Me and meringue are not always on harmonious terms, kind of like me and dance. I like to make meringue and I like to dance, but I simply will never be a master in these domains. Despite this truth, a cumulation of colorful summer fruits, jars of egg whites, and plenty of extra whipping cream (thanks to ice cream-making season!) convinced me to give this classic light-as-air dessert a spin. Topped off with a soaring confidence in my meringue-making capacities (thanks to some totally bad-ass meringues that I managed to whip up at a friend’s house last week), yesterday I hit the oven and was lucky to discover that this dessert is not about mastering meringue technique.
Actually, I’m not that bad at making meringues, but they are very oven-dependant and my current oven has not yet humoured me. But the oven can’t take all the blame. There are other reasons that I am not the meringue master.
Sugar to egg ratio varies, and I can never remember : was is 1:1 or 2:1? You can add a pinch of salt or cream of tartar. You can add a spoonful of lemon juice, vinegar, or cornstarch diluted in water. You can heat the eggs over a double boiler in the Swiss manner, or just whip them up cold in the French way. Let’s not even mention the revered soft Italian meringue whipped with hot sugar syrup. Powdered sugar, superfine, or normal?
Do you want them soft or hard? Crunchy like popcorn or crunchy with a soft melty center that would make any marshmallow bow down in respect? Do you want them to caramelize or do you prefer that they stay white, or any other color that you may have added? How fresh are your eggs? Did you know that slightly old, room temperature egg whites whip up the best!? I have all the questions but don’t count on me to tell you exactly how to make the meringue that you want. I’m currently trapped in a Bermuda triangle of whipping egg whites and never knowing exactly how they will turn out, even when repeating the same recipe.
The good news is that exactitude for a Pavlova does not matter. Cook the meringue until dry to the touch. This is important. The crunch of the meringue contrasts sublimely with the whipped cream, and the sugar content accompanies to a tee the acidity of fresh fruit. Like the dancing of Anna Pavlova, to whom this dish was dedicated, technical perfection of each component is of little importance. It is the assembled whole, unmistakably light, and the style of the chef that will shape this dessert. I must share this quote from the ballerina’s wiki page because it could also describe this little confection. Apparently, the dancer was attempting to imitate one of her favorite ballerinas, the highly accomplished and sportive Pierina Legnani, causing her teacher, Pavel Gerdt, to fly into a rage. He told her,
“… leave acrobatics to others. It is positively more than I can bear to see the pressure such steps put on your delicate muscles and the severe arch of your foot. I beg you to never again try to imitate those who are physically stronger than you. You must realize that your daintiness and fragility are your greatest assets. You should always do the kind of dancing which brings out your own rare qualities instead of trying to win praise by mere acrobatic tricks.”
There must be hundreds of ways to make a Pavlova. I added a touch of almond extract to the meringue and accidentally cooked them until they were dried completely through. That’s just how it happened. I also used half the amount of sugar that is usually called for (oops!) but they miraculously turned out fine. They did take quite a few hours to dry in the oven, and by this time they had taken on a charming champagne tint. For French speakers, this blogger does a great job explaining different types of meringue complete with photos: Chef Nini
Bastien was skeptical about the brilliance of this simple dessert until he sunk his teeth into the soft crunch and air cream of the Pavlova. The sound of sinking your knife or teeth into the meringue was similar to the “shwh” of a soft breeze passing through the bountiful leaves of a late summer tree. Pure sensory overload. For once, overcooking turned into a happy accident.
Recipe for a Pavlova, ethereal and probably ephemeral
Meringue as I made yesterday, feel free to simplify, complicate, or follow a completely different recipe:
- 6 egg whites at room temperature (or 180 g)
- 200 g of sugar (or up to 360 g sugar)
- 1/2 tsp almond extract
- Heavy whipping cream (sorry, I never measure this)
- Sugar (to taste)
- Vanilla extract
- Any fresh fruits in season, (right now: peaches, strawberries, cherries, apricots, plums, red currants, raspberries, blueberries, etc….)
- Any other garnish such as mint leaves, candied or edible flowers
Preheat the oven to 110°C (non-convection). Heat some water in a saucepan. Place the egg whites and sugar in a heat-proof bowl over the boiling water, whipping at low to medium speed until the egg – sugar mixture is just hot enough to burn your finger, but no more, 120°F or 49°C. Remove from the bowl, still whipping, and continue until cooled down. This will probably take at least 5 minutes. If you have a KitchenAid, you are in luck. Otherwise, if your bowl can handle the shock, place it in cold water (not ice water) while you whip to speed up the cooling process.
Once cool, use a piping bag or a spoon to create individual size tart crusts on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicone liner. You could also make just one large tart crust if you are serving many people. Place in the oven and allow to dry out for about 1 hour and 30 minutes or more. Either prop the oven door slightly open using a wooden chopstick, or open every 30 minutes to allow humidity to escape. Once cooked to your liking, remove from the oven, but allow to cool on the cookie sheet. Meringue does not like temperature shocks.
Once completely cooled, you can put together your Pavlovas. I recommend doing this just before serving, or your sliced fruit will get droopy and the meringue will slowly soak up humidity from the cream and lose its crunch. Prepare your fruit; wash and slice however you would like.
Ideally, your mixing bowl and electric whisk attachments are cold because you have placed them in the freezer or fridge for a few minutes. The heavy whipping cream is imperatively cold, so don’t remove from the fridge until you are ready whip. Pour the cream and add the sugar and vanilla to the cold bowl. Mix on medium to medium high speed until the liquid becomes a cream. Finish on high-speed for just a few seconds. Be careful not to overwhip, or the liquid will separate from the solid and you will have butter and “petit lait.”
Spoon onto the meringue crust, cover with fruit and garnish. You could probably feed 6 to 10 people with this recipe.
This dessert pairs nicely with a sweet muscat wine, tea or coffee, and Champagne is always an option.