Saturday, April 3, 2010

I am "in to" works of art and food….no doubt about it. When I find a food that IS a work of art…..I am ecstatic! My grandmother Ann Robnett Johnston, made an angel food cake with 7 minute frosting that qualified as a work of art. Her cakes were a good 10” high, then she made them even higher with 2 to 3” of frosting. Absolutely beautiful. My grandmother Minnie Florence Ogg created her masterpieces with lard and flour….Biscuits! My Mom and Dad, Tom and Virginia Johnston, would spend days preparing their big Fall Football extravaganza for after the University of Missouri’s Homecoming Game. Every year, the table was covered with works of art! I remember my Dad always gave Mom a huge bright yellow mum corsage with a big MU made out of black pipe cleaners stuck right in the middle of it. And he loved to make those little frilly "socks" out of white tissue paper for the feet on the big roast turkey! What in the world did they call those darn things? Anyway, they did work hard planning a perfect party, preparing the food and arranging the table. Then they had fun!
So, I guess you might say, it is in my blood.

I am a firm believer that food must thrill the eyes before it ever crosses your lips!

I agonized for years, trying to give brides their perfect wedding cake. I spent 3 days making my own wedding cake! It was a brown sugar orange cake with real sunflowers on top. It was pretty, but not worth all the effort. If I could go back and redo that cake, I would make it Pavlova and would have completed it in one day. Another thing is for sure....Arch would have loved it!

Picture a 3 or 4 tiered stand, each tier displaying a perfect, fluffy white meringue shell filled with sweetened whipped cream and decorated with fresh fruit. I’m telling you, it beats the heck out of wedding cake! So, it might not cut as precisely as cake; it might not look as neat on the plate, but I guarantee you this…. the plates returned to the kitchen would be licked clean!

My first experience with Pavlova was probably 30 to 35 years ago. I read about the dessert from New Zealand, created in honor of the ballerina, Anna Pavlova’s visit to that country. A Russian ballerina of the late 19th and the early 20th century, she is widely regarded as one of the finest classical ballet dancers in history. Pavlova is most recognized for the creation of the role The Dying Swan and with her own company, would become the first ballerina to tour ballet around the world. It was during that tour a chef or baker in New Zealsnd created the Pavlova masterpiece.
Now, I should tell you a few things that I have discovered about making a Pavlova.

1. Being a meringue, do not make this during a monsoon! Meringue will become a sticky, gummy mess in heavy humidity.

2. The exterior of your Pavlova should be crunchy and crisp while the interior remains soft, creamy, very marshmallow like. That is produced by folding a little vinegar and cornstarch into stiffly beaten egg white mixture.

You do not want to brown the meringue as you do in Lemon Meringue Pie. Rather, you want it a beautiful creamy color. To achieve this, your oven is set extremely low, drying the surface rather than “baking” it.

3. For the sugar, use super-fine, also called castor sugar, so that it dissolves completely into the egg whites.

4. The egg whites must be handled carefully. The old standby rule of absolutely no fat or grease on the bowl or mixer beaters is very important here. First of all, separate the egg whites from the yolks while the eggs are very cold. This makes separating much easier and there is a much less chance of breaking a yolk. Once separated, bring the egg whites to room temperature before beating. Cover and refrigerate the egg yolks for another use. I use them for my Mom’s Boiled Custard!

5. I have never tried to save a meringue Pavlova shell for more than overnight. I simply leave it in the oven, turned off, of course.

Okay, those are my observations, now, are you ready? This recipe is from The Joy Of Baking.


Meringue Shell:

4 large egg whites

1 cup superfine (castor) sugar

1 teaspoon white vinegar

1/2 tablespoon cornstarch


1 cup heavy whipping cream

1 1/2 tablespoons granulated white sugar

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Fresh fruit – kiwi (definitely the traditional choice), strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, peaches 

Preheat oven to 250 degrees F (130 degrees C) and place rack in center of oven. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and draw a 7 inch (18 cm) circle on the paper.

In the bowl of your electric mixer, with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites on medium-high speed until they hold soft peaks. Start adding the sugar, a tablespoon at a time, and continue to beat until the meringue holds very stiff peaks. (Test to see if the sugar is fully dissolved by rubbing a little of the meringue between your thumb and index finger. The meringue should feel smooth, not gritty. If it feels gritty the sugar has not fully dissolved so keep beating until it feels smooth between your fingers). Sprinkle the vinegar and cornstarch over the top of the meringue and, with a rubber spatula, fold in.

Gently spread the meringue inside the circle drawn on the parchment paper, smoothing the edges, making sure the edges of the meringue are slightly higher than the center. (You want a slight well in the center of the meringue to place the whipped cream and fruit.)

Bake for 1 hour 15 minutes or until the outside is dry and takes on a very pale cream color. Turn the oven off, leave the door slightly ajar, and let the meringue cool completely in the oven. (The outside of the meringue will feel firm to the touch, if gently pressed, but as it cools you will get a little cracking and you will see that the inside is soft and marshmallowy.)

The cooled meringue can be made and stored in a cool dry place, in an airtight container, for a few days.

Just before serving gently place the meringue onto a serving plate. Whip the cream in your electric mixer, with the whisk attachment, until soft peaks form. Sweeten with the sugar and vanilla and then mound it softly into the center of the meringue. Arrange the fruit randomly, or in a decorative pattern, on top of the cream. Serve immediately as this dessert does not hold for more than a few hours.

However, I remember one time I had a small piece leftover….it was wonderful for breakfast! Not beautiful anymore, but heavenly!

Serves 6 to 8.

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