It’s the ultimate Kiwi Christmas dessert, but what’s the best way to cook your pavlova? Kim Knight finds out in the ultimate Christmas test kitchen.
Egg whites. Sugar. Chemistry. Is there an easier Christmas pudding than pavlova?
Consider the alternatives. Trifles are so multi-layered. Brandy snaps rarely snap and never taste of brandy. Actual Christmas puddings require you to purchase your body weight in costly dried fruit and then watch a pot of boiling water for approximately one month - useful for opening facial pores, terrible if you have a life to get on with.
Pavlova is simple. Make ahead, store in an airtight container and plan to noisily whip the cream at the exact moment the racist relative you only see once a year starts complaining we live in Nu Zillind not A-oh-Tea-a-Rower.
Scholarly research shows Kiwis have been making pavlovas for decades (and definitely before Australians). In this country, the meringue cake with strawberries and cream has come to symbolise Christmas almost as meaningfully as a bullied reindeer (America) or Colonel Sanders in a Santa hat (Japan).
But what if we’ve been doing it all wrong?
The Pavlova Power List began as a plan to test compare and contrast recipes from New Zealand’s most famous cooks. A few recipes in, I realised this was the culinary equivalent of Snoopy’s Christmas - frothy fun the first time; murderously repetitive on the millionth sample.
Over the decades, pavlova ingredients have remained remarkably consistent. Malt vinegar or white vinegar is still vinegar and an egg is an egg even when it costs more than $1. What has changed is how we cook.
Can you make pavlova in an air fryer? A barbecue? A microwave? You can - and we did. Hark, the Herald test kitchen (with tasting scores out of 5) you didn’t know your Christmas was missing ...
Pavlova cooked in an air fryer
The air fryer is this generation’s microwave. Every second home has one and every third new recipe book is dedicated to it.
Results vary. One colleague who attempted to cook spinach might have had more success with a leafblower. Also, how can air take up that much bench space?
Comparative to its external cladding, the cook box component of this appliance is freakishly small. (Possibly why the recipe on the manufacturer’s website called for just two egg whites and two-thirds less sugar than the classic, oven-baked, three-egg pav).
I tore off baking paper to fit the base of the fryer drawer, spooned on the meringue and swirled it in a circle. Cook (fry?) for one hour at 120C before “allowing the meringue to sit in the drawer undisturbed until cold”. Define cold? Specifically, define “cold” without actually opening the air fryer which would, I fear, constitute a disturbance. I carried the entire bench-hogging machine into the hallway, set it on the floor and left it overnight.
Verdict? Obvious sugar leakage (possibly my fault for not properly dissolving the sugar - you’re supposed to rub a little meringue between your finger and thumb to check it isn’t grainy, but I just licked the beater and it seemed fine). Mostly, this was just way too small to qualify as a Christmas showstopper. Save this pavlova for a romantic dinner for two with enough leftovers for breakfast.
AIR FRYER TASTE TEST: “Perfect.” “Too heavy.” “Chewy.” “It wasn’t overly sweet.” “Good, but not the best.”
Pavlova cooked in a regular oven
My grandmother’s pavs were roughly the size of a small family car, but when I phoned Mum for the recipe, she came back with a traditional three-egger. “I think she doubled it,” guessed Mum. I re-read the ingredients list. Salt? Nobody puts salt in a pav.
And so I turned to another branch of the family tree. My little sister’s former mother-in-law’s recipe boils down to a 13-word text. Dump ingredients in a bowl, beat seven minutes, bung in the oven overnight.
There was a small delay while I clarified whether the eggs should be separated (“whoops - yes!!!”) and another while I asked if fanbake was ok (“it actually doesn’t matter as you switch it off when it goes in”) and then I went to bed and when I woke up it was like a perfect Christmas angel had died peacefully in my oven.
TASTING NOTES: “Peaches make the sweetness really light.” “Delicious, great crunch versus fluffiness.” “I forgot how good tinned peaches are! Good combo of crunchy crust and gooey inside.”
Taste testing mini pavlovas
In 2008, Dunedin’s doyenne of culinary scholarship, Helen Leach, wrote The Pavlova Story. Her book details sticky transtasman arguments of ownership and reveals that the first known recipe for pavlova in New Zealand (1927) actually described a layered, orange juice and milk-flavoured jelly.
(Leach also laments the media’s obsession with figuring out who came first: “The concept of the heroic inventor dominates at the expense of the evolutionary scenario.”)
What does this have to do with our battle of the beaters? When a colleague suggested he bring a batch of his wife’s “exceptional” mini pavlovas to the competition table, I balked. A mini pav is, surely, just a meringue? But then I consulted Leach’s book and discovered the second pavlova recipe published here - and the very first to be made from meringue - was for Rose Rutherford’s little “pavlova cakes”.
Rutherford’s 1928 recipe features a dessert spoon of coffee essence and two tablespoons of chopped walnuts. Readers are instructed to cook the dainty cakes “like meringues” confirming, in the process, that these baby pavs are not, in fact, meringues.
TASTING NOTES: “Very sweet, fluffy interior, crispy shell, tastes of tradition.” “Lighter taste. I like it. My favourite.” SCORE: 3.9
What does a vegan pavlova taste like?
If you’ve opened a can of chickpeas, you’ve encountered a gloopy “juice” called aquafaba that is a useful vegan substitute for egg whites. It can’t be fried with bacon - but it can (allegedly) be whipped with caster sugar and turned into pavlova.
I questioned the recipe’s lack of vanilla (even regular, chicken-killing pavs contain this flavour boost) but hoped the virtuously earthy taste would disappear in the baking. By which I mean dehydrating.
