Along with lots of lazy porch time, beautiful, hot weather, and delicious cocktails with friends, I’ve become sort of obsessed with making the perfect mini pavlovas this summer.
This spring I was searching the baking books at our library for something I now cannot remember. To be precise, I was lost in the library. I thought I was in the section for cookbooks in this library that was new to me, but there wasn’t a cookbook in sight. It was all old baking books. Nine months I’ve been here and I still haven’t quite figured out how our library is organized.
Surrounded by thick old tomes, some of which even smelled like sugar and flour, I discovered an older copy of Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook. There were some baked items I’d been wanting to look up, thanks to my love of The Great British Baking Show, so I tucked it in my bag. I figured Martha would be a good place to start to answer any baking questions keeping me awake at night. (Too many things keep me awake at night!) While paging through, I saw her beautiful mini pavlovas with mixed berries. I have seen pavlovas before, but these small, individual ones looked like so much fun to make.
As soon as I realized I’d have to make a meringue, I balked. Meringue! I don’t know how to make meringue. I mean, I’m not a real baker. Real bakers make things like artisan bread and puff pastry, cakes with layers and fancy things that require meringue.
It wasn’t until I was falling deep into pavlova obsession that I realized I do, in fact, know how to make meringue. Oh, I thought, relieved. And just as quickly, Oh shoot, not meringue.
Do you ever feel like you arrive at things in a backwards sort of way? In that moment of clarity, I realized I’d been making meringue for years, every time I made French macarons. How could I not have realized this? Well, that’s just the kind of dork I am. In many ways it’s also the kind of parent I am. And the kind of writer, spitting out a rough draft and only after many edits and cutting it apart and putting it back together, do I watch the true shape appear.
Earlier this winter, the kids brought home Maker Lab : 28 Super Cool Projects : Build, Invent, Create, Discover by Jack Challoner, and we all made Baked Alaska together, which also requires a meringue. As if macarons and Baked Alaska weren’t difficult enough to get right, now I had discovered mini pavlovas. And I was drooling. Talk about falling down the rabbit hole of meringue.
To add to the chaos, I’ve learned there are three different ways to make meringue. French, Swiss, and Italian. And you can’t go changing ingredients here and there on a whim. They may taste like a big poofy sugar cloud, but that sugar helps with the structure of the meringue first.
I’ve been making macarons for the past four years, and here’s what I’ve learned: there are so many, some seemingly invisible, ways to mess them up, especially the meringue. Awesome.
Are your egg whites cold? Are they at room temperature? Does it really matter?
How long did you beat them? Did they reach stiff peak status like a rugged, craggly Jungfrau steering toward the clouds? Can you overbeat them?
Were they glossy, like the satin on a bridesmaid’s dress?
What temperature really is the best to bake these cookies without burning them? And unlike a little caramel color on your sautéed onions, a little caramel color on your macaron isn’t good. Is it?
How about this, what is the real temperature of your oven? Did you calibrate it?
Even the humidity in your kitchen can be a factor.
Just the kind of thing the perfectionist in me needs. Seven million ways to mess something up.
It’s a bit like parenting, really. But now, isn’t everything a metaphor for parenting?
Determined to perfect macarons, I tried recipe, after recipe. When one didn’t work, I tried another, and another, until I found one I liked better than all the rest. Just because there are one thousand different recipes for the same thing, doesn’t mean any of them turn out well. And, even if you make the same recipe (from an amazing baker who knows what she’s doing) one thousand different times, there’s no guarantee your macarons will turn out right. In fact, they may turn out differently, Every. Single. Time.
Because so many of the variations or mistakes are caused by the baker, not the recipe. Half the time you might not even know you are making a mistake until it’s too late.
I either don’t learn a lesson very well, or I’m too stubborn to accept defeat. I’ll go with too stubborn. Because even given my varied results of macarons, and my frustration over them, once I realized a pavlova required a meringue too, I still dove right in. It was more like a belly flop, actually.
