By the mid-1920s, Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova had become such a superstar that one ardent chef-admirer created the world’s most airy dessert and named it after her. (Some say the chef was inspired by the dancer’s fluffy tutu worn during her 1926 tour.) A feathery mattress of meringue, laid with whipped cream, berries, and often kiwi fruit, Pavlova is a rare combination that is at once crunchy and soft, sweet and tart. This tantalizing dance of texture and flavor can be choreographed in 30 minutes or less, making it all the more wonderful. And, if served without the cream, it is one of few truly delicious no-fat desserts around. My version is less ballet and more zesty jig, made lively with lemon juice in the meringue and lemon curd folded into the whipped cream. Note: This recipe hails from my James Beard-nominated column for Sauce magazine.
Yield: One 10-inch diameter Pavlova, about 6 servings
Prep Talk: The meringue shell can be made ahead, but since it is mostly sugar and sugar is hygroscopic (absorbs moisture from the air), it is best stored at room temperature in an airtight container. If the meringue should still get tacky, re-dry in a low oven before serving.
- 4 large egg whites, room temperature
- 1 teaspoon white vinegar
- Pinch table salt
- 1 cup superfine sugar
- 1 teaspoon strained freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon pure lemon extract
- 2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest (about 3 lemons)
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 1 1/3 cups heavy cream
- 1/3 cup powdered sugar
- 2/3 cup lemon curd (your own or high quality store-bought; I like Stonewall Kitchen brand, because it is very thick.)
- 4 to 6 ounces fresh strawberries, hulled and quartered (about 1 to 1 1/3 cups)
- 4 to 6 ounces fresh raspberries (about 1 to 1 1/2 cups)
- 4 to 6 ounces fresh blackberries (about 1 to 1 1/2 cups)
1 | Position a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 400ºF. Trace a 7- to 8-inch diameter circle onto a piece of parchment paper. Turn the paper over and secure the edges to the backside of a 10 x 15-inch cookie sheet by placing a dab of butter or shortening in each corner.
A Dance of Textures
Photo by Steve Adams
2 | Combine the egg whites, vinegar, and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whip attachment. Beat on medium speed to soft peaks. Turn the mixer to high speed and gradually add the sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Continue to beat on high speed until the whites are thick and glossy and hold very stiff peaks, about 5 minutes.
3 | Add the lemon juice, extract, zest, and cornstarch. Beat on high speed until well combined, another 1 or 2 minutes.
4 | Immediately spoon half of the meringue into the center of the circle traced on the parchment paper. Spread it to the edges of the circle with a small offset spatula. Turn the remaining meringue into a pastry bag fitted with a large star (#849) tip, and pipe a decorative border around the meringue perimeter. Alternatively, dollop the meringue around the edge to create a free-form border.
5 | Turn the oven down to 250ºF. Bake the meringue 1 hour 20 to 25 minutes, until crisp and dry on the outside and very lightly browned. Turn off the oven, leave the door ajar, and let the meringue cool completely in the oven, approximately 1 hour.
6 | Meanwhile, combine the heavy cream and powdered sugar in a clean bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whip attachment. Beat on medium-high speed to firm peaks. Gently stir or whisk about one-quarter of the whipped cream into the lemon curd to lighten it; then fold in the remaining whipped cream. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
7 | Assemble the Pavlova just before serving. Fill the meringue cavity with the whipped cream-lemon curd mixture, and top with the various berries. Slice into wedges with a sharp knife, and serve immediately.