The thing about meringue is that it’s two quite different things in one. And it is precisely this interplay – the squidgy, marshmallow centre combined with the shatteringly fragile shell that makes it so addictive. And why shop-bought ones rarely work. And that almost colourless colour; palest fawn, the exact shade of my favourite sofa which is currently doing time in an outbuilding in Suffolk. Apparently, according to almost every meringue writer I’ve encountered, the trick is to never ever open the oven door. Go away for the weekend if you must. The meringue must dry out, preferably overnight with the oven off. It is very hard to wait, because a meringue is so enticing, so visually sumptuous. But try.
This recipe is in essence a pavlova, a pudding made for, and named after, the Russian dancer Anna Pavlova, who visited Australia in the thirties. It is known principally as an Australian pudding, then, but its roots lie in the European pâtisserie tradition. What makes it particularly Australian here is the way it is served; with cream and passion fruit, mainly. And the shape which is similar to a large, round nest. Being half Australian, I expected to know this pudding. I certainly remember the fruit; dripping mangoes for breakfast, the flesh scored into succulent cubes. Passion fruit in its calloused skin, all green and beady, and lychees, like sinister eyeballs. Everything dripped, I remember. It was hot and endlessly wet, either from the afternoon storms or from our torrential sweat. It was my first experience of scale. Sydney was big and new, and the highways ran through the city in a way that seemed to gobble everything up. London afterwards felt like toy town. I have always believed in small. I never wanted a bigger bedroom growing up. Sydney seemed vaguely hostile to me. Tall and glossy, with nowhere to hide. Little did I know, LA was waiting.
Choose sour, sharp fruit to balance the sweet blandness of the cream and meringue. Passion fruit, unblowsy strawberries, loganberries or raspberries all work. Of course mangoes are beautiful here too; slippery and lavish as a bar of luxury soap. Nigel Slater, whose recipe I am following, would disapprove of such a cornucopia of fruits for a pavlova, but as I couldn’t find any ripe passion fruit, I arrived at the solitary kiwi. They grow here with gay abandon, though with less commercial success nowadays due to their excessive watering demands. Their general ubiquity (they travel and store well) can make them seem rather ordinary, and they’re often horribly hard. But when they have had the chance to sit and soften, the taste can be mellow and delightful – tart apple, strawberry and a melodious banana combine. I blitzed the kiwis in the blender and crowned them with a few slivers of mango here and they were a hit. And I like the sparkly seeds.
I have to confess I love Kerstin Rodgers‘ idea of dribbling salty caramel over the whole thing, although this is verging on the orgiastic. Frankly, you need to get naked. Maybe next time. As to size, I decided on several small nests rather that one big one as it felt less perilous. Alternatively, pile the whole lot in voluptuous folds on to a baking tray and bake for an hour.
Adapted from Nigel Slater, Appetite
Enough for 8-10
6 large free-range egg whites (use the yolks for citrus curd)
Pinch of salt
350g (12 oz) caster/superfine sugar
300ml (10 fl oz) whipping cream
Some ideas for fruit
8 Passion fruit, cut in half – the pulp spooned over the cream
3 kiwi fruit, peeled and blitzed in a blender and poured over
A ripe mango, cut in half, sliced and added
Preheat the oven to 140C/275F. Lightly grease 1 large or 2 smaller baking trays and line with non-stick baking paper. Separate the eggs, dropping the whites into an extremely clean bowl, and the yolks into another (always great for curd or ice cream or indeed mayonnaise). It’s important that there is no yolk caught up with the whites as the fat in the egg yolk will stop the whites thickening. Beat the egg whites with the pinch of salt until shiny and thick. You should be able to turn the bowl upside down and have no fall-out. Now add the sugar – do it in two lots slowly (imagine rain), letting the whisk continue to turn at moderate speed. You will feel the mixture begin to thicken with the weight of the sugar. Keep going until the mixture is thick and glossy, but don’t overwhip – this will loosen it, and you want it to be so thick that it takes a while to fall off the whisk. I know there are many who say you should add cornflour (cornstarch) and white wine vinegar at this point, but I am not convinced there is enough of a difference to warrant it.
Drop 8 large spoonfuls of the mixture (about 10 cm/4 in round) on the baking trays and try to fashion a ‘nest’ with a small dip in the middle. Bake for 45 minutes until pale in colour. Then turn off the oven, but do not open the door; leave the meringue alone until it’s completely cool.
Wait until the last minute to prepare the pavlova – if it sits for too long once assembled, the cream and fruit start to soften the meringue. Whip the cream into soft peaks. Spoon some into the centre of each pavlova and let the cream dribble down the sides. Halve the passion fruit and spoon the pulp over the cream, or blitz the kiwi fruit and use in a similar fashion. Drape some mango over the top and tuck in.