With a crispy meringue shell surrounding a sweet marshmallow center, a rich cream filling and a mountain of fresh seasonal fruit, Pavlovas are graceful, yet utterly intoxicating. Fitting, if you consider the fact that the eponymous dessert was named after the famed Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova during a visit to Australia or New Zealand. I say “or” because nothing drives a wedge between between Aussies and their mild-mannered cousins to the east than talk about who invented the dessert(well perhaps nothing but a match between the Wallabies and the All Blacks)
Despite their elegance, Pavlovas are relatively simple desserts, making them the perfect party confectionary (try saying that three times fast). If you store them in a sealed container in a single layer, they’ll even keep for a day or two, which means you can make the meringues ahead of time and do the final assembly before serving them to your guests.
But for a baking newbie, meringues can be intimidating. I’ve certainly had my share of epic meringue failures in my time. Here are a few tips to make sure your pavlovas turn out perfectly every time:
- Use old egg whites – I know, this is counterintuitive. To understand this, let’s talk a little bit about the science behind beating egg whites. When you whisk an egg white, the proteins unfold as they are hit with the whisk and bubbles of air. As you continue to beat them, the proteins start to form bonds and surround the air bubbles creating a foam.However, as the foam reaches its maximum volume, the proteins start forming tight sulfur bonds which force out the air and water trapped in between. This is what causes a grainy meringue that appears to be weeping water. In classic French technique you always beat egg whites in a copper bowl because the copper bonds with sulfur, preventing the proteins from forming sulfur bonds.When egg whites are fresh, the proteins start off tightly folded, which is why they’re more viscous. This makes it much more difficult to beat air into them, resulting in a foam with less volume. However, fresh eggs also contain more carbon dioxide, which makes the whites cloudy and more pH neutral. This is significant because a fresh egg is less likely to form sulfur bonds that lead to an unstable foam.Old eggs on the other hand have more relaxed proteins making them runnier and easier to beat into a foam with more volume. The trouble is that as eggs age, they release the carbon dioxide and become more alkaline, which results in a less stable foam. The trick here is to lower the pH of the egg white by adding an acid such as vinegar or cream of tartar as your meringue reaches maximum volume.Put simply you want egg whites that are old, clear, and runny. If you crack an egg open and it’s cloudy and viscous, don’t worry just throw the whites in the fridge for about a week and you’ll have some perfectly aged egg whites. Personally I tend to use the yolks more than the whites, so I always just keep a container of whites in the fridge that I add to until I have enough to make these pavlovas:-)To read more about the science of meringues (or really just about anything food related), check out Harold McGee’s book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. I don’t keep a lot of recipe books around but McGee’s recipe-less cookbook is one of the few books I can’t live without.
- Meringues hate fat – This includes, egg yolk and oil. Even a small amount of residual grease on a plastic bowl will prevent the egg whites from forming a stable foam. Use a glass bowl and make sure that both the bowl and whisk are completely fat free before adding your eggs. You also need to be very careful breaking the eggs as older eggs tend to have more delicate membranes holding the yolk together.
- Fully dissolve your sugar – Sugar that isn’t completely disolved in the egg white will result in sticky beads of syrup forming. Using superfine sugar along with a little starch helps fix this problem. The superfine sugar dissolves more readily and the starch helps the meringue retain moisture, which not only results in a more stable foam, it also prevents beading.
As fun as they are to use as a kid, the egg beater my family had when I was growing up was a piece of junk. It was hard to clean, jammed up all the time, and took forever to whip anything. When I left the house and discovered the Kitchenaid, I was forever sold on the wonders of an electric mixer. But after moving to an apartment with a kitchen too small to keep a Kitchenaid, I was pretty excited when I won an OXO Good Grips Egg Beater at the Foodbuzz festival last year.
It’s not going to knead bread dough for you, but for light duty whipping and emulsifying, the OXO beater is brilliant! It’s smooth and never jams, comes apart so it’s easy to clean, and best of all, the gearing (like on a mountain bike) makes it whip cream and eggs insanely fast. Since I don’t have a mixer it’s a lifesaver, but even if I had one, I’d probably just turn to the OXO for small batches of meringue or cream because it’s a lot easier to setup and clean, and takes about the same amount of time.
I like adding a fair amount of vanilla to my meringues, but it will turn the meringues a light tan color. If you’re really determined to have a white pavlova, leave the vanilla out.
- Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F (120 C) on convection mode. If your oven can't do convection it's fine, but you'll want to increase the heat by about 20 degrees F and you may need to bake the pavlovas longer. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Add the egg whites to a very clean glass bowl (or in the bowl of your electric mixer) and beat until it's foamy and soft peaks start to form.
- Whisk together the sugar and potato starch in a small bowl. Add the sugar mixture in 4 additions to the egg whites, beating the mixture in between each addition. If you have an electric mixer, you can just let the mixer run while you slowly pour the sugar in.
- Once the meringue is glossy and holds firm peaks (you should be able to hold the bowl upside-down without the egg whites falling), add the vanilla and vinegar and beat until well incorporated.
- If you're making a big pavlova, just scrape all the meringue into the center of the parchment paper lined baking sheet. If you're making mini pavlovas, divide the meringue into 5 small mounds, each about the same height. Give each pavlova a twirl with a spatula from the outside towards the center to give them a nice shape and put the pan in the oven.
- The pavlovas are done when the outside is crisp (about 45-60 minutes in a convection oven). Tapping on them should result in a hollow sound and the meringue shell should be at least 5mm thick, while the inside is still soft. Allow them to cool completely on a wire rack.
- To construct the pavlova, use a spoon to knock down the middle of the meringue making a well in each pavlova. Fill the shell with cream, then top with seasonal fruit of your choice. I used cherries, peaches, kiwifruit and passionfruit for mine, but strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries are also delicious.