How to Trick out Pavlova, the Easiest, Classiest Fruit Dessert for a Crowd

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Strawberry and kumquat pavlova. [Photographs: Max Falkowitz, unless otherwise noted]

Quick! You have 20 people coming over for food and drink tonight and you've forgotten about dessert.

You want to bake, you over-achiever you, and none of this cookie or brownie business. That's for bake sales and office parties. You want a showstopper.

Can I suggest pavlova? I have a few reasons why:

  1. Plenty of people have no idea what it is. You'll look like a pastry badass.
  2. It scales easily, and is economical enough to make for a crowd.
  3. It's endlessly customizable.
  4. It's ridiculously easy to make, and doesn't require much active attention.

Seriously, if you can turn on an electric mixer and have access to decent fruit, you can make a great pavlova. But in case condition one above applies to you, here's the story: Pavlova is a cream-topped meringue dessert of Aussie or New Zealand extraction, allegedly named for the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova whose grace and beauty were apparently best captured in a pillow of egg white and cream. In the dessert's motherland(s), strawberry-kiwi and/or passionfruit are the most common fruity additions; in the West, berries tend to take center stage.

Traditionally, pavlova is made with a French meringue (that is, one with sugar beaten into raw egg whites, then baked) that's cooked in the oven for a long time, about an hour, at a very low temperature to dry it out. The exterior should be crisp and totally pale and the interior should have a fluffy, marshmallowy texture. The cooled meringue is then topped with whipped cream and fruit right before being served to your adoring fans. It's light and sweet, and since it's fruity, it feels a lot "healthier" than it really is.

Pavlovas can be portioned into single servings but can also be fashioned into meringue mountains. My six egg white pavlova, which is a scaled-up version of this recipe with some minor modifications,* serves 15 to 20. I love that I can make it for about a dollar a head and that I'm not locked into any one flavor profile—each pavlova component can be played with at will. And since I always seem to have egg whites lying around, pavlova is a handy way to use them up in bulk.

*I've found regular sugar, as opposed to superfine sugar, works well on its own, and for a six egg white pavlova, two cups of heavy cream for whipping plenty.

Ready to pavlova? First read this excellent tutorial on beating egg whites, then see below for tips on making the most of your pavlova layers.

The Meringue

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The meringue base is the easiest part of a pavlova to flavor, but also the most overlooked. Dry spices and small amounts of liquid flavorings work best. Our recipe calls for cream of tartar in the meringue, an acid that makes the foam more stable, but I usually use a little wine vinegar (red or white) or apple cider vinegar for a subtle fruity flavor. Use slightly more vinegar than an equivalent volume of cream of tartar, but not much—three quarters of a teaspoon instead of a half, perhaps.

Rose and orange blossom waters are also ideal, but best used sparingly (one teaspoon at most). Vanilla extract is a given. I've also had success adding booze like bourbon, but if you add too much, you may be facing extra mixing time. One meringue with two or three eyeballed shots of bourbon took a full 20 minutes to form, though form it did.

The Cream

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[Photograph: Carrie Vasios]

Plain whipped cream, lightly sweetened, makes for a great classic pavlova. But I've found plates get cleaned a lot faster if you get a little slutty with your dairy. Here are some template recipes for cinnamon, maple, almond creams, and more. But my favorite chocolate cream for pavlova is dead-simple: a quarter to half cup of good Dutch processed cocoa dissolved in two cups liquid cream, then whisked into a light, airy faux ganache. Alcohol works nicely in whipped cream as well.

If you've thought ahead and have some lead time, consider cold-steeping herbs like mint or rosemary in your cream overnight, then remove the herbs and whip the cream the next day. Finely grated citrus zest can go in the cream last-minute, as can most spices. Also consider adding other dairy into your cream: sour cream, crème fraîche, ricotta, and mascarpone are all nice.

The Fruit

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Here's where you really get to let loose. Berries are fine, but stone fruit, tart citrus, and cooked fruit are more interesting additions. Here's my main guiding principle: Tartness and texture make the best pavlovas. One of my favorites is a dead-simple vanilla meringue with sweet whipped cream and ruby grapefruit segments. Pavlovas are sweet—there's no way getting around that—and any possible tartness you can add will make them all the more appealing.

