The fresh cream is mounded almost recklessly, the berries strewn like a handful of petals newly gathered from the garden. The meringue can, and should, be made a few hours ahead of time.

The trick to a good Pavlova is a meringue that has a crisp outside and a tender but not gooey interior. Unlike many smaller meringues, which are crisp throughout, a Pavlova depends on varying textures. Its signature crunchy exterior, crevassed like a desert floor, breaks through to a light and airy center that has a texture like homemade marshmallow. The trick to accomplishing this: the addition of a little cornstarch and vinegar.

Simply beat egg whites at room temperature (if they're cold they won't get as much loft) with a pinch of salt until soft peaks form, then add superfine sugar, a little at a time so as not to deflate the meringue. (Although you can use regular sugar with good results, the superfine ensures that the sugar gets fully dissolved into the meringue.)

Continue beating until the meringue has stiff peaks, then sprinkle the cornstarch over it and add white-wine vinegar and a little vanilla. A few more whisks and the meringue is done.

Then just mound the meringue onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet, spooning the meringue up slightly higher on the sides than in the center so that it's a little concave, and put it into a 350-degree oven.

Immediately turn the oven down to 300 degrees, then cook the meringue for an hour and a half. It will rise to impressive proportions, blooming and then forming cracks and fissures as it cooks.

When the meringue is done, turn the oven off, prop open the door and leave it alone. Don't worry if the meringue falls: Unlike a souffle, it should settle a bit, and the resulting dips and valleys create a perfect base for the filling. After leaving it undisturbed for a few hours, your Pavlova shell is cool and dry and ready for assembly.

Meringues are light, easy and kind of miraculous - but they should be served as soon as they're piled with their luscious fillings because they'll soon get soggy.

When guests are ready for dessert, top a cooled Pavlova shell with unsweetened whipped cream (the meringue is sweet enough) flavored with a vanilla bean or a hint of cinnamon and start piling on the glorious fruit.

Use whatever fruit looks good at the market or a combination of your favorites.

Macerate perfumey strawberries, delicate raspberries, huge blackberries or a handful of tart blueberries for half an hour; then they're ready to go. A sprinkle of crushed pistachios brings color as it further plays up the varying textures of the dessert.

And in a few weeks, when apricots and peaches start pouring into farmers' markets, give them a quick roast in a hot oven with a little cinnamon, a vanilla bean and cognac, then peel and slice them and pair with unsweetened heavy cream whipped with a little creme fraiche. Or when the peaches are ripe and juicy, simply peel and slice them and strew them over the top of a Pavlova. Or you could give them a soak in a little red wine first.

A Pavlova is endlessly adaptable. Instead of or in addition to whipped cream, add sorbet or ice cream. Spoon on lemon curd, mascarpone and blackberries, or add pastry cream and a fruit coulis. Mix and match the fruit. Go the chocolate route, shaving a chunk of semisweet Valrhona and lacing strawberries and cream with a rich chocolate sauce.

Amy Scattergood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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