Say the name Pavlova, and it means one thing to lovers of ballet: the Russian dancer Anna Pavlova, who was an international sensation more than a century ago. But in Britain, Australia, and other parts of the world, pavlova is admired for another reason. It’s a favorite—and potentially luscious—dessert, inspired by the legendary ballerina.
Pavlova is believed to have been invented when Anna Pavlova toured Australia and New Zealand in 1926 (Aussies claim ownership, as do the Kiwis). The dessert is basically a baked meringue, made from egg whites, powdered sugar, and cornstarch, with a crispy exterior and marshmallow-like interior. It’s filled with whatever strikes the maker’s fancy, then slathered with whipped cream.
The swirl of the meringue supposedly mimicked the movement of Pavlova’s tutu, and its lightness was meant to exemplify her airy twirls on stage. In reality, some culinary historians believe filled-meringue desserts originated in Germany well before Pavlova headed to the Pacific, but that isn’t nearly as romantic a tale.
Pavlova is so popular Down Under that even Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, whips it up on occasion—although she suffered a Christmas day disaster with her pavlova last year when it cracked coming out the oven. (Her fix: a ton of fruit filling and a ladle of whipped cream.)
Even though Pavlova herself had a large following in the United States, pavlova has never been as popular a dessert here, even though it’s certainly simple to make.
What I prize about pavlova is its versatility. You can make one large pavlova, which is sure to impress a party crowd, or individual ones, which give each person their own eye-catching dessert.
I have several sources for pavlova here in Ann Arbor, including Zingerman’s Bakehouse, where the meringues are on display at Christmas and Easter among the layer cakes, cheesecakes, and pies.
Managing partner Amy Emberling, who hails from Canada, says one secret ingredient in her pavlova is a teaspoon of vinegar.
Since the pavlova base is white, you might naturally use white vinegar, but she says any type of light-colored vinegar will do.
The vinegar isn’t there for flavor: it’s to help keep the egg whites from collapsing.
Another important element is to bake the meringue at a low temperature. Emberling recommends preheating the oven to around 300 degrees Fahrenheit, placing the meringue in the oven, then immediately turning the temperature down to 250 degrees.
The meringue needs to cool in the oven after cooking; you can leave it in overnight, or for just a few hours.
No matter which size you make, you will want to make your pavlova look as dramatic as possible, and to me, that means filling it with fruit.
Any type of juicy fruit is ideal, such as strawberries, raspberries, figs, citrus varieties, pomegranates, and blueberries. Mango makes a wonderful filling, and a colorful one, particularly when combined with kiwi. I’d stay away from firmer fruits, like apples and pears, although you can mix them into a fruit salad and use that to top the meringue.
If you’re using just one type of fruit, like berries, think about crushing a portion of it to create a sauce for the fruits you leave intact. Although you might be tempted to sweeten the filling, remember that the meringue itself will be very sweet, and you’ll also be adding that cloud of whipped topping.
One of the sexiest pavlovas I ever saw used passion fruit, which oozed over the sides of the base.
Of course, you can toss your fruit in alcohol, such as rum, brandy, or a liqueur such as Grand Marnier or Sambuca Romano, before filling the meringue.
Fledgling pavlova makers may wonder what might happen if there are leftovers. Yes, a filled meringue will keep a few hours in the fridge.
Be warned, however: the fruit will soak into the meringue, the concoction could start to sink, and you’ll be left with something akin to an Eton Mess, which is a mixture of meringue, fruit, and whipped cream.
It will still taste fine, even if it doesn’t look as impressive. But that’s an argument in favor of making individual meringues, about the size of a large cookie. Once these have completely cooled, you can store them for several days in an airtight container, and then fill them when the fancy for pavlova strikes.
Officially called cream and crunch meringues, Dorie Greenspan’s individual pavlovas are perfect for a romantic dessert. (And if you’d like to serve a Dorie dessert buffet, there are plenty of additional ideas in her new cookbook, Baking With Dorie.)
For the pavlovas:
- 3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
- 3 large egg whites, at room temperature
- 1/2 teaspoon distilled white vinegar (or 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar)
- Pinch fine sea salt
- Red food coloring (optional)
For the filling:
- 1 1/2 cups cold heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (optional)
- Red food coloring (optional)
- About 3 tablespoons red jam (optional)
- 6 ounces fresh raspberries
- Mint leaves, for garnish (optional)
Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 250F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or a silicone liner. Have a tablespoon and a bowl of cold water nearby.
Push the tablespoon of granulated sugar and all the confectioners’ sugar through a strainer (to sift it) into a small bowl.
Combine the egg whites, vinegar and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer; beat on medium-high speed for several minutes, until the whites thicken and hold soft peaks.
Gradually add the granulated sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating after each spoonful goes in. Once it’s added, beat for 2 minutes more.
To color the meringue, put a heaping spoonful of the meringue in a separate small bowl and add a few drops of color, stirring to blend, and then fold the colored meringue into the large amount of white meringue.
Scoop or spoon 5 or 6 balls of meringue onto each baking sheet. (Greenspan uses a 3-tablespoon cookie scoop.) Make sure to leave about 2 inches between each mound.
Bake both trays without opening the oven for one hour and 15 minutes. The pavlovas will puff and will probably crack. Turn off the oven and use a wooden spoon to prop open its door (partially). Leave the meringues in the oven for 2 hours or up to overnight.
For the filling, beat the heavy cream on low, then medium-high speed for several minutes, until soft peaks form. Add the confectioners’ sugar a little at a time, and then the vanilla extract, if using. Add the food coloring a drop at a time. Finish beating the cream until it’s firm enough to hold its shape.
Put a dab of jam in the base of each nest. Scoop or spoon whipped cream into the hollow and in a mound on top of the puff. Finish by pressing raspberries into the cream. Garnish some berries with mint leaves.
Serve immediately. The pavlovas will keep about four hours in the fridge, where they will soften (some people prefer this to crisp).