After pie, the dessert His Lordship most often requests is pavlova. And, because I adore meringue in all its forms, from cookie to pie topping, the only time I say no is when the weather is so rainy or humid that working with egg whites is a recipe for failure.
Since yesterday was gorgeously sunny and mild, I readily agreed when he made the request yesterday during the weekly grocery run. My agreement was bolstered by the fact that we were in the produce section and I had spotted rhubarb, which finally convinced me that this ungodly winter is finally behind us. As we’ve established, I love all kinds of tart red fruit, but I have a special soft spot for rhubarb (technically not a fruit, but if it quacks like a duck…) because, like asparagus, it’s the earliest spring produce, bringing with it promises of berries, tomatoes, corn and peaches to come.
If you’ve never had one before, I suppose you could describe pavlova as the ultimate meringue. Unlike the cookie, pavlovas are not crisp all the way through, just on the outside. Underneath a thin, crackly exterior, the inside stays melting and soft, like a flourless angel food cake or the most delicate marshmallow. This already-lovely meringue base is then topped with whipped cream and whichever fresh fruit you fancy. It’s usually made as one giant cake-like disk that is served in wedges, but unless I’m making it for a big crowd of dinner guests, I prefer to make individual-sized ones.
These mini-pavlovas were topped with a compote of rhubarb stewed with a bit of orange peel and spiked with Triple Sec, then mixed with uncooked blackberries and strawberries. The berries were obviously not local, but after all those months of cold and snow and misery, I just really needed them. If you’re more virtuous than I am, you can just hang on to this recipe until they start coming up where you are.
(Adapted from Mini-Pavlovas in Nigella Lawson’s How to Be a Domestic Goddess and Stewed Rhubarb in Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone)
Makes 9 individual-sized pavlovas
For the meringues:
4 large egg whites
Pinch of salt
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon white wine or cider vinegar
For the fruit:
3/4 pound rhubarb, sliced in 1-inch pieces
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon dried orange peel or zest of one fresh orange
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons Triple Sec or other orange liqueur
1 pint each strawberries and blackberries
For the cream:
1 pint heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Preheat the oven to 350 F and line a baking sheet with parchment.
In a scrupulously clean mixer bowl and with an equally spotless whisk attachment, beat the egg whites and the pinch of salt until firm, but not stiff, peaks form. Continue beating, gradually adding the sugar by the spoonful, until you achieve a satiny meringue. Gently fold in the cornstarch, vanilla and vinegar until just combined.
Using an ice cream scoop or two large spoons, drop the meringue into nine equal mounds on the sheet. Use a spoon to smooth the mounds into round, flat-topped disks around four inches in diameter.
Put the meringues in the oven and immediately lower the heat to 300 F. Bake for 30 minutes, until they’re crisping on the outside but otherwise still pale and marshmallowy. Turn the oven off and leave them for another 30 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool.
While the meringues are baking and cooling, combine the rhubarb, 1/3 cup sugar, orange peel and water in a medium saucepan and simmer until the rhubarb is tender but still intact, approximately 10 minutes. When the rhubarb has cooled to room temperature, hull and quarter the strawberries and stir into the rhubarb with the Triple Sec and blackberries.
In a mixer or by hand with a whisk, beat the cream with the sugar until softly whipped.
To assemble the pavlovas, flip a meringue belly-up onto a plate, and dollop with the cream. Top with the rhubarb compote and berries. Serve immediately.
Since pavlovas are so popular around here, I generally make enough of these mini ones to eat over the course of two or three days. Once baked, the meringues will keep quite well in an airtight container for that long, and if they do get soft, you can crisp them back up for about 30 minutes in an oven preheated to 300 F and then turned off.
If that’s still too much meringuey goodness for your needs, the recipe can easily be halved to make 4-5 individual pavlovas.
The color on my meringues is a sign that I am long overdue for getting a new oven thermometer. Like meringue cookies, pavlovas should really be snowy white, in homage to the tulle costumes of ballerina Anna Pavlova, for whom the dessert was invented. My oven is having issues in the mid range, because I’m finding it a little too slow from 350 and up, and now it’s clearly too high from 325 down. The browning doesn’t affect the taste, but it does throw the aesthetics off, at least until you pile the cream over it.