Anna Pavlova was known as the “incomparable” ballerina, captivating audiences not just in her homeland of Russia but across the entire world at the turn of the 20th century. It’s no wonder, then, that chefs at the time immortalized her in recipes, including frogs’ legs à la Pavlova in France, Pavlova ice cream in the United States, and most famously, the glamorous meringue, whipped cream, and fruit confection that’s simply called pavlova.
My Goals and Discoveries
Making a Swiss meringue and cooking the mixture to 160 degrees instead of the usual 140 degrees ensures that the meringue bakes up with a smooth—not coarse—texture.
Lots of sugar makes the meringue exterior crisp, since sugar draws water from the egg whites so they dry out during baking.
Chewy, marshmallowy interior
A combination of cornstarch and vinegar added to the meringue during whipping helps ensure the right chewy yet tender interior.
Unlike meringue cookies, which are uniformly dry and crunchy throughout, the meringue for pavlova (which can be baked in a single large round or smaller individual disks) offers a range of textures: a crisp outer shell; a tender, marshmallowy interior; and a pleasant chew where the two textures meet. The meringue’s sweetness is balanced by softly whipped cream and tart fresh fruit, which makes for a gorgeous jumble of flavors and textures—and a lightness that is ideal at the end of a rich meal.
Because of its dramatic appearance, you might think that pavlova is a real project. But you’d be wrong: It calls for only a handful of ingredients, and the meringue base can be baked in advance, leaving only cream to be whipped and fruit topping to be prepped before serving. Best of all, pavlova’s unfussiness is part of its allure. More often than not, its shape is rustic and a few cracks are unavoidable, but there’s beauty in these imperfections.
That said, there is one part of the process that can be intimidating: producing just the right texture for the meringue. So that’s where I started my testing.
Whip It Good
Almost every pavlova recipe starts with a French meringue, which is made by whipping raw egg whites and sugar to stiff peaks and then folding in cornstarch and an acid, usually white vinegar (more on these ingredients later), along with a flavoring such as vanilla. The meringue is spread into a disk on a parchment-lined baking sheet and baked in a low oven until the outside is crisp. The oven is then turned off, and the meringue is left to continue drying out until the inside is no longer wet but still soft.
A French meringue is tricky because it requires adding the sugar to egg whites at just the right moment: too soon and the meringue won’t inflate properly; too late and the meringue can be gritty.
To avoid that guesswork, I decided to switch to a style where the sugar is dissolved from the start. My two options were Italian and Swiss. The former requires the unnerving task of drizzling hot sugar syrup into the whites as they are whipped, so I opted for the latter: gently warming the whites and sugar in a bowl set over simmering water until the sugar is dissolved (many Swiss meringue recipes recommend heating to 140 degrees) and then whipping.
I heated six egg whites and 1 cup of sugar to 140 degrees; whipped the mixture to stiff peaks; added cornstarch, vinegar, and vanilla; and spread the meringue into a round. Unfortunately, it baked up with a pitted, coarse interior.
Our science research editor explained: Egg white proteins start out as separately wound little molecules, like balls of yarn. When heated and whipped, as in a Swiss meringue, the balls uncoil into linear strands (denature) and then slowly start to knit together (coagulate) at about 140 degrees.
A Trio of Styles
We experimented with three types of meringue for pavlova:
A) Italian: a no-go because it required a fussy hot sugar syrup
B) French: another bust because it easily turned grainy
C) Swiss: our choice for being easy and more foolproof
As the meringue bakes, the knitted proteins firm and contract, squeezing out water, which then evaporates. The more loosely knit the proteins are, the more they’re pushed apart by the escaping steam, which can result in a coarse‑textured dessert. Cooking the whites to a higher temperature—160 degrees—before baking would cause more coagulation. With the proteins knit into a finer, more cohesive mesh, the structure would not be as disrupted by escaping steam and the final product would be smoother.
When I thought about it, it made sense that I needed to alter the standard Swiss meringue. It’s most often used as the base for buttercream frosting, not baked for pavlova. Sure enough, when I brought the whites and sugar to 160 degrees, I was rewarded with a smooth, fine texture. Its exterior was too soft, but I’d address that next.
The Sweetest Thing
The exterior of the meringue was soft rather than crisp because it contained too much free water after baking. Adding sugar is the time-tested way to make sure a meringue crisps up: It draws water from the egg whites so they dry out during baking.
For my next set of tests, I made three batches of meringue with increasing amounts of sugar: 1 cup, 1¼ cups, and 1½ cups for six egg whites. The smaller amounts resulted in meringues with soft exteriors (they crisped after hours in the oven, but by then they were brown). I moved forward with 1½ cups of sugar, which resulted in a dry, crisp shell.
Now, back to the vinegar and cornstarch. Many meringue recipes call for acid to be added to the egg whites. Pavlova meringue is unusual in that cornstarch is also typically mixed in and the vinegar is added after—not before—whipping. Recipes suggest that this combination is responsible for the meringue’s tender/chewy texture.
To determine whether the presence of vinegar and cornstarch was dictated by tradition or function, I made five batches of meringue: one with just egg whites and sugar, one with cornstarch, one with vinegar, one with cream of tartar (a powder that’s acidic like vinegar), and one with both vinegar and cornstarch. The plain sample seemed wet and slick on the inside. The starch-only interior was all chew, like a nougat, while the vinegar- and cream of tartar–based meringues were superdelicate and tender within. Only the batch made with acid and starch was just right: chewy at the edge and tender and marshmallowy inside. Since cream of tartar and vinegar performed identically, I chose to stick with tradition and call for vinegar since it’s what most cooks keep on hand. I settled on 1½ teaspoons each of vinegar and cornstarch.
The Sum of Its Parts
I spread a thick layer of lightly sweetened whipped cream onto the cooled meringue disk. For a festive finish, I topped the whipped cream with sliced oranges, tart cranberries soaked in sugar syrup to cut their bitterness (for sparkle, I rolled some in sugar), and fresh mint. Slicing pavlova can be a slightly messy affair, which is part of the fun, but letting the dessert sit for just 5 minutes softened the meringue’s crust just enough to make cutting easier.
Finally, to showcase the dessert’s versatility, I developed a few topping options, including a mix of kiwi, blueberries, and mango as well as a strawberry version scented with basil.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: the incomparable pavlova!
A Sweet Rivalry
The history of pavlova is storied with an ongoing debate between New Zealand and neighboring Australia: Both countries lay claim to the dessert. As Kiwis have it, a Wellington chef created the dish in Anna Pavlova’s honor, citing her billlowy tutu as inspiration. But Australians insist that it was invented at a hotel in Perth and got its name when a diner declared it to be “light as Pavlova.” More recently, it’s been asserted that pavlova began life as a German torte and eventually traveled to the United States.