Pavlova, despite its Slavic-sounding name, has roots Down Under. Actually, both Australia and New Zealand lay claim to it, offering equally convincing accounts of its creation in honor of the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, who toured both countries in the 1920s.
THERE’S LITTLE in this world I’m as dead set against as diet-friendly desserts. If I’m on a diet (which, let’s face it, in this line of work I frequently am), I skip dessert. If I want dessert, the last thing I can abide is rubbery angel food cake or the noxious feat of chemical engineering called “light” ice cream.
For many years I lumped meringue in this category, too — not, of course, when it tops a lemon pie or provides the backbone to a cream-laden semifreddo, but when it’s baked to a crisp and served as-is: chalky and vapid. Like most desserts touted as the way for the weight-conscious to have our cake and eat it, too, I never felt meringue was worth even the few fat-free calories it contains.
All that was before I tasted pavlova, though. Pavlova is to meringue what foie gras is to liverwurst: such an improvement on the concept that it’s hard to believe the two are related. Furthermore, in pavlova’s case, the lack of fat is a benefit rather than a liability, because it allows you to dispense with the guilt you’d normally feel at consuming such an obscenely large amount of whipped cream. Think of it as the dessert equivalent of ordering a diet soda with your double bacon cheeseburger. It doesn’t exactly make the whole thing healthful, but at least you feel more virtuous.
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But I’m getting ahead of myself. What is a pavlova? Like I said, it’s meringue, but neither the crunchy, dry-as-dust variety nor the fluffy pie topping we know in this country. It’s somewhere in between, a thick disc of crackling crust containing a cloud of airy, marshmallowy softness. It’s admittedly sweet — very sweet — but that’s OK, because you wouldn’t dream of eating it without a generous crown of unsugared whipped cream and fresh fruit. Although it’s a simple dish both in composition and appearance, its brilliant use of contrasts — crisp with soft, tangy with sweet, rich with lean — makes for one of the most sublime eating experiences I know. And believe me, that’s praise I usually reserve for far naughtier things.
The pavlova, despite its Slavic-sounding name, has roots Down Under. Actually, both Australia and New Zealand lay claim to it, offering equally convincing accounts of its creation in honor of the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, who toured both countries in the 1920s. Nobody’s quite sure whether she ever tasted her namesake creation, but what is beyond dispute is that the dessert occupies pride of place at just about every warm-weather celebration (including Christmas, which of course down there is a summer holiday) in both places.
For us, though, the perfect time to enjoy a pavlova is right now, as all our beautiful Northwest fruits come into season. They’re really the whole point of this dessert, so choose the absolute best you can find.
I’ve used strawberries here, but everything from peaches and plums to berries and cherries are spectacular, either alone or in combination. The other components are adaptable, too; the meringue can be left plain or flavored, as I’ve done here with pistachios and cardamom, and the cream can be lightened with yogurt or enriched with mascarpone. You can even make individual-sized pavlovas, which make a lovely end to a more elegant meal.
For all this dessert’s flexible, easygoing nature, though, there is one catch: pavlova absolutely, positively must be assembled at the last minute before serving and once topped must be finished in one sitting. But that last part really isn’t hard, since a positive feature of all that diet-friendliness is just how many servings effortlessly fit in.
Melissa Kronenthal is a freelance food writer and photographer.
Pistachio-Cardamom Pavlova with Fresh Strawberries
Butter, for the parchment paper
1 cup raw, unsalted, shelled pistachios, divided
1 1/2 cups superfine sugar, plus more for the berries
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
6 large egg whites (3/4 cup), at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
Pinch of salt
2 pints fresh strawberries
Sugar, to taste
2 cups heavy cream, cold
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Toast the pistachios in the oven for 8 to 10 minutes, or until just fragrant. Cool and chop finely; set aside. Lightly butter a piece of parchment paper and place it on a cookie sheet.
2. To make the meringue, stir together the sugar, cornstarch and cardamom in a small bowl until no lumps remain. In another bowl, use an electric mixer on high speed to beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar and salt until they form soft peaks. Gradually beat in the sugar mixture, a tablespoon at a time, allowing about 5 minutes to incorporate it all. Continue to beat for 2 more minutes. The mixture should be extremely stiff. Carefully fold in 3/4 of the chopped pistachios.
3. Spoon the meringue onto the parchment in the shape of a disc approximately 9 inches in diameter, building the sides up higher than the middle like a bird’s nest. Put the pavlova in the oven and immediately reduce the temperature to 250 degrees. Bake for 2 hours, or until the pavlova is crisp on the outside and soft and marshmallowy in the middle. Don’t worry if it cracks. Turn off the oven, prop the door ajar and allow it to cool completely. When cool, carefully remove it from the parchment and store, wrapped in plastic, for up to three days.
4. Just before serving, hull and halve or quarter the strawberries. If they’re tart, sweeten them with a tablespoon or two of sugar. Whip the cream and vanilla to soft peaks. Place the pavlova on a large plate, mound the cream in the center and spoon the strawberries over the top. Sprinkle evenly with the remaining chopped pistachios. Serve immediately, cut in wedges like a cake.