Again, like macarons, every single recipe I read for mini pavlovas this summer had different instructions. This is not only completely frustrating to someone who considers herself a non-baker, but seems ludicrous. People wax on poetically about how precise baking is. How can something that truly requires precision have approximately one gazillion different recipes?
It feels different than cooking to me. Ha! Probably because when it comes to cooking I know what I’m doing. I know how to begin, how to dice or chop, how to sauté, whether a dish needs salt or acid at the end, or both. When I cook, if I’m looking for something new to make, I look to recipes to guide me. I can often tell, based on the ingredients and instructions, if it’s going to taste good, and, whether the cooking instructions even look correct. A lot of the time I don’t use a recipe at all because cooking is so ingrained in me. I know how to build the flavors, develop them, season them. Often, I know how to fix them if something goes wrong.
But baking, baking always leads me to a recipe or rather, these days, multiple recipes to compare. But how can I compare if, for an item I’ve never made, that’s supposed to require precision, every single recipe is different. How can I find my footing, my foundation? And it’s not like we’re talking different kinds of bread, sourdough, pumpernickel, challah. No, we’re talking about one single item. Mini pavlovas.
Just for more absurdity, every recipe I’ve tried so far for pavlovas (four to be exact, each one unique) hasn’t turned out, except for the very first time (Martha Stewart’s recipe) when, seven minutes after I put them in the oven, the power went out and stayed out for an hour. I left them in the oven because they were only supposed to be baking at 200 degrees anyway, and I thought, What the heck, if nothing else we’ll have some gooey piles of marshmallow-like pillows to eat. They turned out pretty tasty, and they didn’t look half bad either. Although they were not perfectly white like Martha’s.
But, now I’m wondering, what does that say about me? That the best version I’ve made so far is the one I messed up?
These really are one delicious tasting dessert, especially for a warm summer night. A marshmallow-like cloud of sugary goodness. An almost crisp outer shell and a gooey, pillowy inside. Top it with some sweetened sour cream or crème fraiche, fresh berries, a little lemon zest, and behold the wonder.
Here’s the thing, there is no pavlova perfection. At least not for me. There’s no such thing as writing perfection either, or parenting. They’re all just puffy clouds of amazingness that sometimes burn or deflate in an instant. The truth is I’m lost more often than not, in my parenting, my writing, obviously my baking. Even in a library, who knew? But eventually I find my way. And if the version I “messed up” tastes pretty darn delicious, then I’ll count it as a success, thank you very much.
And I’m not going to tell you how to make them, since I’m nearly clueless myself. That would be like me telling you how to write, or parent, (scary thought!) But I will put Martha’s recipe here and say the only thing I can say, give it your best shot, that’s all we can do.
- 2 large egg whites
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- Pinch of salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 4 1/2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar, plus more for dusting
- 1 1/2 cups crème fraiche
- 2 cups assorted berries
- Preheat the oven to 200°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside. In the heatproof bowl of an electric mixer set over a pan of simmering water, combine egg whites, granulated sugar and salt. Whisk constantly until the sugar has dissolved and the egg mixture is warm to the touch, about 2 minutes. Attach the bowl to the mixer fitted with the whisk attachment; beat on medium-high speed until stiff peaks form, 2 to 4 minutes. Beat in the vanilla.
- Using a large spoon, scoop six fluffy mounds of meringue, each about 3 1/2 inches in diameter, onto the prepared baking sheet. Using the back of the spoon, form a well in the center of each mound, being careful not to make the meringue too thin in the center.
- Dust mounds lightly with confectioners' sugar. Bake until just dry to the touch but still white in color, about 1 1/2 hours. Transfer sheet to a wire rack and let meringues cool completely, before carefully easing them off the parchment. Meringues can be kept in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 day.
- When ready to serve, combine crème fraiche with 4 1/2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar in a medium bowl. Whisk until soft peaks form. Divide crème fraiche mixture among meringues, dolloping it in the wells. Garnish with fruit.
- Mini pavolovas are also great, because you can cover and refrigerate any empty shells you don't use right away, for up to 1 day.