Is there any dessert more elegant than pavlova, with its billowy meringue, clouds of whipped cream, and colorful toppings? Named after the ballerina Anna Pavlova (I won’t get into the heated discussion of its origin country), pavlova is a study in contrasts. The outer layer of meringue is shatteringly crisp, giving way to soft and mallowy innards. It begs to be topped with heaps of softly whipped cream and the juiciest of fruit.
While a stark white pavlova is a thing of beauty, I wanted to play around with adding color and flavor to the meringue itself with ground freeze-dried berries. Thus this very strawberry pavlova was born!
Pavlova isn’t difficult to make, though the process can seem daunting until you’ve given it a couple of tries. Here are my tips for getting the best results for your pavlova.
Tips for Pavlova Success
- Use fresh, clean egg whites. We want maximum volume for the extra billowy meringue. Fresh (not boxed) egg whites will give you the most stable and voluminous foam. Make sure there are no traces of egg yolk; any fat will prevent the meringue from whipping up properly. (Your bowl and beaters should be squeaky clean, too.) Room temperature whites will whip up and dissolve sugar more quickly, so I leave mine at room temperature for 30-60 minutes before starting.
- Beat meringue on medium speed. I like to make pavlova using French meringue as I think it creates the lightest and potentially most voluminous meringue, when correctly made. French meringue is often called the simplest of the three meringue styles, as it doesn’t involve using a double boiler (Swiss meringue) or making a sugar syrup (Italian meringue). However, French meringue is the least stable of the meringues and can easy overwhip or collapse. To counteract this, I whip the meringue on no higher than medium speed the entire time. Whipping on high speed will create volume quickly, but you end up with a meringue with lots of big and frothy air bubbles that are more prone to rising and collapsing in the oven, resulting in cracks. Beating on a lower speed for longer creates a mesh of very fine and even bubbles, creating a structure that is strong and stable. This is what we want!
- Sugar: keep it fine and add it slowly. I recommend using superfine or caster sugar for making the meringue — its small crystals dissolve more quickly and easily than regular granulated sugar. (I make my own superfine sugar by blitzing regular sugar in a food processor for about a minute.) Also important — wait until the meringue reaches soft peaks before adding the sugar; and add it gradually — a spoonful at a time, waiting a good 10 seconds between additions. Adding the sugar too soon or too quickly can overwhelm the delicate meringue, inhibiting it from expanding to its full potential. You’ll know your meringue is ready when the mixture is stiff and glossy and you don’t feel any grittiness when you rub a bit of the meringue between your fingers. Sugar that isn’t completely dissolved can lead to weeping (leaking sugar syrup) during or after baking, so take your time!
- Baking takes time… Pavlovas need a low, slow bake to dry sufficiently — in my oven for this particular recipe about 80-90 minutes, but keep in mind that all ovens are different and you may need to adjust. I bake mine on a pizza stone to help retain oven heat and crisp the bottom (awesome tip from Nicola Lamb). Try not to open the oven door until the very end; the delicate structure may deflate if exposed to sudden temperature changes. Use the oven light if you’re curious!
- …And so does cooling. Ideally, pavlovas are also given enough time to cool completely in the oven. I like to make my pavlova shells right before bed, leaving them in the oven to cool overnight so the structure has plenty of time to set and minimize cracks from cooling too fast.
- Fill at the last minute. Due to their high sugar content, pavlovas are hygroscopic — they want to absorb moisture from anything around it. Once you add cream and fruit, it’s only a matter of time before the shell will start to soften from the moisture of the toppings. Pavlova is best enjoyed immediately after filling (or at most, an hour or two after filling).
One last thing: CRACKS HAPPEN, even if you do everything right. While dramatic cracking during baking or cracks that compromise the structure of the shape suggest problems with either the meringue or baking, it is totally normal to have a few small ones here and there, especially around the hollowed area. Don’t worry about it! This is what the fillings are for.
