In spite of a name that suggests a complex confectionary achievement of tsarist Russia, Pavolva is an Australian dessert (and some would say the Australian national dessert) with distinctly Australian virtues — it’s fresh, unfussy and lots of fun. Named after a famous Russian ballerina who visited Australia and New Zealand in the 1920s, the definition of “Pavlova,” at least as far as I can tell, is nothing more than meringue topped with whipped cream and some other stuff, usually fresh fruit. Our good friend Visnja (a New Yorker transplanted from Melbourne) introduced us to Pavlova a couple of summers ago, and we were hooked.
I think the genius of Pavlova is not its ballerina lightness (although, relative to other desserts involving a half dozen eggs and a pint of cream, it’s pretty airy), but the contrast between the textures in every bite. The meringue is crispy on the outside and marshmallow soft on the inside, and its all cloaked in silky soft whipped cream, punctuated with the firmness and bright flavor of seasonal fruit. This version incorporates summer berries, but peaches, plums and tropical fruits are also delicious perched atop a cushion of meringue and drifts of whipped cream. Bake your meringue, whip your cream and let your imagination dictate the rest.
This triple decker version is also a little showier than your average Pav. The formed layers are easy to make in baking pans, but you could also make one, two or three free-form layers by just mounding the meringue on parchment before you put it in the oven. (Indeed the foundation of “classic” Pavlova is a single free-form layer of meringue.) Similarly, you can make demure little individual serving-sized Pavlovas, but I can’t resist the drama of one big poufy Pav for all.
One other variation from the norm here is the use of orange flower water (available in Middle Eastern markets and online) to flavor the meringue and the cream. It’s exotic floral flavor and aroma are favorites of mine, and I think it pairs particularly well with strawberries, but if you don’t want to go there, good old vanilla works just fine.
For the meringues:
confectioners sugar, for dusting pans
1 1/2 cups (350 ml) superfine (caster) sugar (or granulated sugar processed in a food processor for 1-2 minutes).
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon orange flower water (or vanilla extract)
2 teaspoons distilled white vinegar
6 large egg whites
For the berries:
About 2 pounds of mixed fresh berries, such as strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
For the cream:
1 1/2 cups (350 ml) chilled heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon orange flower water
1 tablespoon confectioners sugar
1. Preheat the oven to 275F (135C).
2. Butter three 8-inch (20cm) cake pans, dust with confectioners sugar and line the bottoms with kitchen parchment.
3. In a food processor or with a bowl and whisk, thoroughly blend the sugar and cornstarch. (If you don’t have superfine sugar, make your own by processing granulated sugar with the blade attachment for 1-2 minutes before adding the cornstarch.)
4. Stir together the orange flower water or vanilla and the vinegar in a small bowl.
5. Add a pinch of salt to the egg whites and beat them in an electric mixer at medium speed until they hold soft peaks.
6. Increase the mixer speed to medium-high and add the sugar mixture about 1 tablespoon at a time. After all of the sugar has been added, beat for about 1 minute more. Add the vinegar mixture and then beat at high speed until the meringue is glossy and holds stiff peaks, about 5 minutes more.
7. Divide the meringue evenly between the three prepared pans, push it into place with a spatula and smooth the tops as best you can.
8. Bake the meringues for about an hour, until the tops are crisp and dry to the touch. (The insides will still be spongy, like a marshmallow.) Turn off the oven and prop the door ajar with a wooden spoon. Cool the meringues this way for at least an hour. (I didn’t have three matching 8-inch cake pans, but a spring-form pan worked fine for the third layer.)
9. While the meringues are cooling, wash and prepare the berries, halving any strawberries. Toss them with the sugar and let them macerate at room temperature for about an hour.
10. Carefully remove the meringues from the pans and remove the parchment. The meringues will likely crack like crazy, and the dry top layer (or pieces of it) may even separate entirely from the soft core. Don’t worry –you’re about to slather the whole business with loads of whipped cream, and nobody will know.
11. Add the orange flower water (or vanilla) and confectioners sugar to the cream and beat it to soft peaks.
12. Assemble the Pavlova layer by layer (meringue, cream, berries, repeat), using generous amounts of cream to hold it all together.
13. Serve the Pavlova soon after assembly as the cream and berry juice will start softening the meringues after a half hour or so. (You can make all of the parts ahead, though –holding the berries and cream in the fridge and the meringues in an airtight container– and assemble them just before serving. To serve, cut into wedges with a sharp knife after the oohs and aahs from your grateful guests subside.