Yes, pavlova is taking over the foodblogging world this month. Something about strawberries and Easter is inspiring pavlovas left and right. Deb, Elise, and Adrienne are already on board, just to name a few, so guess I’ll throw my meringue disk into the ring as well.
I have faint memories of my mom making this incredible spring dessert for Easter when I was younger, but it’s been years since she made one. When my sister, who doesn’t like strawberries (!!!), reminded me that pavlova exists and is great, I somehow became fixated on the gorgeous little things. I had to make one. And then I had to make it again. And then just once more, you know, for good measure. For me, a perfect pavlova has a beautiful, cream-colored crispy crackly crust concealing a soft, succulent, marshmallowy center. Breaking the crust of a perfect pavlova is enormously satisfying, in the same way that cracking a perfect creme brulee crust is. (Have you seen Amelie?) And once you top that crusty cloud with gooey whipped cream and tangy berries, it becomes a mouthgasm on a whole new level. As my dad said, it’s just stupidly good.
After my usual scouring of the internets for recipes and tips, I settled on a classical recipe from Epicurious for ingredient proportions, though I ended up changing it slightly. I also amalgamated various tips for mixing methods and baking times, and I think I’ve come up with a solid method. The recipe I’ll include below calls for six egg whites, and I used it to make six individual pavlovas. Granted, when you set one of these, uhm, babies down in front of someone, they’ll likely say “Good lord, child, have you lost your mind? There’s no way I can eat that mountain!” But when you clear away the plates, you’ll be hard pressed to find so much as a crumble of meringue or dab of whipped cream. They’ll eat it, no problemo.
Now, the meringue is a bit of a finicky thing. Like a shy preteen, it’s liable to crack or weep if you don’t treat it properly. Cracking is no catastrophe, since it will be camouflaged with mounds of whipped cream and truckloads of strawberries, but a soggy pav is a sad pav. There are lots of theories about baking times and temperatures orchestrated to achieve that perfectly crispy crust and marshmallowy interior, without cracking or browning or weeping. I have a few thoughts on the matter. For the record, in a concise, clean format, here are some tips for making a perfect pavlova:
- use scrupulously clean utensils (keeps them fluffy)
- beat the whites to soft peaks before adding the sugar (keeps them from weeping)
- add the sugar slowly (same)
- make individual portions (keeps them from browning)
- use enough, but not too much, initial heat, plus partial cool-down in the oven (keeps them from cracking)
- know your oven (keeps you from freaking)
The first and third batches of pavlova that I made were individual portions, while the second was one big monster pavlova. The individual pavlovas are much easier to handle in the oven. The size and surface-to-interior ratio make the baking much simpler. With a large pavlova, you have to be very careful not to brown the crust, but you want to be sure that it’s cooked through in the middle. A delicate dance with your oven, I must say. I found it much, much easier to control the individual pavlovas, and both times the baking method I employed resulted in perfectly crispy, gorgeously cream colored crust, which had that enormously satisfying crunch. Another bonus benefit of the individual portions is adaptability. With a big pav, once you’ve put the cream and berries on it, it’s done for and you’d best eat it right away. With individual pavs, you can use as many or as few of the meringues as you please, saving the others for the next night (or morning, as the case would be for my father).
Individual Strawberry Pavlovas
adapted from, well, everywhere
6 egg whites, at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp white vinegar
1 1/2 tsp cornstarch
1 1/3 cups baker’s sugar
3 pints strawberries
2 tbs Grand Marnier
1 cup heavy whipping cream
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a half sheet pan with aluminum foil and spray lightly with vegetable oil cooking spray.
Combine egg whites, vanilla, vinegar, and cornstarch in a large bowl or the bowl of a standing mixer. Whip, using either a standing mixer or a handheld mixer, until soft peaks form. Now slowly incorporate the sugar, whipping all the time. Continue beating the mixture until stiff peaks form. Spoon the mixture into six evenly-sized mounds on the prepared pan. Smooth the tops decoratively.
Put the pan in the oven and immediately lower the temperature to 250 degrees. Bake until the pavlovas are crisp on the outside but still tender on the inside, about 45 minutes. Check on them periodically (through the glass, if possible), to be sure that they are not browning or cracking. If they are doing either, lower the heat by 25 degrees. You may have to add some cooking time if you lower the temperature. Now, when the pavlovas seem crisp but still tender on the outside, turn off the oven, leaving the pan in the oven with the door closed. Leave the pavlovas to cool in the cooling oven with the door closed for 30 minutes. Then open the oven door partially and leave for 10 additional minutes. Now remove the pan from the oven and carefully transfer the pavlovas to a rack to cool completely. If you allow them to cool completely on the pan, they are liable to stick. The cooking spray is a bit of insurance against this.
Trim the stems and leaves from the strawberries and cut the berries in halves or quarters, depending on their size. Put the cut strawberries in a bowl and add the Grand Marnier. Stir to coat and leave to macerate at room temperature for at least one and up to six hours, stopping by to stir them every once in a while.
Just before you’re ready to serve the pavlovas, whip the cream. Place each pavlova on a plate and top each with a sixth of the whipped cream and then a sixth of the berries. Serve immediately.