Anyone who has chickens at this time of year knows that there are eggs in abundance. Maybe that is why Pavlova is such a popular summer dessert, or maybe it is that pavlova is light and airy and perfect when served with summer fruit. Either way pavlova is the epitome of a kiwi summer. Despite the simplicity of the ingredients however, many people prefer to buy a pavlova rather than make it. Maybe that is due to the reputation of pavlova being difficult to master.
Pavlova is often treated like a mysterious and temperamental dessert – because it is. The ingredients and proportions change very little from recipe to recipe, yet depending on how the ingredients are combined, what kind of oven you have, subtle variances in the ingredients, ambient humidity or even planetary alignment – the outcomes can vary wildly. I am often very ad hoc with most recipes, chucking things in on a whim and adjusting ratios with abandon as I make them. But with pavlova, this is not wise. Like most cooking, making a pavlova is as much about science and chemistry as it is about the culinary. That’s right, your gran was a scientist.
In this recipe, I will include some of the strategies and techniques I use to get a perfect pavlova. None of these are a guarantee, because this is pavlova we are talking about.
2-6 eggs – size 7 or thereabouts
¼ cup of caster sugar per egg (this is about 55 grams or 4 tablespoons)
½ tsp cornstarch for every 2 eggs
½ tsp vinegar for every 2 eggs
½ a lemon
Vanilla to taste
You’ll note that I have made the recipe proportional, this is because everyone has different pavlova needs. I find I get best results with a 4 egg pavlova. I feel like this is because 6 eggs is pushing it to maintain the volume while cooking and 2 eggs is just not enough pavlova. The good thing about this recipe is that you can make a 3 egg pavlova or a 5 egg pavlova. Very convenient.
- Preheat the oven to 160 degrees Celsius
- Get your mixing bowl completely grease free. I use half a lemon to swipe the inside of the bowl evenly. This cuts the grease
- Separate the eggs from the yolks (I freeze the yolks in batches to make custard, hollandaise, aioli or any other delicious yolk based goodies) and then leave them to warm to room temperature in the bowl.
- Line a baking tray with baking paper – and if you want, draw a pavlova sized circle in the middle of the paper
- Add your vinegar now to the egg whites. Yes I know this seems backwards, but it helps prevent the eggs from being overbeaten.
- Beat the eggs starting slowly and increasing to maximum speed until firm peaks form, I generally beat the egg whites for the minimum length of time needed to get maximum volume. I use a stand mixer, but a hand held beater will do. For some reason I cannot fathom, I never made pavlova when we didn’t have a stand mixer….
- Keep an eye on the egg whites like a hawk. If they go chunky and curdled looking – it’s gone too far. There’s no going back. Throw out your egg whites and sob into a teatowel. Start over. Or simply add another egg white and slowly beat this in until consistency is gained. If that doesn’t work. Then go back to plan A.
- Slowly (but not too slowly – remember the 15 minutes) add in the sugar in a fine stream while beating at high speed. Continue beating until the sugar granules have dissolved. I foolishly thought this was a waste of time when I first started making pavlova, turns out I was wrong. I just saved you hours of your life. You’re welcome.
- If the mixture starts to ribbon and act somewhat like a non Newtonian fluid, then you have failed. Time to fall on your sword. The mixture is overbeaten and the best you can hope for is a flat sheet of pavlova. I still bake this and turn it into Eaton mess. Brilliant.
- Gently fold in the cornstarch. Don’t overmix at this stage. Cornstarch is what gives the marshmallowy centre – it also improves structure. Cornstarch can also be omitted.
- Turn the mixture out onto the paper and smooth into a circleish shape. I am never too fussy Some people are very fussy. Choose your mood. Mary Berry suggest shaping the edges higher than the centre so you can add more cream. She’s a good stick, highly recommend.
- Put the pav in the oven and immediately turn down to 130 degrees Celsius.
- Stand outside the oven watching your pavlova and crying
- After 40-50 minutes the pav should be done. This can vary. If your pavlova sinks and weeps goo from the bottom it is underdone. If it is hard shelled and hollow is overdone. You won’t know until after you take it out and let it cool. Welcome to the new world of culinary roulette. A perfect pav is firm and crisp/chewy on the outside and soft and mallowy in the middle. The colour is often described as off white, ecru or desert sand. So lets call it dessert sand and enjoy the pun.
- Crack the oven door, turn the oven off and wait all day. Good luck if you wanted to cook anything else!
- Dress the pav however you like. I like a high cream to pav ratio and am very fond of berries. For summer solstice I have gone for the summer fruits and flowers look.
On egg whites: Pavlova is a recipe that needs volume and structure. Fats and cool temperatures inhibit volume. As does freshness of egg. On the flipside to this, a very old egg lacks the necessary structure to maintain the aeration. So the ideal egg for pavlova needs to be room temperature and middle of the range for age. Some people age their separated egg whites in the fridge – this just seems like an un necessary layer of effort, however if you have some egg whites languishing in the fridge, well why not.
It is possible to overbeat egg whites. If this happens your pavlova will be weepy. My suggestion is to beat for a maximum of 15 minutes and no more. Set a stopwatch if necessary, or perform a solid set of Irish jigs while you wait.
On sugar: Using caster sugar is not essential, but it does make your job easier as it takes less time for the granules to dissolve. You can grind your standard sugar to make a finer mix BUT MEASURE IT FIRST. This is because if your sugar is finer, it will be denser and throw off your volumes. If you are using scales, don’t worry about it either way. Using slightly more sugar will give your pavlova a thicker chewier crust, using less will… well just don’t do that.
On ovens: I was never able to succeed at pavlova until I replaced our crummy old oven. It’s possible that your own previous pavlova failures were down to your crummy oven. If this is the case, buy a supermarket pav, pour yourself a drink and enjoy the sunshine.
In terms of temperature, I use a Nigella Lawson trick. I heat the oven to a hotter temperature and then immediately reduce the temperature to a pavlova temperature. This is to shock the pavlova a little bit and give a nice crust. This will also raise chances of cracking. I don’t mind cracks. If you are a pav perfectionist, start out with a low temp and keep it that way.