This delicate meringue cake is named in honor of the famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova (1882 – 1931). Pavlova performed in Perth for only one season, in 1929, to stellar reviews. A few years later the pastry chef at the hotel where she had stayed, the Esplanade, created this meringue and cream cake and named it after her, both because it is light and because it resembles a tutu. Today a “Pav,” as it is generally referred to in Australia, is that country’s national dessert par excellence. I tasted many different versions in Australia, though none as good as the one below made by my dear friend in Melbourne, food stylist Maureen McKeon.
In Australia the fruit for toping is usually passion fruit pulp or a combination of passion fruit pulp and bananas. Maureen also suggests using sliced strawberries or mixed berries in summer. A Pavlova also makes a great Passover dessert for a dairy meal if you use potato starch.
Makes one 10-inch cake, about 16 servings
1 cup (about 7 or 8 large) egg whites, at room temperature
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups sugar, divided
1 tablespoon potato starch or cornstarch
2 cups heavy whipping cream
About 1 1/2 to 2 cups fruit: passion fruit pulp, or other fruit (see above)
One cookie sheet or jelly-roll pan lined with parchment
Set a rack in the middle level of the oven and preheat to 325˚F. Trace a 10-inch circle with dark pencil on the parchment paper, and turn it over. Lightly butter the paper and sprinkle with a thin coating of starch. You should still be able to see the traced circle.
Pour the egg whites, salt, vinegar, and vanilla into the bowl of an electric mixer. Whip on medium speed with the whisk attachment until the egg whites are white, opaque, and beginning to hold a very soft peak. Increase the speed to medium high and whip in 2 cups of the sugar one tablespoon at a time, whipping for 20 to 30 seconds after each addition.
After all the sugar has been added the meringue should stand in very stiff peaks.
Remove the bowl from the mixer and quickly mix the remaining 1/2 cup of the sugar with the starch. Fold the mixture into the meringue.
Scrape the meringue out onto the prepared pan and spread it, using a medium offset spatula, into a thick straight-sided and straight-topped disk about 2 inches tall. Try to spread the meringue as evenly and symmetrically as possible, because there is no opportunity to trim it after it has baked.
Bake the meringue disk for 15 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 225˚F and bake an additional 1 1/2 hours. Turn off the oven and open the door. Cool the meringue disk in the turned-off oven. For advance preparation, keep the meringue disk loosely covered with plastic at a dry room temperature. Humid weather will soften it to a gooey mess.
To finish the Pavlova, slide the cooled meringue disk from the paper to a platter. Whip the cream and spread it evenly on the top of the meringue disk. Neatly top the whipped cream with the chosen fruit. Some of the fruit will invariably fall down the side of the dessert.
Serving: Use a sharp serrated knife to cut the Pavlova into wedges.
Storage: As you might suspect, this doesn’t keep well. Don’t throw away leftovers, but keeping them in the refrigerator will soften the meringue. If you are going to prepare the meringue disk in advance, top it with the cream and fruit at the last minute, just before you are going to serve it.