Travel: New Zealand and pavlova cake

Pavlova is a meringue topped by fruit invented by a chef who named it after Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova when she toured New Zealand.

The Pastry Chef's Baking
Pavlova is a very pretty dessert, especially if you like meringues and fruit. Here it is topped with New Zealand kiwis and oranges.

Carol Ramos recently returned from a travel tour to Australia and New Zealand, just missing the earthquake that devastated Christchurch.

As part of our tour itinerary, we got an opportunity to dine with a local Kiwi family who live near Christchurch. There's a program that the locals sign up for and they host 4-6 tourists about once a month for dinner. The tour guidelines say they must serve New Zealand lamb and pavlova but I guess the rest of the menu is up to them.

I went with my fellow travelers, Eileen, Richard, and Nancy, to dinner at the home of Ted and Gay. Ted picked us up from the hotel to drive us to their house. He and Gay live about 30 minutes away from Christchurch on 5 acres of land, planted with olive trees which Ted mostly tends himself. He drove us around their orchard to give us a tour before we went to their house.

It was a truly enjoyable evening. They couldn't have made us feel more welcome and were both very gracious and entertaining. I can't help but think of the word "gentility" as a way to describe them. They used to be teachers, are retired now and have done any number of things since retirement such as own and operate a motel and move to their current home tending to their olive orchard. Gay served us a delicious dinner. I confess that I don't usually eat lamb as my prior few experiences have led me to believe lamb is greasy and/or stringy. Not so – at least, not when it's cooked to perfection which this was. I think Gay roasted it but I didn't think to ask. She started the dinner with a first course of tomato soup - another surprise for me as I ended up really liking the soup. Normally I'm not big on tomato anything unless it's making up the sauce on a pizza but this was quite delicious. Perhaps the difference is the tomatoes were fresh from their garden.

For dessert we had pavlova. The funny story about pavlova is my friend Cheryl told me I had to try the pavlova in Australia as it was "their" dessert and my cousin, Ate Maris, said the same thing and meant to bring me a pavlova on my last night in Sydney. But she forgot and pavlova wasn't something I really saw being offered in the bakeshops or on restaurant menus so I didn't remember to try it in Australia either. But it turns out to be just as well because once we entered New Zealand, we were told by the local kiwis that pavlova is actually a New Zealand dessert even though the Aussies try to claim it as their own.

Pavlova was invented by a chef who named it after Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova when she visited Australia and New Zealand. It has a meringue base traditionally topped with fruit. I've always thought the dessert originated in Australia but the New Zealanders (Kiwis) set me straight and even Wikipedia backs them up.

In any case, as mentioned, I finally got to try pavlova at our local Kiwi dinner so I can now say I've tried the real thing. Pavlova is a very pretty dessert, especially if you like meringues and fruit. Unfortunately, if you've read my blog with any regularity, you know I have a prejudice against fruit desserts except for a few notable exceptions. I'm also not a big eater of kiwi but when in Rome, er, New Zealand.... The pavlova Gay served us for dessert looked very professionally done but both Eileen and I were too shy to ask if she had made it herself. In case she didn't, we didn't want any awkwardness about having a "store-bought" pavlova. As pavlovas go, I'm sure it was one of the better ones. The meringue base was crisp, the fruit (kiwi and mandarin oranges) were the perfect complement to the fluffy meringue and the dark chocolate chunks on top also added greatly to the texture and flavor.

But I have to confess I'm not fond of meringues. We made them in culinary school and it was one of the few things I couldn't get into nor understand why they were so popular. They're generally too sweet for me. Our pavlova last night was done to perfection but even in that perfection I did find it a trifle too sweet for my (diminishing) sweet tooth. The fruit and chocolate, however, did help offset that sweetness and overall it was good but I don't think I'll be making this myself.

However, for anyone who does want to make it, here's a recipe I found on a New Zealand tea towel that I bought for a gift. I haven't tried it but if anyone does, let me know how it turns out. I've added the conversions needed for US bakers.

New Zealand pavlova cake

4 egg whites
1 pinch salt
1 cup castor sugar (superfine sugar)
1 teaspoon vanilla essence (vanilla extract)
2 teaspoons cornflour (cornstarch)
1 teaspoon vinegar

Preheat your oven to 150 degrees C. (300 degrees F). Beat the egg whites and salt until stiff peaks form. Gradually add the castor sugar, beating all the time. It is important to ensure all the sugar is completely dissolved.

Lightly fold in the cornstarch, vanilla and vinegar into the mix. Turn the mixture out into the center of a round baking tray lined with parchment paper and shape into a circle but don't let it touch the sides.

Turn the oven down to 140 degrees C. (284 degrees F.) and bake for 15 minutes. Then turn the oven down to 120 C. (248 degrees F.) and bake for a further 1-1/4 hours. Let it cool in the oven. Top with fresh whipped cream, strawberries and kiwis.

Note: Gay said she's tried them with strawberries but found that the best flavor combination was with kiwis and oranges. I'd go with what she said.

Carol Ramos blogs at The Pastry Chef's Baking.

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