As summer fruit sweetens this month and apricots across Los Altos start reaching their furry, golden peak, consider the pavlova an antipodean showcase for your local harvest. The dessert, beloved across the British Commonwealth, has become something of a national dish in New Zealand and Australia.
According to legend, Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova’s visit to Wellington more than 100 years ago prompted a chef to invent the tutu-inspired treat. And it is a ladylike dessert, with sweet, white layers piled together into a fluted stack. In a pavlova, slices of seasonal fruit nestle atop a mound of whipped cream, perched on a pedestal of meringue. Homemade meringue – the simple egg white and sugar concoction that can be crisped up as a cookie or softly mounded atop a pie – bakes into a shatteringly crumbly outer shell, with the whipped cream adding a marshmallowy softness within. Across the Commonwealth, premade meringue nests can make pavlova the ideal dessert to satisfy a last-minute impulse or unexpected guests. And a variant on it, crumbled together as a trifle, came to fame as Eton Mess.
Here in Silicon Valley, I stumbled across a local version that reimagined the sugary meringue – usually a gleaming white dome – as a low-slung, golden raft of caramel flavor. I enjoyed the dessert and learned the story behind it at a new eating event in Palo Alto. Chef Clive Berkman has started a monthly “Chef’s Table” at the Garden Court Hotel in Palo Alto. Every third Thursday, he puts together a local tasting menu tuned to the season for a group of 30 guests.
The pavlova at the Garden Court included classic elements – kiwi and strawberry, familiar to anyone who’s seen the pavlova in its natural environment in New Zealand – and a vanilla-bean-flecked, light whipped cream. The bronzed base looked like a kitchen misfire but tasted like a meringue reimagined as a toasty caramel or s’more.
I asked Berkman for the story behind his unlikely approach, and he credited family with the genesis of the dish.
“My mother made classic meringues and one day had the oven on too high,” he said. “They caramelized – not burned – but in her perfection, she discarded them and made a new batch. I ate them – almost all – and found I loved the caramelized effect, its taste and texture.”
Berkman wrote out a version of his mother’s golden-brown meringues for Town Crier readers (see page 38), and noted that while he uses molasses, regular sugar can be subbed in – but if so, leave the meringues in the oven for two hours rather than one.
This month at the Garden Court, the South African-born Berkman has strayed from meringue but still promises hints of Commonwealth, California style (I hear there will be scones). The evening provides an opportunity for Berkman to play with new pairings – the event includes five courses, each with many individual elements, a specialty cocktail and wine pairings. Diners, seated together at the long chef’s table, catch a behind-the-scenes look at how a tasting menu comes together as Berkman narrates each course. Including tax and tip, the evening totals approximately $155 per person.
For more information, visit gardencourt.com.
Caramelized meringue with seasonal fruit
• 3 egg whites
• 6 ounces molasses or Muscovado sugar
• 1/4 cup whipped cream
• Sliced seasonal fruit (strawberries, kiwi, peaches, apricots – whatever you fancy)
Preheat oven to 225 F (no fan). Place room-temperature egg whites in grease-free bowl and whisk on medium speed until soft peaks form. Add sweetener a tablespoon at a time, continuing to whisk until mixture reaches a thick, glossy consistency.
Line cookie sheet with parchment paper and spoon mixture into six equal mounds. Swirl top of each mound with spoon and press down in center to create a dip.
Bake for 90 minutes, turn off oven and cool shells (in oven, with door closed) for another hour.
If using sugar, leave meringues to cool in oven for two hours rather than one.
Spread whipped cream in center of meringue shell and top with sliced fruit.