Pavlova has an incredible mix of textures and tastes that nothing else can match. Crispy coating, marshmallow inside, and cream and fruit on top come together in a way that’s difficult to describe.
Like so many baked goods, pavlova can be temperamental, meaning you should follow a recipe precisely. Sounds straight-forward, until you realise there are so many recipes out there, and they’re all different!
To help make sense of it all, I’ve gone through fifteen recipes for this famous dessert. I’ve figured out what’s popular, and what’s not, to help you choose an approach, or a recipe, that suits you the best.
What is pavlova?
Pavlova is a meringue-like dessert made from egg whites and sugar, baked until it has a crispy shell and a marshmallow-like soft centre. It’s typically topped with whipped cream and fresh fruits. A traditional pavlova is a large cake-size dish, served in slices, but you can make small single-serve pavlovas as well. Either way, it’s a wonderful mixture of textures and sweetness.
Before we dig into how it’s made though, we need to answer an important question about its heritage – where did Pavlova come from?
Australia or New Zealand?
As an Australian I can tell you with complete confidence – I don’t know. So I did a bit of digging, and it turns out neither country invented the dish.
What? Yep, I was surprised too. But a research team of a New Zealander and an Australian determined that the true origin is an Austrian dish called a Spanische Windtorte is the true origin. It’s believed the addition of cornstarch/cornflour to create a firmer result began in America. Then a recipe for this evolution travelled to New Zealand on a cornstarch packet!
A lot of this happened because meringue-based dishes became much more popular in the early 1900’s with the invention of the mechanical rotary egg beater, saving dessert-makers half-an-hour or more of beating egg whites by hand.
So why is there such fierce belief and rivalry amongst Australians and New Zealanders on the origin of the pavlova? Because the two countries have embraced the dessert more than any other. Many New Zealanders and Australians grew up eating pavlova as a summer dessert, especially around Christmas. So the traditions are deeply rooted.
And what about the name pavlova, believed to be after the ballerina Anna Pavlova? It turns out there were so many dishes named after her that some believe she may have been licensing her name out! And while the use of her name for the meringue dessert seems to have originated in Australia or New Zealand, no one knows for sure who to credit with that, either.
What’s in pavlova?
If we exclude toppings, pavlova is made from a short and simple list of ingredients:
- Egg whites
- Food acid
- Maybe some vanilla
The foundation of pavlova (or any meringue) is egg whites. They’re beaten until they form stiff peaks, which is what gives pavlova its bulk and its trademark consistency.
Of the fifteen recipes, six use six egg whites and five use four egg whites. All of the recipes specify a number of egg whites, but because the size of eggs varies quite a lot, a number of authors recommend volumes (e.g. cups) for determining the right amount of egg white for the recipe.
A couple of authors recommend using older eggs because they’ll whip up better than freshly laid eggs. So if you’re sourcing your eggs from a farm, or your backyard, give them a few days to mature. If you’re buying them from the store it’s likely they’ve had a few days (or even more) before they make it to you anyway.
Separating your eggs
Several authors recommend separating your eggs in advance and letting the whites come to room temperature before you begin. This means they’ll whip to the desired consistency more quickly, reducing the risk of overworking them. Some also suggest they’re easier to separate when they’re cold. Plus you can then keep your egg yolks for another recipe because they never warmed up.
If you’re not used to separating eggs, a few authors recommend breaking the egg into your hand, and letting the white slide away through your fingers, leaving you holding just the yolk. I’ve never tried this, but it certainly reduces the risk of nicking the yolk with the shell if you’re doing it the traditional way. You can also get egg separator tools to help do this if you’re unsure.
One important point with egg whites. If they come into contact with fats, there’s a good chance they won’t whip up properly. This means it’s important to be careful when separating your eggs, because a ruptured yolk can easily contaminate your whites with some egg fat. Even a little bit of yolk could leave you facing a problem getting your whites to whip to the consistency you need. John from Preppy Kitchen recommends separating them one at a time over a smaller bowl so you don’t contaminate the whole mixture if one yolk breaks.
The simplest form of meringue is egg whites and sugar. The sugar is whipped into the whites, dissolving in the process. And because it needs to dissolve, the type of sugar does make a difference.
Ten authors recommend you use superfine/caster sugar. This is white sugar with a very small grain size, which rapidly dissolves in the mixture. The other five authors use normal granulated white sugar. This will still work, but will take longer to dissolve, meaning you’ll need to beat your egg whites for longer. If it ends up being too long, you could overwork your eggs.
If you want to use caster/superfine sugar and can’t find any, you can make it by pulsing normal granulated white sugar in your food processor until the crystals are finer.
There are a couple of sugar variants you should avoid:
- Icing powder or confectioners sugar. These contain other ingredients, such as cornstarch/cornflour, which will be difficult to adjust for.
- Brown sugar contains more moisture than white sugar, which could prevent your egg whites from stiffening or cause your meringue to weep.
How much sugar?
The amount of sugar is fairly consistent when measured as cups per egg white. Most of the recipes hover around a third of a cup of sugar per egg white. Five are a little sweeter than this, but not by much.
