Ask Peter: Pavlova
I’ve had pavlova envy over the holidays - I’m not much of a baker - that was always my mother’s job but since she’s gone I have been making the pavlova for Christmas and family occasions. I use her recipe and it works well, tastes great, however, I always seem to get a nice high crust that is half air when you crack in to it; i.e the marshmallowy part inside is quite low. I ate two of my friends’ pavs over the holidays and their marshmallowy bit filled the whole inside so you could get lovely thick slices. Their recipes were much of a muchness to mine. Is there a trick I am missing?
A few years back I shared my mother’s pavlova recipe with the Herald and am happy to do the same again as my mum Timmy simply makes the best I know (here's the recipe). Mum’s recipe really is the most simple of things, but it’s telling that when Mum travels anywhere, knowing she’s going to be asked to make one, she brings her own electric beater. It’s an old hand-held one, not a bench-mixer type. Mind you, Mum also takes cake tins and the likes with her when she travels, so maybe this isn’t so strange.
What it shows, though, is that Mum feels comfortable with her old favourites and even though she’s an ace baker, she is a little concerned things may not turn out if the equipment is wrong. It’s not the ingredients she’s worried about but the equipment. Which is completely different to me - I always worry that the ingredients, if not up to scratch - could cause a disaster. If you’ve been watching my Fusion Feasts series on TV3, in a couple of the marae kitchens I struggle with some of the equipment, but the ingredients are always amazing, so things turn out well, even if the gas pressure is too low or I can’t find a pot lid.
Basic pavlova rules
Here are some basic rules to follow - and I’m sure I’ll receive several hundred emails telling me this isn’t correct, but here I go:
Older egg whiteswork best. Really fresh ones just don’t have enough chutzpah in them and are too thin, they just won’t whip up enough. Anything older than 5 days is good.
Cream of tartar helps strengthen the whipped whites, so adding a pinch at the beginning is helpful, but not essential (I wonder how many of you have that in your pantry).
Salt causes the whites to collapse a little and therefore to whip up better — but just a pinch of fine salt at the beginning. Too much and you can end up with a dead pavlova once baked.
I generally always use caster sugar as it dissolves quickly in the meringue. You want to add it bit by bit. If any is left undissolved then the pavlova can weep - the undissolved sugar is heavy and drops down in the meringue, taking moisture with it and causing a syrup to be formed. However, I have followed recipes where you combine some of the sugar (less than 2 Tbsp) with the same volume of cornflour and mix this in at the end. The cornflour dries out the meringue and prevents the sugar sinking as described above, and this can help to give a nice marshmallowy centre.
Cornflour and vinegar (or lemon juice). Mum always adds a tablespoon of cornflour and a dessertspoon of malt vinegar right at the end, once the beaters are turned off, and gently folds it in. It seems to help the marshmallowness and gives a tiny “ping” in flavour.
Now, having said all of that, I have also successfully made pavlovas where you put the egg whites, sugar, cornflour, vinegar and boiling water in a bowl and beat it like mad for 15 minutes. It produces a fab pav. So in that case, you can ignore everything I’ve written. But at your peril. The main thing with any pav, as we all know, is: load it up with cream and something a little tart - mango and passionfruit, strawberries or kiwifruit.
You can’t go wrong!
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to email@example.com and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.