I still remember the first thing I’d ever baked on my own. I’d baked Betty Crocker’s Blueberry Muffins. Yes, it’s a premix, yet I somehow managed to royally screw it up to the point where friends dubbed the finished product Mushfins, because I’d maimed the blueberries till they bled the whole batter grey. Maybe then I hadn’t had much common sense (what’s new really?), or maybe the instructions were too daunting because there were so few of them that I was convinced it couldn’t be that simple. It was only years later that I realised that baking really is that simple, and no I’m not dwelling on pre-mixes anymore. No, seriously.
I used to see the kitchen as an intangible enemy, a sort of harsh and unexplored territory I only really stepped into when fundamental human sustenance was in order. Being afraid of the unknown is perfectly natural (or so I tell myself). Other than that, you wouldn’t catch me spending more than the time needed to pop open the fridge for a chocolate fix and get the hell outta there. So for me to have spent more than two hours there today (keeping in mind my past relationship with that particular corner of my house) cursing at the mocking sunny-ness of egg yolks, hacking away at squares of chocolate and beating the crap out of egg whites for a pavlova, I think it’s safe to say that I’m making a conscious effort in extending the olive branch.
Rocky heights of chocolate.
Speaking of a conscious effort, or lack thereof in this case, when I insisted I wasn’t making a cake and that it was called a pavlova, my mom gave me The Look of hers (as though I’d proudly declared on top of a high stool that I was going cook with my feet) and said, “Pah-vah-looo-vah?”. Whenever I would try to correct her pronounciation regarding certain words, she’d wave me off dismissively saying “Ah, whatever. As long as you get what I’m saying.” And it’s not that she was beyond comprehension. It just got to me when she abandoned all effort and started calling it a cake that I almost went into premature sugar fits.
“You made it look like a cake so it’s a cake lah!”
Pavlova =/= Cake. Nuh uh.
So just what in nine hells is a pavlova?!
It’s a meringue-based dessert named after the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova in her honour during a tour from Autralia and New Zealand. It’s no surprise then, that both countries have been jostling for the right to the claim of its origin. Interesting politics. Whatever it is, where it was created in hardly matters to me because this baby here? Was created in my kitchen. End of story.
I have to be honest, though it came out sexy and steaming from the oven, the crust cracked and caved in when it hit cool air, which pretty much meant that I hadn’t whipped the bejeezus out of the meringue before heaping it all into the pan. It wasn’t thick and frothy enough so the crust separated from the body. Damn. Well hey, it’s my first non-fat, calorie-dense dessert. At least I fulfilled that criteria. Next time, I’ll make it squidgy and chewy like it’s supposed to be, sans whipped cream still. The traditional pavlova always has a blanket of freshly whipped cream on the top and a generous layer of fruit. I adore fruit but I’m not a fan of whipped cream, be it the bottle sort or hand whipped. It suffocates my stomach.
Maybe it’ll make a great fire retardent.
adapted from Nigella Lawson’s Christmas Kitchen
Serves 8-10 people
- 6 egg whites
- 300g caster sugar
- 3 tbs cocoa powder, sieved
- 1 tsp balsamic or red wine vinegar*
- 50g dark chocolate, finely chopped
For the topping**:
- 500ml double cream
- 500g raspberries
- 2-3 tbs coarsely grated dark chocolate
1. Preheat the oven to 180C and line a baking tray with baking parchment. If you’re one who would likely be making this pavlova often, it is recommended that you cut out a circle from a piece of parchment/baking paper the size that you want your pavlova to be, say 23cm in diameter, because you’d be able to reuse the parchment again.
2. Beat the egg whites until satiny peaks form***, preferably in an electric mixer to spare your arms, and beat in the sugar a spoonful at a time until the mixture is stiff and glossy. Sprinkle over the cocoa, vinegar and chopped chocolate. Gently fold in everything with a spatula until the ingredients are well distributed.
3. Dollop everything onto the baking parchment (Dot the underside of the baking parchment so it sticks to the baking tray) and smooth down the sides and top. Place in the oven and then immediately turn the temperature down to 150C and cook for one to one and a quarter hours. It should look dry and brittle on the outside while moist and chewy on the inside. Let it cool completely****.
4. Before serving, gently peel off the baking paper from the base of the pavlova and place in a large plate. Whisk the cream till thick and pile atop the meringue, followed by the raspberries. Roughly grate the chocolate, or chop it up if you prefer and sprinkle over the pavlova.
*I’ve seen Nigella create a gorgeous pavlova a good number of times but the science of egg whites is still something I’ve yet to understand completely. As a brief explanation, adding vinegar – trust me I cringed too – lessens the chances of the egg white foam from undergoing overbeating, which would result in unsightly lumps and deflation. Adding an acid into the meringue introduces positively charged particles (H+ ions, not essential to know but useful in understanding if you follow), and these neutralize the charged molecules in the egg white proteins which would otherwise cause undesirable results. I haven’t lost any of you, have I? If I have, all you need to know is: Vinegar makes for a sexy pavlova.
**You don’t have to bother about the topping, like I did, but if you’d love to pretty up your pavlova, be my guest. I have issues with whipped cream. Also, besides raspberries, any other sort of fruit that is slightly tart would do well as a substitute. As long as it provides a contrast to the pavlova’s decadence.
***Like many people, whenever I read a recipe that calls to stop beating egg whites ‘until satiny peaks form’ or ‘until shiny and stiff’ or ‘until you can write your initials with it’, I freak out. I can write my initials with shoe polish, does that make it tasty and done? Based on my not so ideal experience because the pavlova collasped, I would first recommend you use a metal bowl for beating the egg whites in (a copper one would be best, but expensive). The reason for this – another scientific mumbo jumbo, bear with me – is that plastic bowls tend to retain a bit of oil still no matter how carefull you wash it. Fat interferes with the formation of fluffy meringue, which is also the reason why the separation of egg whites and yolk must be done carefully to prevent any yolk from contaminating the whites. A good estimation of when the meringue is done would be when you use a spatula and separate the white mass till you see the bottom of the bowl, the foam barely creeps in to fill the gap.
****Upon cooling, the pavlova may crack , as did mine. If yours did, then it means you haven’t beaten the egg whites sufficiently so the crust separated from the body. Chances are, the inside of the pavlova would be too soft, like whipped cream, as opposed to being chewy.
Warning: Egg whites are stubborn little brats.