Twelve of the recipes include between half-a-teaspoon and two tablespoons of cornstarch/cornflour in the mixture. This helps to create a softer, fluffier meringue.
That said, three of the recipes don’t add any starch. Ashley from Gather and Feast has tried both and prefers hers without. She’s found she doesn’t need it for a great finish, and she doesn’t like the impact it has on the texture.
Thirteen of the recipes include some form of food acid in the mixture. Cream of tartar and white vinegar are the two most commonly used, although a few use lemon juice instead.
Cream of tartar is powdered potassium bitartrate, an acidic salt. It’s produced as a by-product of wine-making. As well as being sold separately, it’s also included in baking powder.
Whichever acid the author chooses, the role is the same – to stabilise the egg whites. The chemistry of the process is complicated, but the result is that the egg whites hold on to water and air bubbles more effectively with the addition of a food acid, making the meringue more stable. If you’re keen on understanding exactly how this works, there’s a good explanation of cream of tartar on Slate.
A few authors also recommend wiping your bowl and your beaters with vinegar or lemon juice as well, although this is to clean them of any fats. As mentioned above, fat can prevent your egg whites from whipping properly.
The only flavouring that any authors add is vanilla. Ten use between half a teaspoon and two teaspoons of vanilla extract, although eight of the ten use one teaspoon.
One author, Zoë from Zoë Bakes, adds water to her meringue mixture. She finds it makes for a more delicate finish. She also points out that the vinegar is critical if you’re adding water.
Pavlovas can be unforgiving to make, with minor issues causing major headaches. As Sally from Sally’s Baking Addiction says:
“To obtain the unique pavlova texture, you must adhere to an exact recipe. While it’s fun to play around with ingredients, pavlova is not the time to stray from what’s listed.”
Fortunately the recipes are all very detailed, and a number of the authors provide a lot of guidance in their blog posts as well. The following in particular have great tips and guides to give you more confidence if you need:
Whichever recipe you choose, the first step is whipping your egg whites into a stiff meringue mix.
Whipping your egg whites
The key to a great pavlova is well-whipped egg whites. Most authors advise that you beat the whites until they will stand up in stiff peaks when you lift the beaters out. The whites do this because you’ve whipped millions of tiny air bubbles into the mixture. If the peaks subside quickly there’s likely not enough air in them yet.
And while it’s important to beat them enough, it’s also critical not to overbeat them. If you overwork your egg whites they’ll start to break down and get watery and collapse. Sadly once you’ve reached this point they can’t be saved, and your best bet is to start over. Because of this, a number of authors recommend you start to beat your whites at low speed, and only increase it to medium after several minutes.
You would think there would be one “right” way to create something like a pavlova, but there’s a bit of variation in how the authors go about putting the meringue mix together. The only thing that’s consistent is that the whites are well-beaten before gradually beating in the sugar. Beyond that, there’s almost every possible variation of mixing in the other ingredients. Some fold them all in after the sugar is fully dissolved, some beat them with the egg whites before incorporating the sugar, and some do a mixture of the two.
Shaping your pavlova
Most of the recipes here are for a large, cake-like pavlova. To help size and shape it correctly, almost all of the recipes recommend tracing a circle to the required size on baking/parchment paper and using this as your guide to shaping your pavlova. Eight inches (20cm) is easily the most commonly suggested size, regardless of whether the mixture consists of four, five or six egg whites. Obviously some of these will be taller than others.
A few authors recommend shaping your pavlova to have a depression in the top, in preparation for toppings later.
The key to baking a pavlova is a slow oven, giving the insides time to cook without over-crisping the outside.
Slow means different things to different authors though. Across the fifteen recipes there are seven different recommend oven temperatures. The most common is 250°F/130°C, but this is only used in five recipes. Three more each use 230°F/110°C and 210°F/100°C. A couple are a bit hotter, but both turn their oven down to 250°F or lower after a period of time.
Several authors preheat their oven forty or fifty degrees (F) hotter than required, then turn it down immediately before or as they place their pavlova in the oven. This is to ensure the correct temperature is achieved from the moment the pavlova goes in the oven, rather than dropping when the door is open and having to recover. The higher starting temperature also helps to quickly set the outer crust, ensuring a crispy finish and reducing spread.
If you’re short on time you might be tempted to crank up the temperature, cooking your pavlova more quickly. This might cause it to crack. It might also cause it to brown more than you want, or leave the insides under-cooked. Several readers complained their pavlovas were runny in the middle, likely because they used a fan-forced/convection setting on their oven, or their ovens were a bit hotter than expected.
The more likely issue with oven calibration is under-heating, in which case your pavlova could be undercooked. The most common symptom of this is that it’s stuck to the parchment/baking paper.
Like cooking temperature, the suggested cooking times vary considerably, and not always in line with temperature. For example, of the five recipes that cook at 250°F/130°C, the cooking time varies from an hour to an hour an fifteen. This doesn’t sound like a huge difference until you consider that the latter is 25% longer than the former.
Obviously the cooking times the authors suggest are only guides because of variables they can’t foresee, like your oven’s calibration, it’s heat distribution, the ambient temperature where you are, your altitude above sea level and more. You need to cook your pavlova until it’s done. A number of authors suggest this is when your pavlova:
- just starts to become ever so slightly brown (off-white/cream rather than brown).
