What is a pavlova?
Pavlova is a typical dessert from New Zealand and Australia. It is a cake composed of a base of meringue that is soft inside and crispy outside, a layer of whipped cream or sometimes ice cream, and fresh fruit on top, with or without coulis. They are mainly berries like strawberries or raspberries without forgetting the king of New Zealand fruits, the kiwi.
Pavlova is very popular and is one of the most important desserts in the cuisine of both countries, where it is particularly associated with the summer, including the Christmas festivities. Indeed, in the countries of the southern hemisphere, the seasons are reversed.
There are different types of pavlova: known all over the world, the cake indeed contains fruits which can vary according to the season but also simply according to the taste of those who prepare it.
What is the origin of pavlova?
The New Zealanders and the Australians, who prepare this delicious dessert in all circumstances, and especially for the holidays, have both claims its paternity for decades, but they agree at least on one point: the name of their national dessert pays homage to Anna Matveïevna Pavlova (1881-1931) a Russian star dancer born in Saint Petersburg.
In the 1920s, during a world tour, she made several stops on the stages of the South Seas.
Anna Pavlova entered the legend thanks to her interpretation of The Dying Swan, a ballet by Michel Fokine, created for her in 1907, and inspired by the Swan, thirteenth movement of The Carnival of the Animals (Le carnaval des animaux) by Camille Saint-Saëns.
Australia and New Zealand are definitely fighting over this recipe.
According to the first, the cake was created by the chef of a Perth hotel and dates back to 1931. And for the second, the dessert was born even earlier.
The Australians say that it was Chef Herbert (Bert) Sachse who gave birth to pavlova. In the 1920s he worked as a pastry chef at the Esplanade Hotel in Perth, where Anna Pavlova stayed during her tour.
Bert Sachse saw Anna Pavlova slide on the stage, fragile and ethereal. She was white and cloudy in her tutu and Bert had never seen anyone dance with such grace.
Sachse was freediving in front of Anna Pavlova who interpreted the Dying Swan set to music by Camille Saint-Saëns, completely captivated by this tiny and graceful silhouette which swayed and fell on the stage and which rose and then collapsed forever.
Everything seemed so realistic with this swan that life left among a thousand white feathers, the silhouette was motionless on the ground and the audience and Bert Sachse were in tears.
Bert remained seated for a very long time. He had almost lost his breath knowing that this experience would pursue him in his dreams for many years. This tiny, fragile and graceful woman had lit up his inner life.
The following days, he saw her walking, constantly dressed in white, in the garden and the corridors of the hotel and followed her with the eyes of a lover, watched her move and was completely conquered by the aura that Anna Pavlova exuded.
She was a doll with a deep voice without any wrinkles who spoke a lot and liked to laugh. She loved sweets and was very greedy. Bert worked very hard to prepare pastries, cream puffs, glazed fruits and chocolates for the ballerina. He was happy as he had never been, just to know that Anna would taste his cakes laughing.
Then Anna Pavlova left Australia to return to Europe and Bert fell into a sort of depression and worked for a long time without energy looking at the garden and the corridors, imagining Anna laughing and moving.
Five years later, in January 1931, in the middle of the Australian winter, news appeared in all the newspapers of the world that Anna Pavlova had died of pneumonia.
That night, Bert dreamed of her as she was dying, frightened by a cough of pneumonia, on stage among a thousand white feathers, while a trickle of blood flowed from her mouth.
The next morning, wiping his eyes full of tears, he went to work and entered the kitchens of the hotel with the firm idea of preparing a white dessert, as hard as the end of a ballerina, but as sweet as Anna Pavlova’s movements were.
A white cake like the feathers of the dying swan and creamy like the radiance of her complexion, with a spot of red color like the disease that had killed her.
Then the meringue came to his mind and he made it and did it again but it was too hard. Then, after further attempts, he added vinegar, which changed the chemical properties of the egg white. He gave it the shape of a cake with high edges.
He put it in an oven at low temperature, around 210 F for 90 minutes. He turned the fragile meringue over, hard on the outside but soft like a marshmallow inside, and allowed it to cool.
He whipped a lot of whipping cream with which he filled the cooled meringue and over it he placed wild strawberries and raspberries recreating the cream so that the acid of the berries reminded him of the acidity of the pain that death always causes. He looked at the dessert for a long time, a deadly and painful dream called pavlova.
A very romantic story on the Australian side, but for the New Zealanders, the origins of the cake go back even further.
After careful research, it turned out that the pavlova preparation was already contained in a 1929 New Zealand cookbook.
The chef of the hotel where the ballerina had stayed in Wellington, New Zealand, is said to have created it for her in 1926.
Since then, the dessert has been declared a national specialty and the people of New Zealand never miss an opportunity to decorate the pavlova with kiwis to highlight its authorship.
But in recent years, there has been no shortage of people who, like Dr. Andrew Paul Wood, a New Zealand researcher, and Dr. Annabelle Utrecht, an Australian researcher, have said that the origins of pavlova should be traced first to Germany, then America and the United Kingdom. Indeed, there are more than 150 certificates of variants of the famous pavlova registered well before 1926.
How to make a meringue
- The meringue is a very soft base: all shapes and sizes are therefore possible.
If you don’t have a pastry ring or a removable mold, here are some ideas:
– Circle: individual or cake size. To make it perfectly round, using a large black marker, draw a circle with the desired diameter on parchment paper. Turn the parchment paper over with the ink facing down on the tray.
– Rectangle: very practical to cut.
– Nest: circle slightly hollowed in the center.
To get the right shape for your meringue, use a plate as a guide to draw an 8-inch circle on non-stick baking paper. Turn it over, with the ink facing down on the baking sheet.
- A dash of vinegar or lemon is essential to obtain a crisp meringue on the outside and a soft inside.
- Bring the eggs to room temperature before separating them. Cold egg white takes longer to beat, so it doesn’t incorporate as much air.
- To make sure that no yolk gets into the egg white, separate the eggs one at a time before transferring them to the bowl. If there is yolk in the egg white, do not use it.
- Beat the egg whites in a dry container until firm peaks form.
- To make the meringue shiny and firm, gradually incorporate the sugar.
- To test if the sugar is dissolved, rub the mixture between your fingers. If it looks grainy, continue beating until the mixture is smooth and shiny.
- Make sure utensils are dry before you start. The humidity prevents the aeration of the egg white, so the meringue may not rise at all. Do not use a plastic container as it retains moisture.
- Use caster sugar rather than crystal sugar; its texture is finer and dissolves more easily. Any undissolved sugar can ruin the texture of the meringue.
- Leave the meringue in the oven after baking, with the door closed, to cool and dry completely.
In Oceania, they are still fighting over the creation of this cake but it doesn’t matter where it comes from, the main thing is to bite into it. Pavlova is a joy for the eyes and an overflow of flavors for the palate.
- 5 egg whites
- 1 cup icing sugar
- ½ cup caster sugar
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 2 tablespoons white vinegar
- 1 vanilla pod
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- Fruits (e.g. kiwis and strawberries)
- Food coloring (optional)
Preheat oven to 200F/90C. Spread butter and sugar the edges of a springform pan.
- Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt, while slowly adding sugars, cornstarch, vinegar, and the seeds extracted from the vanilla bean.
- Beat until stiff peaks form. The meringue should be shiny and firm.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Place the springform pan on the parchment paper (or on the removable base).
- Using a pastry bag, form meringue sticks (or other shape) around the springform pan.
Coat the entire bottom with a thick layer of meringue (about 2 in/5cm). Make sure to create a well where the cream will be placed after cooking.
- Bake for 2 hours.
- Turn off the oven and leave the meringue inside until completely cooled.
- Unmold the meringue gently and set aside.
- Whip the heavy cream while gradually adding coloring and vanilla extract.
- Spread the whipped cream on the meringue with a spatula or a pastry bag.
- Place fruits on top (kiwis, strawberries or others).