Vegan pavs require very low heat for a very, very long time. Possibly eternity. Four hours in, I had a passably marshmallowy disc. I left it on the baking paper and popped it into an airtight box. Overnight, a kind of chickpea glue situation occurred. The pav was stuck fast to the paper.
The great thing about pavs is that if you mess them up, you can just pile on more cream. The annoying thing about vegans is do you know where cream comes from? Fortunately, I’d planned ahead and purchased a pouch of dairy-free mango yoghurt. I squeezed it on the chickpea marshmallow and watched in horror as the fruit syrup ate through the pavlova like paint stripper.
Fourteen hours after starting the vegan pav experiment, I had successfully returned the aquafaba to its original state. I went to the garden, picked some edible viola flowers and apologised as I consigned them to a sticky, plant-based death.
TASTING NOTES: “Not even worth trying.” “Tasted fine, but more like a pancake. Looked pretty.” “Runny goop.”
Are store bought pavlovas the best?
Fifteen dollars for a huge, marshmallowy pillow that requires nothing more than cream, strawberries and kiwifruit on Christmas morning? Twist my rubber-spatula’ed arm.
TASTING NOTES: “No crunch, too foamy.” “Classic, goes down very easily.” “Tasted like a tried and true recipe. Good height too.”
Can you cook a pavlova in a microwave?
I had my doubts about a crustless pav but the cooking time is a Christmas miracle. Two minutes! It would take longer to drive to the dairy and buy a packet of scorched almonds.
The four-egg recipe is ready “when it just begins to crack”. (Don’t doubt the science. I gave it an extra blast and that crack turned crater).
Of all the pavlovas I made, this felt the most foolproof - and the least festive. There is a strange nudity to the microwave pavlova; a disturbing, baby rat smoothness. Pavlova is science but this time of year demands alchemy, not chemistry.
TASTING NOTES: “Marshmallowy in texture and surprisingly substantial. Could be thrown across Xmas table at an obnoxious aunt/uncle and not lose form.” “No crunch, which is disappointing.” “A bit eggy.”
Should you cook a pavlova on a barbecue?
When sports editor Winston Aldworth sent me a photograph of the pavlova he had cooked on a pizza tray in his Weber-Q, my response was “amazing”. Him: You won’t say that when you get a smell of the base. Me: Eau de lamb choppe? Him: I wish!
At very fancy degustation restaurants there is a course that chefs describe as a “bridge” between sweet and savoury. Winston’s barbecued pavlova decorated with whipped cream and home-pickled rhubarb crossed that bridge and burnt it.
I’d earlier consulted Rhys Allan, Weber’s local sales manager, who assured me barbecued pavlova was possible - the key (in bold italics) was indirect cooking over very low heat. (The proof was in the photograph he sent of the stunner he whipped up for the New Zealand Agricultural Show).
Humans eat with their eyes. “Yum,” said one taster as they cut a slab from the pizza-sized pav. “Is that chocolate on the base?”
TASTING NOTES: “Charred, chewy burnt - rhubarb yummy, though.” “Bad idea.” “Beautiful fudgy flavour, dense, but couldn’t get past the base.” “I actually liked the mix of the super sweet top and slightly burnt bottom.” “The burnt ‘bum’ added an extra special taste that I found most appealing.” “No thank you.”
Al Brown’s Bach Pavlova
In the foreword to his new cookbook Eat Up: The Bach Edition, chef Al Brown takes a philosophical approach to the pavlova, admitting: “Mum’s pav was a ‘fingers crossed’ affair from year to year: some were magnificent examples of exactly what a pavlova should be, while others needed quite a lot of whipped cream and fruit to give them the pass mark.”
Life lessons from that pav? “Sometimes (maybe often) food doesn’t turn out how you want it to, or how you thought it was meant to.”
Brown’s six-egg pav, co-developed with chef Hayden Scott, is a beautiful monster designed to feed the holidaying hordes. I don’t have a stand mixer and after 10 minutes at the electric beaters I thought my arm might fall off but as I piled the sifted cornflour-slaked mixture onto the baking paper my hopes were almost high as the meringue. The next morning, when I opened the oven, there it was: The platonic ideal of the Christmas pavlova.
TASTING NOTES: “Slightly too sweet but I would eat this again.” “Loved the crunch and the texture. Tasted very traditional, like nana used to make.” “Too much sugar.” “Perfect mix of crunch versus fluffiness balanced with the right amount of cream - yum!”
A family pavlova recipe
What makes pavlova so appealing? Nick Netzler has a theory: “It’s magical and fun. It’s a big, aerated bubble of joy. It’s like candyfloss. There’s nothing to it but it’s everything all at the same time.”
When the 53-year-old Wellingtonian bakes his distinctive pav, he’s paying homage to his aunty Saleima (famous for her birthday pavlovas) and his great aunty Ulu - the woman who first bought pink pavlova to the family table.
“We had large gatherings at home for Christmas and New Year’s for my mother’s side of the family. That’s when we’d see a pav. I remember waiting for Aunty Ulu, she’d bring a wicker basket and it would have a fruit cake or one of these pavlovas ... it was pink, like a giant Easter egg.
“She was the best storyteller and the holder of our family stories. When she passed in 2009, I came by some of her crockery and so I’ve got a very old baking bowl which I use. I lift it over my head and turn it upside down and that’s how I know the meringue is whipped enough.”
When Netzler bakes, he imagines his forebears doing the same.
“If you continue to use these objects, then you keep the people with you ... you don’t break the links. You imagine their hands in your hands, you know?”
Barbecued, microwaved, air-fried or tinted pink? This Christmas, the best pavlova will be the one that connects you to someone else.