Pavlova, a Point of Contention
In the 1920’s Anna Pavlova the Russian prima ballerina was the first ballerina to tour around the world. Like many beautiful and talented women, disaster traveled in her wake. In fact, her world tour was the catalyst behind an argument between Australia and New Zealand that has lasted for almost a century.
In an attempt to honor the ballerina during her tour throughout the southern hemisphere a dessert was created, a cake that was intended to be as beautiful as the ballerina herself. Made entirely of an egg white meringue topped with chantilly cream and seasonal fruits it was white, graceful and feather-light. The dish was a huge success. In fact, it was so successful that both Australia and New Zealand claimed the rights to inventing it.
New Zealand dates its first Pavlova back to 1926 when a chef working at a hotel in Wellington created it during her tour through the country. Said to have based it off the tutu she was wearing the night he saw her, he mimicked the shape of her skirt with the meringue and the green roses adorning it were represented through slices of kiwi. The first written documentation of a Pavlova doesn’t come until a year later, however, and is nothing like the meringue we know today. A little book called Davis Dainty Dishes featured a “Pavlova” that was a sort of molded Jello. I guess they figure the name alone was a foot in the door.
Australia comes in almost a decade later, in 1935, with Chef Herbert Sachse who worked at the Hotel Esplanade, in Perth. Naming his creation after the ballerina when one diner declared it to be “as light as Pavlova”.
Upon closer examination, however, neither of these extremely competitive postcolonial members of the British Commonwealth is correct in the origin of the first true Pavlova.
It would seem that the Pavlova began life in Germany under the name of the Spanische Windtorte. Then, brought to the United States by German immigrants, it gained popularity among America’s housewives with the advent of the Dover hand cranked egg beater in the 1800s where it evolved into its final form.
The recipe finally made its way to the southern hemisphere on the back of a cornstarch box. Sorry New Zealand and Australia, I guess that sort of takes the shine off things.
Despite the true origin of the dessert, Australia and New Zealand have formed an almost violent attachment to the dish and have so thoroughly absorbed it into their countries’ personal identities that by sheer force of will it remains in their possession to this day.
The recipe for a Pavlova is surprisingly easy and is a great way to use up leftover egg whites. However, it does take a bit of patience, also known as “Forgotten Pudding” this cake is meant to sit in a turned off oven all night. Hence the “forgotten” aspect of the dish.
5 oz egg whites (4-5 eggs, cold)
1 cup caster sugar
1 tbsp cornflour / cornstarch, sifted
1 tsp white vinegar
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
Fruit of choice. I used: raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, and cherries.
-Pavlova can be temperamental so taking the precautions listed when making one is advised.
Egg whites attain the most volume if they are allowed to come to room temperature before they’re whipped. However, separating eggs is easiest when they are still cold. Separating your eggs when you first take them out of the refrigerator and allowing them to come to room temperature is probably the best method and the one I employed for this particular dish.
–Eggs can differ drastically in size so the best way to ensure your Pav works is to measure the egg whites by weight.
Preheat your oven to 340F. Place the tepid egg whites in a standing mixer, or a large high sided bowl if using a hand mixer. Egg whites will not whip in the presence of any fat so to hedge your bets wash and thoroughly dry your bowl and whisk attachment prior to whipping egg whites.
-If I have a lemon on hand I will take the extra precaution of rubbing a cut half over the whisk and interior of the bowl.
Beat on med-high until soft peaks form, then begin adding in your sugar, a tablespoon at a time. After the sugar is incorporated continue to beat until the egg whites become thick and glossy. If unsure, rub a bit of the meringue between your fingers, there should be no remaining grit from the sugar.
Add the stabilizing cornflour and vinegar, and stir until just incorporated.
On a square of Parchment Paper trace the circle of a cake pan as your template. Dab a bit of the meringue on a baking sheet to fix the parchment in place. This ensures that the paper doesn’t fly up in the oven and stick to your Pavlova.
Working with a gentle touch, place half the meringue in the middle of your template and coax it into a circle. Add the remaining meringue carefully building up its height. More stability is supposed to be gained by making it into a domed shape, but I prefer the look of a flat topped straight sided Pavlova.
Carefully place in your warmed oven and gently shut the door turning down the temperature to 210F.
–The initial high temperatures help to form the crust and stabilize meringues.
Bake for 1 ½ hours. When the Pavlova is done baking leave the oven door closed and simply turn off the heat. Leaving it in the oven to cool overnight.
Transfer to your serving platter of choice and top with your sweetened whipped cream and fruit.
-If making ahead the Meringue can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature. Putting it in the refrigerator causes the meringue to lose its crisp qualities and condensation tends to form. Hold off on assembly until just before serving.