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Dancing dessert: Berry-filled Pavlova

The meringue crust in this dessert, with its contrasting textures, melts on the tongue. It is filled with rich, fluffy whipped cream and fresh berries, bursting with flavor. Photo by Sue Doeden1 / 2
The list of ingredients for Pavlova is short and straightforward. Egg whites, which are pure protein, are whipped with sugar to create a voluminous white cloud. Tiny amounts of vinegar and cornstarch are added right at the end.2 / 2

For six years the Pavlova recipe was tucked into my "Summer Recipes" file. A cooking school classmate sent it to me with her penned comment beside the recipe, "This is a great one." And I knew she was right. She made the delicate meringue shells and filled them with fruit when we were at Tante Marie's Cooking School in San Francisco.

Pavlova is said to be invented by an Australian chef as a culinary expression of the light-as-a-feather dancing of Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova. Many New Zealanders would dispute this, though, and the delightful dessert has become a treasure for both countries to boast about, each claiming it as their own.

The list of ingredients for Pavlova is short and straightforward. Egg whites, which are pure protein, are whipped with sugar to create a voluminous white cloud. Tiny amounts of vinegar and cornstarch are added right at the end.

The first step in preparing Pavlova is to separate the egg yolks from the whites, being very careful that not even one little speck of yolk gets into the egg whites. (Egg yolks contain fat, and fat interferes with the formation of firm and light whipped egg whites.) Separating eggs is easiest to do when the eggs are chilled, right out of the refrigerator. Store the yolks in a covered container in the refrigerator for another use. Hollandaise sauce, maybe? Allow the bowl of egg whites to sit at room temperature so that the protein strands in the egg whites will be able to easily stretch as they are beaten, resulting in a shiny, firm meringue.

The meringue is baked at a very low temperature, allowing a thin, crisp shell to form on the outside, leaving the inside just slightly chewy. Don't be bothered by any cracks that may appear around the edges of the Pavlova or even in the middle as it cools. It just happens. The inside cracks will be hidden by whipped cream and berries. Those on the outside add endearing character.

You'll have so much fun impressing everyone with this lovely light dessert that takes little effort to make. The meringue crust, with its contrasting textures, melts on the tongue. Rich, fluffy whipped cream with just a slight hint of sweetness and fresh berries, bursting with flavor. Working together, they make a perfect team.

The meringue crust of Pavlova is very versatile. Top it with any of your favorite seasonal fruit. Fill the meringue with lemon curd or ice cream. Add a touch of decadence with a drizzle of hot fudge sauce over each serving.

My friend is right. This is a great one.

Pavlova with Berries and Whipped Cream

4 egg whites, room temperature

1 cup superfine sugar

1 tablespoon cornstarch, sifted

1 teaspoon white vinegar

1 1/4 cups heavy whipping cream

2 teaspoons powdered sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 pints fresh berries of your choice

Extra powdered sugar for garnish

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.

Place a sheet of parchment paper on a baking sheet with no sides. Draw a 9- or 10-inch circle on the parchment, using a plate as your guide. Turn the paper over so the drawing is on the bottom. It will show through the parchment.

Place the egg whites in a large mixing bowl. If you are using a stand mixer, use the whisk attachment. Beat the egg whites at low speed until they are very foamy. With the mixer on high speed, gradually add superfine sugar, beating until the sugar is dissolved after each addition. Beat the mixture 5 to 10 minutes, until it is very shiny and thick. Fold in cornstarch and vinegar.

Spread meringue mixture into the marked circle on parchment paper. Use the back of a spoon to shape evenly, spreading meringue to the sides and leaving a slight depression in the middle, similar to a nest. Run the flat side of a knife up the edge of meringue mixture, all the way around, making furrows. This strengthens the Pavlova and gives it a nice decorative finish.

Bake the meringue in preheated 250-degree oven for 1 hour. Turn off the oven. Leave Pavlova to cool in the oven with door slightly ajar. It will take at least 2 hours for the Pavlova to cool completely.

Use a wide metal spatula to carefully loosen the baked meringue shell from the parchment paper. Slide the meringue onto a cake platter.

An hour before serving, beat heavy whipping cream with powdered sugar and vanilla until firm.

Spoon sweetened whipped cream into the meringue shell and spread evenly. Spoon berries carefully over the whipped cream, leaving a border of cream and meringue. Sprinkle the Pavlova with powdered sugar just before serving. Serves 6 to 8.

Tips from the cook

--Avoid making Pavlova on a humid day. The meringues will become sticky and soft.

--The meringue shell can be made the day before serving. I bake the meringue the evening before I plan to serve it and just keep it in the turned-off oven overnight. An hour before serving time, I fill it with the whipped cream and berries and just let it sit until time to eat. You can also fill it at the last minute. The meringue will get soggy if it is filled long before eating.

--Be sure to use a glass or stainless steel bowl for whipping the eggs. Avoid a plastic bowl. Fat clings to plastic, and even though the bowl seems clean, there is a good chance that a bit of grease remains. Fat interferes with the formation of a fluffy meringue.

--Superfine sugar, sometimes called caster sugar, dissolves more quickly than regular granulated sugar. Granulated sugar can be used in this recipe, just be sure to beat the egg whites and sugar until the sugar is completely dissolved.