For the strawberry pavlova shell:
- 105g egg whites (from about 3 large eggs), at room temperature
- 1/4 tsp cream of tartar
- 1/4 tsp kosher salt
- 170g superfine or caster sugar
- 5g (1 tsp) vinegar or lemon juice
- 5g (2 tsp) cornstarch
- 15g freeze-dried strawberry powder
- Drop of gel pink food coloring (optional)
- Lots of berries or other tart fresh fruit, sliced if large
- 1-2 Tbsp granulated sugar (optional)
- 200g heavy cream (35%)
- 60g buttermilk (or substitute yogurt, sour cream, or additional heavy cream)
- Preheat the oven: Preheat the oven to 275F with a rack in the lower third. If you have a pizza stone, place this on the rack while the oven is preheating. Alternatively, you can preheat a large baking sheet. This will help the bottom of the pavlova crisp nicely.
- Prepare the baking sheet: Trace a 6" circle on a piece of parchment paper. Place the parchment paper, ink side down, on a baking sheet.
- Make the strawberry pavlova shell: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine the egg whites, cream of tarter, and salt. Mix on low to combine, then raise the speed to medium (5 on a Kitchenaid mixer) and whisk until soft peaks.
- Once the meringue has reached soft peaks, turn the mixer to medium-low (4 on a Kitchenaid) and add the sugar a teaspoon at a time, waiting about 10 seconds between each addition. It will take several minutes to add the sugar. Be patient; adding the sugar too quickly can cause the meringue to deflate and not reach optimal volume. Once all the sugar has been added, stop briefly and scrape down the bowl with a clean spatula to make sure no sugar is stuck on the sides. Then continue mixing on medium-low/medium speed (4 or 5 on a Kitchenaid) until the meringue is stiff and glossy and the sugar is fully dissolved. If you rub a little bit of meringue between your fingers, you shouldn't feel any granules of sugar. This usually takes me anywhere from 5-10 minutes, but the timing can vary depending on your sugar granule size and the condition of your egg whites. Go by look and feel rather than time.
- Pour in the vinegar or lemon juice and sift in the cornstarch, then mix on medium-high speed (6 on a Kitchenaid) for 20-30 seconds to combine. Add the freeze-dried strawberries and food coloring (if using), and mix on medium for a final 20-30 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a flexible spatula and fold the mixture a few times to ensure everything is well combined.
- Shape the pavlova: Scrape the meringue into the center of the circle and use an offset spatula to shape it into a cylinder, keeping it within the drawn guide. Make a well in the center (this is where your toppings will go), then swipe your spatula or a spoon vertically around the pavlova to make decorative furrows. You can make these rather deep as the lines will lose some definition during baking.
- Bake the pavlova: Place the baking sheet onto the preheated baking stone or sheet and immediately turn the oven down to 220F. Bake the pavlova for 80 minutes without opening the oven door. At this point, the outside of the pavlova should be matte and dry to the touch and release from the paper (but be careful, when lifting; it's delicate!). If not, bake for a further 5-10 minutes or until dry. Turn off the heat and allow the pavlova to cool completely in the closed oven, at least 3 hours and preferably overnight.
- Carefully slide an offset spatula under the base of the cooled pavlova and transfer it to an airtight container until ready to serve.
- Make the topping: About 30 minutes before serving, toss a couple handfuls of berries with 1-2 Tbsp sugar to macerate, if desired (this will pull the juices out of the fruit which you can decoratively drizzle over the top). Right before serving, combine the cream and buttermilk in a medium bowl and whip until medium-soft peaks. Pile the cream into the center of the pavlova and top generously with fruit. Drizzle with fruit juices if desired. Serve immediately.
Make your own superfine sugar by blitzing regular granulated sugar in a food processor for about one minute, or until fine but not powdery.
Freeze-dried strawberry powder can be purchased online or at some specialty food stores. You can also make your own by grinding whole freeze-dried strawberries, though I recommend doing this right before mixing the meringue to minimize clumping.
In a dry environment, unfilled pavlova shells can be stored for a few days in an airtight container. However, the more humid your environment the more quickly the shell will start to soften.