No. This is not a photo of Bjork.
This is a photo of Anna Pavlova, the Russian prima ballerina after whom New Zealand’s national dessert was named. (Disclaimer: The Australians and the New Zealanders have been coming to culinary blows for years over credit for creation of the dish. Maybe they just need to say G’day and get on with other things. Just sayin’.)
Pavlova is pictured here in her swan costume. Her solo performance as the dying swan in a piece choreographed especially for her by Mikhail Fokine and set to Saint-Saens’ music was her signature piece, a oft-repeated performance that made her a superstar in the early 20th Century.
Pavlova was an improbable ballet star. She had bad feet, thin ankles, and legs that were longer than the norm in late 19th and early 20th century Russian ballet. What she did have was persistence and good timing. During the Tsarist regimes, one of the few things the government did right was subsidize academies for the performing arts, often training the poor as a way to supply dancers to ballet theaters across the vastness of Mother Russia.
Pavlova, poor and probably illegitimate, was accepted into one of those academies at the age of ten and taken under the wings (I’m sorry. Was that a swan joke?) of some of Russia’s notable dancers.
Despite being taunted as “the broom” for her appearance , Pavlova developed into an accomplished performer in the Imperial Ballet, briefly danced with the Ballets Russes in Paris and eventually founded her own touring company in 1914. She overcame that bullying about her appearance, too. Her legions of fans (they called themselves Pavlovtzi) were captivated by her frail and etherial look and her graceful dancing. One critic wrote of her, “Her bourees (are) like a string of pearls.”
What kind of dessert is worthy of a light-footed superstar? A lighter-than-air cake, of course. In fact, in some cooking circles, there is an expression for something cooked light and to perfection: “As light as a pavlova.” You get the picture.
A pavlova is a meringue cake cooked until the outer crust is crisp while the interior of the “cake” is the consistency of a marshmallow (a good marshmallow–we’re not talking s’mores here!).
While apparently there are at least two cookbooks dedicated solely to pavlova recipes. this recipe was adapted from the Epicurious site and originally appeared in Gourmet Magazine.
Traditional pavlova meringues are topped with berries and whipped cream. This recipe includes a layer of lemon curd. I thought that sounded pretty wonderful. To get the full effect, this recipe is meant to be eaten with all its layers in each bite–the sweet meringue, the sour-sweet lemon curd and the unsweetened whipped cream. It is kind of a roller coaster ride for your palate in a very good way.
Lest you are still scratching you head about the first line in this post, here is Bjork in her infamous (and Pavlovaesque) swan dress at the Oscars in 2001. Although Bjork’s dress eventually made it into MOMA, at the time, the dress was savaged by fashion critics.
Personally, I think it was a great, quirky dress–perfect for someone who was, like Pavlova, doing it her way rather than acquiescing to a fashion police who sought to impose a lockstep dress code and an arbitrary definition of beauty.
I’ve got to think that Pavlova would have approved.
Here is the recipe and my photograph.
Recipe: Pavlova with Lemon Curd and Berries
1 C. superfine granulated sugar
1 T. cornstarch
3 large egg whites (at room temperature for 30 minutes) and a pinch of salt
3 T. cold water
1 t. distilled white vinegar
1/2 to 2/3 C. granulated sugar (depending for your preference in sweetness)
1 T. cornstarch
1/8 t. salt
1/3 C. fresh lemon juice
1/2 stick unsalted butter
3 large egg yolks
2 t. grated lemon zest
1 C. heavy cream
4 C. mixed berries
To make the meringue
Preheat oven to 300 F with rack in the middle of your oven. Trace a 7 inch circle on a sheet of parchment paper. Place parchment paper on a baking sheet.
Whisk superfine sugar and cornstarch together. (If you don’t have superfine sugar, simply put your cup of sugar into a blender and blitz it a few times. Stop blending before the sugar turns into powdered sugar, though.)
Add a pinch of salt to the room-temperature egg whites and whip until soft peaks form. Add the 3 T. cold water and whip again until soft peaks form.
Add sugar 1 T. at a time (yes…it is tedious) and blend at medium-high speed until all of the sugar has been incorporated into the egg mixture. Once all the sugar is added, blend for one additional minute.
Add the 1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar to egg white mixture and beat at high speed until the meringue forms stiff peaks and is glossy. This will take about 5 minutes.
Using a spatula, spread the meringue onto the circle you have drawn on the parchment paper. Spread the meringue batter until you have a cake shape with a slight indentation in the center of the cake.
Bake meringue for 45 minutes. At the end of 45 minutes, turn oven off and prop door open slightly with a wooden spoon. Cool meringue in oven for one hour. Do NOT touch meringue during this time. It is very fragile. Once the hour is up, move the meringue cake to a counter and let it cool even more. If you do get some breaks in your cake, relax. Once your have heaped the lemon curd, berries and whipped cream on the pavlova, it will be beautiful even if it is imperfect.
To make the lemon curd
Stir sugar, cornstarch and salt together in a 2 quart heavy saucepan. Add lemon juice and butter and cook (stirring) until butter is melted. Bring the butter-lemon mixture to a simmer over medium-high heat, whisking constantly. Whisk for one minute after the mixture comes to a simmer.
Whisk 3 egg yolks lightly in a small bowl. Whisk 1/4 C. lemon mixture into the yolks. Then, whisk the entire egg yolk-lemon-sugar mixture into the saucepan. Be sure to reduce the heat on the pan to low and whisk continuously as you add the egg mixture to the pan so that you don’t get scrambled eggs! Whisk the mixture until the curd thickens. This will take 2-5 minutes.
Move the curd to a pan, stir in lemon zest and cover with stretch wrap. Let the stretch wrap touch the top of the lemon curd. Cool in the refrigerator for 1 and 1/2 hours.
Carefully move the pavlova to a platter.
Beat heavy cream until it forms stiff peaks. Fold 1/4 to 3/4 cup of the whipped cream into the lemon curd to your taste.
Spoon the lemon curd onto the meringue. Sprinkle berries on top of the pavlova. Serve with remaining whipped cream.
Cook’s Notes: I topped my pavlova with blackberries and blueberries as did the original cook in the Epicurious version of this recipe. Next time, I will omit the blackberries. They are beautiful but the seeds distract, I think, from the smooth taste of the lemon curd and the soft crunch of the meringue. Also, I sprinkled some grated lemon zest over the finished dish.
Here is the link to the original recipe for this pavlova: