I like a recipe to remain as close to its creator’s intentions as possible. It’s not that I’m interested in historical cookery; nor do I mind cooks tweaking recipes—“I always like to add my personal touch, Margery, don’t you?”—as long as I don’t have to eat the result. Replacing the lemon juice in a hollandaise sauce with, for instance, lime juice. Or using anything other than gin, vermouth and lemon in a Martini.
But when published recipes for classic dishes are simply incorrect—whether due to ignorance or arrogance—I get rather cross. Particularly when these recipes come from popular, respected sources, as many readers will never know what they’ve been missing. So it is with the glorious Pavlova cake, often misrepresented as a “big meringue”.
A true Pavlova is not simply a big meringue, but a particularly special bit of baking. Cooked egg white emerges from the oven as a soft, marshmallowy cake with a delicately golden, crusted exterior, a magic transformation that only occurs with the help of two crucial ingredients: cornflour and vinegar. I’m not exactly sure of the science, but I believe the vinegar’s acidity quickly denatures—or sets—the protein of the egg white, while the starchy cornflour adds the necessary squishy, cake-like body. To omit these negates the whole point of the recipe; to omit them and still call the thing a Pavlova is tantamount to heresy.
I think I may have been about 15 when I first saw a picture of a Pavlova, lusciously photographed in a 1970s issue of Cordon Bleu magazine. Well, it certainly caught this keen teenager’s eye: crusted meringue, very gently gilded by the lowest heat of an oven, topped with folds of whipped cream and a layer of scented soft fruits. Quite simply, it demanded to be made. The method here is close to the one that I followed that first time.
Firstly, the oven needs to be low. Whereas an ordinary meringue can be heated at a temperature so low it’s more dried than cooked, a Pavlova’s marshmallowy interior requires actual cooking, albeit slowly; 150?C/gas mark 2 is about right. Choose a loose-bottomed, deep and, preferably, non-stick cake tin—if it has slightly sloping sides, all the better for the final look of the cake, but no matter if it doesn’t. Line the base of the tin with a circle of dampened greaseproof paper. Generously butter the sides of the tin, then dust this with caster sugar, shaking off any excess. Whip four large egg-whites together with a pinch of salt, using an electric mixer—nobody’s going to whip by hand these days, though you’ll get a better, airier texture if you do—until they’ve formed soft, satin-like peaks. With the motor still running, introduce, in heaped tablespoonfuls, 250g of caster sugar, and keep whipping until the meringue is stiff and shiny. Finally, quickly—but thoroughly —beat in two heaped teaspoons of cornflour, one dessertspoon of cider or white-spirit vinegar and one teaspoon of pure vanilla extract.
Carefully pile the mixture into the cake tin and smooth the surface with a dampened spatula. Strew it lightly with caster sugar and then bake for an hour to an hour and a quarter, until the cake has risen somewhat, developed a golden, cracked crust, and is springy when prodded with a finger. If you’re satisfied, close the oven door and switch off the heat. Leave it there until completely cold; this is important, to make sure it doesn’t sink.
Once it’s cool, run a small, sharp knife around the inside of the tin, unmould the cake and turn it out onto a presentable plate. Peel off the circle of greaseproof paper, then pile onto the soft surface some lightly whipped and sweetened cream in thick folds. For me, the only further decoration needed is a very generous slewing of freshly scooped passionfruit pulp: about a dozen well-wizened fruits should do the trick.
Some say that this recipe originated in Wellington, New Zealand, in the mid-1920s, created by a chef for the ballerina Anna Pavlova while she stayed at his hotel. It’s also claimed that it was created in a hotel kitchen in Perth, Australia, in 1935—presumably while Miss Pavlova was there, too. Who really knows? Either way, I hope what she ate was this meringue confection. Cornflour and vinegar included.
Egg whites These will keep in the fridge for at least a month, in a sealed container — if you have a stash, for this recipe you need 120g of whites.
Passionfruit Try to find fruit that look entirely shrivelled; the scent will be immeasurably more intense.
Cream Do not be tempted to use whipping cream for covering your Pavlova. Only double (aka heavy) cream will be thick enough for the purpose.