Ever since my neighbor and dear friend Meghan showed me how to make pavlova, I have been mildly obsessed with the process of making the lightest, fluffiest, sweetest, prettiest pavlova I can imagine. It’s just so fun. You get to create a puffy pillowy cloud heaven and then sweeten it and serve it to people you love.
For those of you who are new to pavlova, it is basically light, sweet egg white decadence baked into a pile of cloudy sweetness and usually topped with piles of whipped cream and fresh berries or tropical fruit. It has a light, crispy exterior and a soft interior. It is a dessert that my New Zealand friend tells me originated in New Zealand, and it was created in honor of the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova.
For a fun description of the difference between a meringue, which is crisp all the way through, and pavlova, which is soft on the inside, hop on over to The Difference Between to read their descriptions.
One of the things I love about pavlova is that it is so impressively delicious, but really requires so few ingredients. I have access to endless amounts of beautiful eggs from our chickens, and plenty of fruit options on the vines nearby, so if I want to make dessert I just hop out to the hen house and send the kids on a foraging adventure.
Last week, the kids were away at camp for the first time ever. Brian and I had more alone time on our hands than we have had in 10 years. We worked on projects, talked without interruption, went out to dinner and on long walks, and remembered what it was like when it was just the two of us.
One of those days we went on a wild berry adventure, bucket in one hand and our dog leash in the other, following the network of trails through our neighborhood in search of wild berries: Red huckleberries, orange salmon berries, and boysenberries. I knew we would return home and round out the selection with the marionberries, strawberries, and blueberries growing on our property.
(And yes I am suggesting that a perfect pavlova experience might involve a sunny afternoon trail walk foraging for berries while holding the hand of A Good Man. It just might.)
Wild huckleberries have always meant summer to me. As a child, my sister and I picked piles of red ones in glass jars and made huckleberry potions, sweet syrups, and jam. But mainly we piled them into our palms and ate them by the fistful. During summer vacations in McCall, Idaho, we spent hours searching through wild blue huckleberry shrubs noshing on blue huckleberries all summer long by McCall Lake.
The flavor of blue huckleberries is more sweet than the red ones, which are more tart. To me, the red huckleberry tastes of sunshine and summer, with a hint of forest and vine. For our walk, we foraged for the red ones.
When we arrived home with a small bucket of berries, I gathered fresh eggs and then hopped into the kitchen and preheated the oven to 300-degrees fahrenheit. (Do not use the convection feature; the fan can ruin your pavlova by turning it into a still-tasty, but very flat pavlova. No bueno. No fan.)
Begin making your pavlova by separating the whites from the yolks of 7 eggs into a large stainless steel bowl. Do not let even a little wisp of egg yolks into your precious egg whites. If a wisp makes it in, remove it or start over. I always add a pinch of Kosher salt before mixing. You’ll find lots of disagreement about this, but I have tried it with and without a pinch of salt multiple times and each time it thickens better with the salt. I use a hand mixer with a metal whisk on a level 6 or 7, or just beyond medium, but I’m sure you could use a stand mixer, too.
First, whip the egg whites for as long as it takes to get them to stay on the end of the whisk. The first recipe I read said around 3 minutes. It takes longer than that for me. This might be because I use fresh eggs; I’ve read that older eggs have runnier whites that are easier to separate and whisk. But really there seem to be so many variables that I have become a bit of an superstitious kitchen witch, really, when it comes to pavlova. I usually stand at the counter for a good long time moving the electric whisk gently around the bowl trying not to let it ricochet off of the stainless steel sides. Egg whites turn into foam because the whisk separates the egg white proteins and builds in air between the proteins. I’m trying to build up the air pockets, not knock them down, so I do it all quite delicately and kindly at the beginning. When the whites start to transform into a thick white foam, I turn the mixers up to a level 8 and continue whisking. And because the first time I made meringue scared the bejesus out of me, I have included a number of photos here of the final stages of making egg whites thicken from their original runny state. You can mainly see the progress here by comparing the increasing volume across the images.
When the egg whites are so thick that they stay within the confines of the whisk when it’s held up at a 90-degree angle, add a teaspoon of vanilla extract and thoroughly whisk it in, and then begin to add 1-1/2 cups of baker’s sugar very, very slowly.
This is important: It needs to be baker’s sugar, also called caster sugar, superfine sugar, or cake sugar. This is different from powdered sugar or standard granulated sugar.
