I don’t know much about pavlova or passion fruit, but luckily I’ve got friends in the right places. Or, rather, I should say born in the right places: Australia and New Zealand. So when my dad decided to make a pavlova to celebrate his birthday a few weeks ago, I contacted my friends Katia and Sue — two of the best Aussie cooks I know — and asked if they could share their family recipe. Then, I flew out to Southern California to start whipping egg whites.
But before the baking, there was the basking — in the Southern California sunshine, and gluttonous taco feasts at Taqueria Don Victor, and visits to the Mexican supermarket where I gazed in silent appreciation at a wall of dried chilies. We also spent quite a bit of time hunting for passion fruit, traveling from one strip mall grocery store to the next. Alas, there was not a wrinkled sphere to be found.
Pavlova, in case you’re not familiar with it, is a dessert of soft meringue, topped with whipped cream, berries and passion fruit. I thought it was Australian, but it turns out that New Zealand also claims it (as verified by the Penguin Companion to Food). In fact, my parents’ Kiwi neighbor had served them his version a few days earlier — a cloud of meringue, dolloped with cream, and cascading — cascading — with passion fruit — no other fruit at all — just a generous, sunset-colored river of tangy-sweet, fragrant pulp.
As we separated eggs, and whipped the whites into peaks, and beat the sugar into the whites until they turned into a glossy, satiny mass, which we then sprinkled with tiny touches of vinegar and cornstarch (the chemist’s secret to a marshmallowy meringue), and lined a baking sheet with parchment paper and spread the sticky fluff into an even layer, and popped it into a slow oven to set and brown — as we did all this, the whole time, I was thinking: passion fruit. Passion fruit.
By this point, my dad had revealed that the Neighbor actually grows his own passion fruit with the sole purpose of using it in pavlova. An entire vine — yes, passion fruit grows on a vine, who knew? — just for dessert. How passionate (ha ha) was that? Alas, the Neighbor and his wife weren’t home. And I knew this with one hundred percent dead certainty because they were staying in our apartment in Paris.
But now I think I understand where passion fruit gets its name. Because the idea of it kept calling to me, almost mocking me, driving me into a passion as I sliced strawberries and patted blueberries and raspberries dry with paper towels. And so when my mom suggested we go knock on the Neighbor’s door “just to see if anyone was home,” I found myself bounding across the street as if they could beam themselves into their garden.
No one was home, of course. But when we pushed on the garden gate, it just, er, happened to swing open. At the bottom of the garden I spotted the vine and, lying in a patch of dirt underneath, a few passion fruits, starting to wrinkle. They surely would have spoiled in the Neighbor’s absence. We rescued those fruit, saved them from being wasted. Yes, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
The pavlova was saved and it was a triumph. But now that I’ve tried it with mixed berries, I’m wondering what a uniquely passion fruit version would taste like. I’d love to try it one day, if I could just get my hands on enough passion fruit. I wonder if my neighbors in Washington, DC have a garden…
3/4 cup caster sugar (superfine)
4 egg whites
1 teaspoon corn starch
1 teaspoon white vinegar
200 ml double cream (whipping cream)
1 tablespoon icing sugar
1 vanilla bean, insides scraped out
Fruit for filling : raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, passion fruit
Preheat oven to 320-360°F (160-180°C) . Grease a shallow 10-inch x 12-inch (25cm x 30cm) pan and line with baking paper (leave a few cm of overhang).
Beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Gradually add the caster sugar until the mixture is stiff and glossy and the sugar is dissolved. Sprinkle the corn starch and vinegar over the top and gently stir into the mixture. Gently spread the mixture evenly in the parchment-lined pan, taking care not to overwork it. Gently smooth top.
Bake for about 10 minutes or until the top just begins to brown, remove from oven and let cool for a couple of minutes.
Beat the cream, icing sugar and vanilla insides until stiff peaks form. Place another sheet of baking paper on the counter and sprinkle with caster sugar. Turn the meringue onto the baking paper. Remove the lining paper and let the meringue cool for another few minutes. Spread whipped cream over the top, sprinkle with fruit.
From the long side of the meringue, roll the rectangle gently into a Swiss Roll shape, using the baking paper to help you maneuver. With the help of parchment paper, move the roll to a serving plate, cover with cling film and refrigerate for hour or so before serving, dusted with icing sugar and decorating with a few extra pieces of fruit if desired.