Friday, May 9, 2014

Guest Post: The Pavlova

Please welcome my dear friend, Alissa Herbaly Coons. Alissa is the one who introduced me to sauerkraut and double baked almond croissants while we both still lived in Canada. She is a writer and mother among other things and has spent just a little bit of time this past year as the project architect of she: true stories, ordinary and extraordinary, a Newcastle area community portrait project. 

Alissa got this recipe and post together for us a long while back, but it never seemed like the right moment, until now. All of the sudden the strawberries are bright and ready around here (great on pavlova!), Mother's Day is days away, and many of my good friends are in the throes of second baby life, including Alissa!. And so: Happy (American) Mother's Day, Alissa. Thank you for your word work - here and elsewhere - and for this recipe. Pavlova will surely be on our table come Sunday!

The Pavlova by Alissa Herbaly Coons

A year ago, we left Canada for Australia.

We knew we would leave Waterloo before we moved there. Ace’s position was temporary. We were supposed to be there 18 months, and then stayed an extra year. During the bonus year I came into good friends and grew comfortable and even happy being surrounded by farmland instead of mountains. I never intended to fall in love with Ontario, but it happened anyway—in large part because it was where our daughter was born, where, with one mouthful after another of good local food, I grew her from embryo to two-year-old. The St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market was right up the road, and from our first winter visit onward, it offered a succession of snow-sweetened Brussels sprouts, winter apples, bouquets of beets and carrots and lettuce, tomatoes, leeks, whole flats of same-day strawberries and Niagara peaches. Amazing lamb sausages. Raw sauerkraut. Hand-rendered goose fat.

We packed for the move during strawberry season and went to the market for fruit and meat up to the last possible moment. It was all so good. Who knew what waited for us on the other side? Ace had been in Oz for a total of three days for his interview and hadn’t noticed the food. At a farewell party hosted by my friend Cara, I had a taste of things to come: my first Pavlova.

It was a thing of beauty: A snowfield of meringue—lofty, billowing, at the last moment chewy like compressed cotton candy. Above that, a spreading mound of whipped cream. Above that, a confetti mix of strawberries and kiwis scattered and layered, swimming, trickling, bleeding tart juices into the cream. It took up the better part of an entire cookie sheet. There were piles of other snacks at the party, but I can only remember the Pavlova. After loading the base with cream and fruit, Cara sliced it into enormous wedges and passed me a towering plateful. I sat on the couch among new-old friends, and ate through at least two plates of Pavlova. It crunched. It slipped. It swirled and tasted of sweet Ontario strawberries and cream.

I’ve been in Australia for more than 10 months now. Even more than kangaroo steak or bacon egg rolls, the Pavlova tastes like Australia to me. The Pavlova is both island and continent. Nevermind that it was probably invented in New Zealand.

The Pavlova is the reason—after a six-month abstention from most things that plug in—that I purchased a hand mixer. Since coming here, I’ve tasted at least three other people’s Pavlovas. Since I picked up the mixer, I’ve tried making it with three different recipes on my own. The ones that taste best to me are the ones that most resemble Cara’s—with the meringue crunchy and airy instead of spongy or foamy. Our first local Pavlova (referred to as “the Pavs” by the woman who served it) was a store-bought replacement base for a homemade one that burned up. Making Pavlova can be a delicate and hazardous task. Bec redeemed the store meringue with a pile of kiwi, strawberries and fresh passion fruit pulp, and a dairy product I’ve only ever seen in Australia: double cream. It’s basically what it sounds like. Just imagine the silky sumptuousness of a 51% milk-fat cream product. Mostly due to the double cream, we ate the leftovers for breakfast.

After that incident, I looked closer at the Pavlova-related articles in the supermarket. There are a few ready-made products that apply to Pavlova, but nothing you can’t probably do better from scratch at home.

Later on, I expect to experiment with cocoa powder and pistachios and other grown-up variations on the Pavs. For now I present you the basic love.


This recipe is an adaptation of Cara’s, Bec’s, and the “classic recipe” on the back of the cornflour (aka cornstarch) box.

3-4 egg whites (One of Cara’s sources insists these should be room-temp. I’ve used cold eggs, with no seeming ill effect.)
a pinch of salt
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornflour (corn starch)
1 teaspoon lemon juice or vinegar (cider or white wine vinegar)
If you happen to like a moist, spongy meringue, add 3 Tbs of water to the eggs at the start. Just don’t tell me.

Preheat the oven to 350 F/180 C.

Trace a large circle that is anywhere from 7”-30 cm on a piece of parchment paper. This will approximate the size of your finished disc. Check this against your intended serving dish before you commit to a diameter.

Place your parchment on a large baking tray. I’ve successfully not greased the paper a number of times, but if you want a guaranteed easy removal, grease your paper.

Some people use a spring-form pan at this stage to control the spread, especially if you happen to double the recipe for a crowd. I like the asymmetry of the hand-sculpted variety, plus it makes for fewer dishes to wash.

Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until the whites are firm. Continuing to beat, gradually add the sugar, one spoon at a time, until stiff peaks form. Fold in cornstarch and vinegar/lemon.

Spoon the mixture onto your baking tray, keeping within the circle and building up the meringue into a smooth-topped mound.

Bake 5 minutes, then reduce the heat to 300 F/150 C. Bake for about one more hour, watching for the peaks to turn golden. Turn oven off, prop open the door, and leave to cool as long as possible. Bec’s mother-in-law makes hers the night before and lets it cool all night.

I have not had such foresight/restraint, and so my Pavs frequently crack during the cooling stage due to rapid temperature change. The Pavlova is going to fracture anyway when you add the toppings and slice it, but I can see the sense of accomplishment to be had when your Pavlova reaches the table intact.

Alternate baking instructions:
Bake 2 hours at 225 F, and leave in the oven to cool.

Serve topped with whipped cream and freshly sliced fruit. If you want a more compact Pavlova, carefully trim a circle in the top with a small sharp knife, lightly press the circle down, then fill with cream and fruit.

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