This is also important: Patience. Add only one tablespoon of baker’s sugar at a time, whisking continuously to fully incorporate the single tablespoon into the entire mix each time. Slowly turn the whisk onto full speed (level 10 for me). Keep doing this for the entire 1-1/2 cups of sugar. Really. I know from experience that you just need to do the time here or it won’t firm up like you’d like it to. I find that having a kid helper makes this more fun; Cora stood by me and sprinkled each tablespoon of sugar into the bowl while chattering away about her recent news. The sugar slowly thickens the egg whites into a glossy, firm pillow of clouds that begins to give resistance to the whisk and holds tall peaks on its own. (Fair warning: This stage can take longer than most recipes say it does, and it’s different for everyone.)
At this point, voila! you’ve made it through your whipping magic and you’ve created your beautiful white pavlova base, and you can add 1 teaspoon of lemon juice or wine vinegar and pop it in the oven, unless you want to play around with flavor additions.
In some ways, the decision to add other ingredients your pavlova can even be a visual one as well as a flavor one; not only does a pure vanilla pavlova highlight the flavor of fresh berries or fruit, rather than compete with it, sometimes a pure white pavlova just looks so gorgeous alongside a pile of whipped cream and berries. Other times you might be craving the richness and more formal appearance of a dark chocolate, with a flavor akin to a flourless chocolate cake, albeit much lighter and fluffier.
For this pavlova, I wanted something with a bit of a crumb, and I’ve become addicted to my neighbor Meghan’s chocolate pavlova. I added 1 teaspoon of balsamic vinegar, 3 Tablespoons of cacao powder, 1 cup of chopped semi-sweet chocolate, and 1 cup of ground toasted hazelnuts. I folded everything gently into the egg white mixture.
When all ingredients are incorporated (meaning: it’s not perfectly, exactly, precisely combined; it’s combined as best you can while delicately protecting the integrity of the egg whites), pile the mixture onto a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. You can either draw a 9″ circle in pencil on the parchment paper, or you can just eyeball it and estimate what looks like approximately a 9″ circle. It will naturally settle a bit and expand so start small and pile high. Place in the oven and immediately turn it down to 250-degrees. Set the timer for 1 hour.
When the pavlova is done, turn off the oven and wait a full hour before removing it from the oven. It is best if your oven doesn’t use a fan when cooling; mine does, and I usually see my pavlova shrink down just a bit from the disruption. But it is still so lovely and pretty.
For presentation, I use scissors to gently cut the parchment paper around the pavlova, then set it on a cake stand and dust the top with powdered sugar. For this pavlova, I used powdered sugar mixed with ground dried rose petals from our yard for a very mild rose petal essence. I also dusted the top with a few dried rose petals.
Finally, make your whipped cream and add a small amount of sugar to your mixed berries.
Slice your pavlova. Pile with berries. Top with whipped cream. Many pavlova photos showcase the whipped cream and berries piled on top of the entire cake prior to serving. I prefer to cut individual slices and top with the berries and cream. It keeps the pavlova from getting soggy while folks eat their first slice and decide to go in for seconds, and it allows me to save any extra cake for later.
7 egg whites
Small pinch of Kosher salt
Teaspoon of vanilla extract
1-1/2 cups baker’s sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice, balsamic, or white wine vinegar
Optional: 3 Tablespoons cocoa or cacao powder plus 3/4 cup or up to 1 cup chopped chocolate; toasted ground nuts, such as pecans or hazelnuts; almond extract; other flavor extracts.
Bake on a standard (not convection) setting preheated to 300 F turned down immediately to 250 F for one hour; cool in oven for 1 hour.
Cold coconut cream (non-dairy) or full-dairy whipping cream
Generous dash of maple syrup
Dash of vanilla extract
Dash of cinnamon
Pinch of salt
Whip until rich, frothy and light, and serve immediately for best results, or keep in the fridge until ready.
Any berries will be delightful. Today’s recipe used a combination of wild and domestic. Fresh succulent whole raspberries or blueberries without added sugar, or sliced strawberries with a touch of honey are amazing. Adding a small amount of sugar helps the berries combine flavors and brings out their natural juices, but it is best added shortly before serving, or else you’ll create a syrupy consistency.
Enjoy! And let me know what you think! Do you have any tips you’d like to share? I’m always searching. 🙂