The nineteenth century, particularly the opulent Victorian era, was a timeframe when the idea of naming foods after famous people was especially trendy. Charles Ranhofer, chef of the celebrated New York restaurant Delmonico's, was probably the most prolific, naming dozens of his concoctions for notable folks and his favorite patrons. (He also popularized many dishes that Delmonico's became well-known for such as Lobster Newburg and Baked Alaska). Later in the century, legendary chef Auguste Escoffier named three dishes in honor of Australian opera singer Helen Porter Mitchell (stage name Nellie Melba): Peach Melba, a refreshing dessert of fresh peaches, ice cream and raspberry puree; Melba sauce, the raspberry sauce featured in Peach Melba; and Melba toast, the thin, dried cracker-like bread. And the progressive French epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin had several dishes named after him, including Brillat-Savarin cheese, partridge, eggs, garnishes, savory pastries, and the Savarin cake.
The dish I am writing about today is called a Pavlova. Named after Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova, it is a meringue-based dessert with a crisp crust and light, airy filling, (sometimes garnished with fruit) that was created in the 1920s. (The sides of the meringue base are supposed to flare up like a ballerina's tutu). Australia and New Zealand have both claimed to have been the originating source of the confection (Ms. Pavlova toured there in 1926 and 1929). Although it appears the name was first used in New Zealand, this may have been a referring to a slightly different dessert. In any case, the Pavlova is now as integral to the regional cuisine of both countries as apple pie is to America.
The concept of meringue has been around since 16th century European cooks began whisking egg whites with birch twigs to create a frothy treat. It was eventually discovered that meringue hardens when baked at a low temperature (or simply left out in the air to dry). In the 17th century this was called "sugar puff." Later meringue cookies called "kisses" became popular, as well as the concept of topping pies and puddings with meringue (such as lemon meringue pie). Forming meringue into a pie crust was another innovation, such as in a lemon schaum torte or an angel pie, "the most frequently printed of all the pie recipes in sectional cookbooks" throughout the early and mid-20th century, as per James Beard's American Cookery. What makes a pavlova different is the addition of cornstarch and vinegar, which results in a cake with a crisp, crunchy shell and a soft marshmallow-like center.
Although a Pavlova was originally vanilla-flavored, there are now all kinds of chocolate versions too. The one I tried was from allrecipes.com:
- 6 egg whites
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon vinegar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 2 (1 ounce) squares bittersweet chocolate, melted
- 3 cups fresh strawberries, hulled and halved
- 1 1/2 cups whipping cream
- 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
- 1 (1 ounce) square bittersweet chocolate, melted
- Preheat oven to 275 degrees F (135 degrees C).
- Beat together egg whites, salt, and cream of tartar to soft peaks in a large bowl. Beat in sugar, about three tablespoons at a time, until stiff and glossy peaks form. Sift cocoa and cornstarch over egg whites, and gently fold in. Gently fold in vinegar, vanilla, and melted chocolate.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, and spread the meringue into an eight inch circle. Bake in the center of the oven for 1 1/2 hours until the outside is crispy and the center is soft. Using a metal spatula, loosen the meringue from the parchment paper, and remove to cool on a wire rack. Allow to cool completely, about one hour.
- Whip cream with the sugar, and spread over the meringue. Arrange strawberries decoratively over the top, and drizzle with chocolate.
It was very good, but my "shell" turned out very crispy and seemed to spread more than puff up. I think next time I will try to mound up the meringue more into a smaller circle on the parchment. Also, I made mine a couple hours in advance of serving, with the whipped cream and everything. I then kept it cold because I was worried about the topping spoiling, but I think this hardened the meringue even more. I think the solution is to whip the cream and then top it with strawberries just before serving ... this will be my strategy next time!
Sources: The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, Food Timeline (http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodcakes.html#pavlova), Mrs Goodfellow: The Story of America's First Cooking School, James Beard's American Cookery