Victoria Hull whips up a dessert fit for a Mother’s Day feast
Recently my Brazilian friend Viviane Carneiro – a calm, exotic beauty – threw a birthday party and served this triumph of a coffee pavlova. It makes the most fantastic Mother’s Day treat. Vivi is a psychotherapist with a rock’n’roll past and a previous career as a stylist. She is sweet, graceful and elegant without being showy. Her pavlova is the same, except that she serves it with fireworks.
“I’m fascinated with meringues,” Vivi says, “but what I feel is missing from the recipe is the thrill and fun of making it. Turning something as insipid as egg whites into luscious glossy white mounts of pleasure can do wonders to your self-esteem – and impress. It’s so much fun seeing people’s reaction to it and to see the very strict ones that don’t eat sweets becoming completely seduced by it. Also it’s a fun thing to do with kids, showing them how you can turn the bowl over your head and the meringue will not fall out, and that’s when you know it’s ready. That’s one of my childhood memories.”
Pavlova can be tricky but there are secrets. Vivi has them.
4 large eggs
150g caster sugar
50g golden caster sugar
2 tsp instant coffee
1 tsp chocolate powder
2 tsp cornflour
1 tsp natural vanilla extract
1 tsp white wine vinegar
Whipping cream and caster sugar to taste, to serve
You will also need an electric whisk, a flat baking sheet and baking paper
Preheat the oven to 100ºC/Gas 1/4. Separate the eggs, one at a time, into a white bowl so you can inspect each one before placing it in your mixing bowl. Only clear egg whites should be used, anything else will prevent the whites from frothing. The mixing bowl must be glass, metal or glazed ceramic. Plastic bowls have a thin, oily residue that can inhibit the whites from whipping. The bowl and whisk need to be thoroughly clean – a good trick is to rub half a lemon on the bowl. It will not only neutralise any traces of fat but also helps to make the meringue crisp on the outside and soft and sticky on the inside.
Whisk the whites with a pinch of salt on a low speed for 1 minute, then increase the speed and whisk until the egg whites form stiff peaks. If you lift the whisk attachment out of the bowl, the mixture should look fluffy and cling to them, while the peaks remain stiff.
Then, with the speed on maximum, gradually add the sugar 1 tbsp at a time, until the mixture is stiff and gloriously glossy. This may take a while. It’s important to do it slowly, particularly at the beginning because you need to give a chance for the sugar to dissolve. Otherwise it will flatten the meringue.
Like Nigella I’m a bit impatient for this part, so in the little intervals between spoons I start lining the baking tray and crunching the instant coffee into powder. Line a flat baking sheet with parchment paper. Use a little of the meringue mixture to glue it in place. As the pavlova is very delicate it’s important to use a baking sheet without edges, so you can slide it onto a flat cake stand or a plate at the end.
When you are half way through the sugar, you could start adding 2 tbsp at a time, but not before pinching some of the meringue and feeling it for sugar granules. If it’s not smooth, beat for a little longer before adding more sugar.
In the end, when the sugar is completely dissolved, stop the mixer and add the coffee, chocolate and cornflour together, sprinkling them over the bowl with a tea strainer. Add the vanilla essence and the vinegar and, with the mixing machine on the lowest speed, mix it together gently.
The cornflour and vinegar are used for pavlova as opposed to meringues. They are supposed to give the pavlova its marshmallow interior. However, I agree with Delia Smith that it doesn’t make much of a difference. I find that sometimes I end up with a bottomless pavlova (no crust on the bottom) when I use cornflower. What really makes a difference from meringues is the shape. For a pavlova you dollop the whole mixture onto the sheet, making a circular shape like a cake with a slightly lower centre, to hold the whipped cream.
Bake the pavlova for 2 hours until crisp. Without taking it out of the oven, gently try to lift it off the tray. If it lifts easily and feels dry turn off the oven and leave it there with the door slightly ajar to slowly cool for an hour.
One thing you can count on is that it will crack here and there, but don’t worry; that is how it is supposed to look! The slower it cools the less cracks it will have, so they say.
Whip the cream, adding a sprinkle of sugar. If you want to make it even more grown up, add a splash of brandy or even cherry brandy. For a typical Aussie Pav, as they call it Down Under, fill with the whipped cream just before serving, then decorate it with raspberries or any other sharp fruit and – Tah dah! It never fails to impress.
If your family and friends don’t have much of a sweet tooth make tiny meringues with the mixture instead, leaving out the cornflour and vinegar. I promise they will try one, unless they are very sad indeed. If it fails in any way, don’t worry, just turn it into an Eton Mess – just don’t tell anyone in advance that you were going to serve a Pav!
Pavlova is a hugely popular pudding in Australia and New Zealand, actually branded as their national dessert. It was created in honour of the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova during her tour in both countries during the 1920s. Pavlova is often served at celebrations and holidays. They seem to be very proud of it, perhaps because it’s a bit tricky to get it right straight away.