The first time I had pavlova was a college summer I spent in Fairbanks with my Aunt Ruth, who is an excellent cook. She was the one who told me the dessert originated in Australia, named after a famous Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova. Light as a tutu, it had a chewy meringue shell that she filled with whipped cream and kiwi and strawberries. Pavlova, once you get the hang of it, is a versatile dessert canvas, ready to hold all manner of puddings, curds, whips and fruit.
This version has orange-scented meringue and uses vibrant roasted rhubarb, which I soak in orange juice and then caramelize and soften in the oven. (This alone is a really great way to make a quick rhubarb dessert -- just spoon it over ice cream.) The tangy rhubarb is a great foil for the sweet meringue disk (and my yard is full of the stuff). I like to add other red fruits like a few slices of blood orange, a few cherries and strawberries to take it over the top.
It seems crazy, but pavlova is really not all that hard to make in part because it’s totally meant to be imperfect. Where the meringue cracks, the whipped cream fills in. With the fruit piled on top, it’s hard for it not to be stunning.
Caramelized rhubarb pavlova
6 large egg whites
2 cups extra fine or baking sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
One orange, zest and juice
1/2 pound rhubarb, thin, tender pieces, cut into 3-inch pieces on the bias
1/4 cup sugar + 3 tablespoons sugar
I pint whipping cream
2 teaspoons liquor with a cherry or orange flavor, such as Grand Marnier, kirsch or Luxardo (optional, if you skip it, increase the 3 tablespoons sugar to 1/4 cup)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup clean, sliced fruit like peeled sliced oranges, pitted and peel cherries, strawberries
Mint, for garnish
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a sheet pan by covering it with parchment and then tracing an 8- or 9-inch round cake pan in the center to give yourself a guide to plop the pavlova meringue.
Make the pavlova. In the bowl of a standing mixer, on high speed, beat egg whites until they are stiff, add zest and then sprinkle fine sugar over the mixture, a 1/4 cup at a time, as the mixer runs. Once the sugar is incorporated, let it run a minute or two more until it is glossy and holds nice peaks. Sprinkle cornstarch over the mixture, beat another minute or two. Scoop the meringue into an even disk on the sheet pan. Turn the oven down to 300 degrees. Slide the pan in the oven and bake for one hour. Remove from the oven — it should have risen and be slightly golden — and cool completely on the pan. It will fall in the center. Don’t be alarmed.
Make the rhubarb. Toss the rhubarb with orange juice and 1/4 cup sugar. Allow it to marinate while the pavlova cooks, or at least 20 minutes. Once you remove the pavlova, turn the oven back to 350 degrees. Spread the pieces of rhubarb on a parchment-covered sheet pan (do not put the liquid on the pan — if you like, you can reduce it slightly on the stovetop and use it to drizzle the pavlova later). Roast rhubarb for 10 minutes or until all the pieces are soft. Allow to cool completely.
Assemble the pavlova. No more than 30 minutes before you plan to serve it, make the whipped cream. In the bowl of a standing mixer, on high speed, beat cream, liquor, sugar and vanilla until it forms soft peaks. Very, very gently lift the pavlova disk, still on the parchment, to a serving platter. Use a spatula to help you slide the parchment out from under the disk, attempting to minimize side cracking if you can. Fill the sunken part of the disk with whipped cream, arrange the roasted rhubarb, sliced fruit and mint on top and serve immediately.