Light Fantastic

Pavlova
Few desserts are as pretty and as easy to make as this meringue-and-fruit confection, named after Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova.Dave Lieberman

If New Zealand had a national dish, pavlova would no doubt be it. A puff of baked meringue topped, typically, with a generous dollop of whipped cream and a scattering of fruit, pavlova—or pav, as it's affectionately known among Kiwis—is such an institution in New Zealand that even the local McDonald's franchises tried to capitalize on its popularity in 2000, when they introduced the short-lived McPav. I can attest that while New Zealand is justly famous for its expressive wines, grass-fed lamb, and abundant seafood, some of my most enduring memories of my travels there center on a whirring mixer filled with airy egg whites.

On a recent trip, I stayed in the Marlborough region, at the northeastern corner of New Zealand's South Island. It was only after I'd arrived that I learned that my host, Robyn Hedges, is one of the country's best-selling cookbook authors; her "Quick'n'Easy" series, published in the 1990s under her maiden name, Robyn Martin, has sold nearly 5 million copies. When I asked about her pavlova recipe, she immediately started to dash around the kitchen, pulling out everything she'd need to make the dessert.

Robyn whisked the egg whites with sugar in a stand mixer for ten minutes. "This is one of the few things I use a timer for," she said. Meanwhile, she prepared a mixture of cornstarch (which prevents the meringue from shrinking during baking), white vinegar (which stabilizes the egg whites, increases their volume, and prevents them from weeping liquid once baked), and vanilla extract, which she added after soft peaks had formed, and then continued whisking until the mixture was thick and glossy. To ensure that her pavlova came out perfectly round, Robyn used a cake pan to trace a circle on a parchment-lined baking sheet. She then turned the meringue out onto the paper and used a rubber spatula to form an even mound crowned with graceful peaks. After it was baked, Robyn's pav was topped with lightly sweet whipped cream, fresh strawberries, sliced kiwifruit, and lashings of homemade lemon curd. The next day, I polished off three slices for breakfast.

The story of how pavlova came to be a classic New Zealand dessert begins at the ballet. In 1926, the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova made her first visit Down Under, and her ethereal performances, for which she often donned a voluminous white tutu, inspired legions of devoted fans. Before long, recipes created in tribute to the ballerina began to appear. Some of these "pavlovas" didn't involve meringue at all. One early recipe called for layering sweetened gelatin of different colors in a pudding mold.

The first known recipe for meringue-based "pavlova cakes" appeared in the _Christchurch Weekly Press _on September 5, 1928. Submitted by one Rose Rutherford, this early version doesn't have a whole lot in common with the large, white-as-snow pavlovas that New Zealanders favor today. The recipe yields not a single meringue but a number of small rounds flavored with coffee and walnuts. Tell a Kiwi to put coffee and walnuts into her pav today and she might have you tried for treason.

Though the Australians also declare the pavlova their own, New Zealanders adamantly defend their country's claim to being the dessert's rightful birthplace, and most historians agree. Still, what constitutes a "true" pavlova isn't entirely clear. When you look back over a century's worth of recipes, it seems just about everything under the sun has made its way into a pavlova at one point or another. Candied cherries, dried coconut…I've even seen a recipe for a giant pav made from an emu egg. The dessert's provenance may be established, but its potential for adaptation appears to be limitless.

On my last visit, friends in the Marlborough town of Blenheim told me that a local winegrower, Pip Hoar, made a pav I simply couldn't leave New Zealand without trying. Pip and her husband, John, have been growing grapes in the Marlborough Valley for almost 30 years. When I arrived at their beautiful ranch home, set on one of their large plots of vines, Pip had already set out her pavlova ingredients. It all looked much the same as what I'd seen in Robyn Hedges's kitchen, but once Pip set to work, I realized that when it comes to making pavlova, the devil really is in the details.

Pip made a large pavlova using six egg whites. She, like everyone else I talked with, stressed the importance of letting the whites come to room temperature before using them so that they'd whip up to a greater volume. She whisked them for a while and then gradually added superfine sugar. If you add the sugar too quickly, she told me, the whites have a harder time aerating. (Because Robyn was using granulated sugar, which takes longer to dissolve, she'd added it early and all at once; hence the ten minutes of whisking to achieve the desired aeration.) Pip didn't combine her cornstarch and vinegar but rather spooned those ingredients separately and gradually into the egg whites as they were beaten. When the meringue was whisked, Pip took the sheet of parchment lining the baking pan to the kitchen sink to drench it in water. "My mother taught me this trick," she said. "It keeps the pav from browning or sticking too much."

When the cake emerged from the oven, an hour later, it was tinged with the faintest hint of beige. Once it was cool, Pip whipped heavy cream into soft peaks and folded in some thick, tangy yogurt. She spread the mixture over the entire surface of the meringue and used nothing but ripe summer strawberries to adorn it. Whereas Robyn's pavlova had been a harmonic convergence of airy sweetness and bright citrus notes from the lemon curd, Pip's was a study in contrasts: the crisp surface of the meringue against the marshmallow-like interior; the sweetness of the sugar against the tartness of the cream and the berries. It dawned on me that the pavlova, composed of just a few simple ingredients, makes a perfect canvas for a cook's individual flair. If I were to continue my pavlova research indefinitely, there's no telling how many delicious variations I might come across. What a sweet life that would be.