- is hard and dry to the touch.
- comes away from the parchment/baking paper easily.
A couple of authors would not want you using either of the last two tips, because they strongly advise against opening the oven door. Given that more than a few recommend the touch-and-see approach, it’s fair to assume it’s probably okay to open your oven while it cooks.
Cooling your pavlova
One consistent step to cooking a pavlova that I didn’t know about beforehand was the advice to cool it in the oven after baking.
All fifteen recipes recommend you leave your pavlova in the oven for at least an hour after turning it off. Several suggest even longer, with five suggesting or even recommending leaving it in the oven overnight to cool!
It turns out this step is critical to prevent your pavlova from cracking or sinking due to sudden cooling. Your oven will cool slowly, and the air is nice and dry, which helps as well.
There’s not much you can do to guarantee your pavlova won’t crack, because it is a very fragile dessert. There are a few things you can do to lower the risk though:
- Don’t go overboard. As Nagi from Recipe Tin Eats says, a bigger pavlova is more prone to cracking, especially in humid climates.
- As just discussed, allow it to cool completely in the oven. This lets it cool slowly. Rapid cooling is more likely to cause cracks.
- Treat it gently. Once it’s baked, handle it with care. Sudden or jarring movements can crack the surface. Add your toppings carefully too.
- Don’t overload it with toppings. While whipped cream’s not a big deal, lots of fresh fruit can get heavy, which can cause your pavlova to collapse.
It’s worth remembering though that cracks don’t alter the taste at all, so your pavlova will still be just as good! And a number of the authors offer serving suggestions specifically for badly cracked pavlovas. Much like cracks atop a pumpkin pie, whipped cream can cover many problems!
If your pavlova is sweating or weeping, there are a few culprits to consider:
- Undissolved sugar. If your sugar wasn’t completely dissolved into your egg whites, this can cause weeping later on. For this reason a number of authors recommend rubbing a bit of mixture between your thumb and fingers to feel for any graininess. Unless it’s very smooth, it needs to be beaten more. This is more likely to be an issue if you used granulated sugar because it takes longer for the larger crystals to dissolve.
- Moisture in the air. If it’s humid, your pavlova will absorb moisture from the air. This may be hard to manage depending on where you live. Several authors recommend a good air-tight container for storage.
- Moisture in the mixture. Using brown sugar is a potential problem because it contains more water than white sugar. Using too much vanilla or liquid acid could also be a problem.
- Storage in the fridge. If you’ve kept it in the fridge, your pavlova is very likely to sweat when it comes out.
There are some traditional toppings, depending on where you hail from. Passionfruit in Australia, kiwi fruit in New Zealand, strawberries in the UK, and so on. Ultimately though, it comes down to personal choice, because all of these, and more, are delicious.
Based on these recipes, there are a number of different choices:
- Whipped cream. I’m not sure it is legal to serve pavlova without this!
- Berries – strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, cranberries, blackberries
- Kiwi fruit
- Passionfruit pulp
- Lemon curd
- Pomegranate arils (seeds)
- Nutella cream
- Toffee sauce, roasted plums and fresh figs. This decadent mix comes from Emma at Emma Duckworth Bakes. She also has other great suggestions for topping your pavlova.
Whatever you choose, don’t add your toppings until you’re ready to serve. The moisture in them will quickly melt your pavlova.
Making pavlova in advance
You definitely can make your pavlova a day or two in advance. In fact, overnight cooling in the oven is perfect for making it the evening before you intend to serve.
If you make it further in advance, don’t add your toppings and keep the pavlova in a cool dry place. Several authors advise not doing so in the fridge though, to prevent it sweating when it comes out.
Keep in mind that it will absorb moisture over time, so the further in advance you make it the less crispy it will be.
The essence of pavlova
If you’re planning on making pavlova for a delicious dessert for guests, or simply just because, you’ll need the following:
- Four to six egg whites, at room temperature
- Caster/superfine sugar, at a rate of about a third of a cup per egg white.
- A teaspoon or so of a food acid, typically cream of tartar or white vinegar.
- A small amount of cornstarch/cornflour.
- A teaspoon of vanilla extract.
Given the temperamentality of pavlova, your best bet is to follow a specific recipe, but it’ll likely consist of something like the following steps:
- Beat your egg whites until they form peaks when the beaters are lifted out.
- Gradually introduce the sugar, beating in small amounts at a time, ensuring it is fully dissolved.
- Beat the mixture until it forms stiff peaks.
- Shape the mixture into an eight inch (20cm) circle on baking/parchment paper on a baking tray.
- Bake in a low oven (250°F/130°C or less) until it is hard and dry to touch, likely an hour or more.
- Turn the oven off and leave your pavlova to cool completely inside (overnight if it suits better).
- Shortly before serving, top with whipped cream and fresh fruit, or other toppings of your choice.
So there you have it – the essence of pavlova. Hopefully this will give you the confidence to tackle this delicious dessert, and help you choose a recipe or an approach when you do.