So in the fall I use plenty of late-season stone fruit like plums. In winter, it's all about citrus—grapefruit and blood oranges especially—and cooked cranberries, too. Harder fruits like apples and pears are great when cubed and cooked in a little butter until just soft. And if you're going for summer berries, consider ways to make them more interesting. The photo at the very top shows a pavlova with strawberries soaked in red wine and jumbled with macerated kumquats; the mix was tart, tannic, and only a little sweet. I'll give a special shout out to pomegranates as well: the jewel-like nubs are the perfect pavlova accent, both for their tartness and their crunchy texture.

Sauces and Toppings

All a pavlova really requires is meringue, cream, and fruit, but a little sauce goes a long way. In that strawberry-kumquat pavlova there's a topping of red wine syrup made from simmering the strawberry soaking wine with the syrup from the macerated kumquats. But you can also opt for ready-made syrups like pomegranate molasses and balsamic vinegar: Their thick texture keeps them clinging to the top of the cream but their tartness lightens up the whole dessert. Syrups like these also give you another way to add tartness to the pavlova if your fruit is low in acidity.

Crunchy textures also keep pavlovas interesting, so think of adding things like pomegranate seeds, toasted nuts, and cracked-up candy brittle. Look for accents that compliment and contrast your fruit: almonds with apricots, pistachios with citrus, pomegranate with apples.

Pavlovas I Have Known and Loved

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Still having trouble nailing down a pavlova that's right for you? Here are some of my favorites:

  • Orange blossom-flavored meringue, chocolate whipped cream, blood orange segments, pomegranate molasses
  • Rose-flavored meringue with white wine vinegar, plain cream, red wine-soaked strawberries and macerated kumquats
  • Bourbon meringue, maple cream, sliced assorted plums
  • Apple cider vinegar meringue, sour cream whipped cream, cubed apples caramelized in butter

General Pavlova Tips and Tricks

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As you make your pavlova, it's worth keeping some basics in mind.

While making the meringue:

  • Line your baking sheet with parchment paper for easy meringue removal.
  • If your recipe calls for drawing an X-inch circle on your parchment to guide your meringue formation, don't bother—presumably you have this circle thing figured out by the time you're old enough to read blogs.
  • If you're using a rimmed baking sheet, flip it upside down and bake the meringue on the other side. Then you can slide the meringue right on to a serving platter without any lip.
  • Form a shallow crater in the center of the meringue when you put it on the baking sheet. It'll puff up a little during baking, and the dip with higher sides will form a better cradle for your fruit.
  • Leave a couple inches breathing room on all sides of your pavlova for expansion in the oven.

While baking:

  • Open your oven door as little as possible. Temperature changes causes the meringue to crack, and letting cold air from outside the oven will do just that. If cracks happen, the meringue will still be tasty, but less pretty.
  • If the pavlova is starting to brown at all, reduce your oven temperature by 25 degrees. The ideal pavlova is totally pale, which usually means a gooey marshmallow interior.
  • Once your pavlova has finished baking, let it cool completely in the oven to avoid cracking. Ideally you'll do this with the oven door completely closed, but if you're in a hurry, bundle up a small wad of paper towel or aluminum foil to leave it slightly ajar.

After baking:

  • If your meringue cracked, that's okay! You're covering it with a quart of whipped cream and a pound of fruit anyway. Messy is delicious.
  • Let your meringue cool completely before topping. It can be made a day or two in advance if the air isn't too humid. Don't add whipped cream and fruit until you're ready to serve.
  • If you have leftovers, pack the whole thing up in a tupperware and break up the large chunks of meringue. The next day you'll have icebox cake.

Do you have any favorite pavlova combinations? Any meringue questions left unanswered? Let loose in the comments.

About the author: Max Falkowitz is the editor of Serious Eats: New York. You can follow him on Twitter at @maxfalkowitz.

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