Monday, June 29, 2009

From Anna to Leah - Pavlova, or Meringue Cake

The first time I ate at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, I was with my parents. The meal was wonderful of course, perfectly executed, as one would expect. But the highlight of it all was the dessert. Single servings of pavlova with fresh mango and kiwi, a dish my grandmother used to make on a regular basis. It was sweet nostalgia on a plate. Hers were small cookie-like treats, served in a bowl and covered in raspberry sauce. Airy and sugary confections that cracked under a spoon and melted on the tongue.

We were delighted with our single serving pavlova's and begged our waiter for more details. He then explained the story behind the impressive looking dessert, which I had never heard before. It was created and named for the famous Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova during the 1920's, in either New Zealand or Australia (a source of great debate to this day between the two). After a riveting performance she sat down with friends to a multi-course dinner. By the time dessert rolled around, she was stuffed, but she was also known for her sweet tooth and was never one to pass up dessert (my kind of ballerina). So she asked for something light, not too filling, something with fruit. The chef obliged, and the Pavlova was born.

And thank goodness, because it is one of the easier desserts to make, but you would never know that just by looking at it. It gives the impression of having anti-gravity properties, puffing up and then cracking apart in the most delicate way. It's the kind of dessert that leaves an indelible impression. The kind you might want to make for some big event...

I made three, count 'em, three birthday confections for Leah's Birthday Dinner, as evidenced by that first picture. It's a feat that sounds much harder than it was, when you consider how easy they all were to make. Especially the Pavlova. Whip up some egg whites and sugar, throw it in the over and you're basically done. Then you can pretend exhaustion and intense labor when you unveil the finished product! Sigh heavily and tell them it nearly did you in. Then sit back with the Birthday Girl and have someone else cut you a piece.

I obviously lied when I said I would stop with the cake recipes. In fact, I will never make such a ridiculous promise again! In a completely brazen turn of events, I will be posting yet another cake recipe this week. So prepare yourselves!

Thanks to Brian for the fantastic photos!

Pavlova, or, Meringue Cake
adapted from The Joy of Baking

4 large egg whites
1 cup superfine (castor) sugar
1 tsp white vinegar
1/2 tbsp cornstarch

1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 1/2 tbsp white sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

preheat the oven to 250 and place a rack in the center. Line a baking sheet with parchment and draw a 7 inch circle onto the parchment.

Attach an electric mixer with the whisk attachment. In the bowl of the mixer, beat the egg whites on medium speed until the hold soft peaks. Add the sugar one tbsp at a time until well-combined. Test the mixture with your fingers, if it still feels gritty from the sugar, continue to mix. Keep beating until the mixture feels smooth. The meringue should be holding stiff peaks at this point.

Sprinkle the vinegar and the cornstarch over the mixture and fold in with a rubber spatula. Gently spread the mixture onto the parchment in the circle. Smooth the edges and make sure they are higher than the center of the meringue. You want to have an indented center so that it will hold the whipped cream.

Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until the outside is dry and takes on a pale cream color. Turn the oven off and leave the door slightly ajar. Let the meringue cool completely in the oven. As it cools, it will crack a bit. The inside will be the consistency of a marshmallow.

Top with whipped cream and fruit of your choice.

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