Celebration Pavlova with Fresh Fruit + Pastry Cream

I started this post in June and then lost all energy and will to cook due to first trimester fatigue. But summer berries are still around for a little while, so fortunately I did not miss my window! If you go to the Cabrillo or Santana Row markets, buy P&K’s strawberries—they are honestly the best strawberries I have ever tasted. This is one recipe you will want to go the extra mile for.

In early June, I bought a flat of the best strawberries both for Jonji’s usual birthday cake (lemon poppy seed with strawberries and cream cheese frosting) but mostly for making more strawberry-rhubarb jam. Mom and Bailey had been hounding me for more, and our backyard rhubarb bush was looking crowded again anyway. But I had a few baskets left over, so Jonji and I started eating the last berries for dessert. Sliced and topped with pillowy whipped cream, they don’t need anything else. It may be the simplest dessert I can think of (unless you consider a raw piece of fruit dessert, which I don’t—that’s just a good snack).

If you’re hankering to make something more complex with your summer berries, look no further than pavlova. Arresting to look at, with its tower of meringue, mounds of whipped cream, pastry cream, jam, and fresh berries, the pavlova is a show-stopper for sure, and a sheer joy to eat. I made one for a family June birthday celebration, and I think it was gone in about 10 minutes from the time I cut the first slice. My family members are not normally ones to offer the last slice of something tasty up—with pavlova, it’s a fight to the death (kidding, kind of). Thicker meringue remains chewy, while thinner or smaller meringues seem to dissolve in one bite. The contrast between the tart jam, smooth creams, and sweet meringue is heavenly. I think it might be my favorite dessert.

I love pavlova so much I chose to make it for my own birthday last year. Whenever I tell people I make my own birthday dessert, they give me a sad smile and ask why, or tell me I should just buy a cake. But for someone who loves to bake, a birthday is the ultimate time to make something you want. Often, I bake so I can share with others, but my birthday is the day I consider only what I want to eat.

To make this task easier, I make the meringues, quick jam, and pastry cream the day before I plan to assemble the dessert. Broken into component parts, it’s really not hard to make! Note that you can use really any type of fruit—just remember to have some tart fruit in there along with the sweeter ones, or else it will be sickly sweet. Alternatively, layer citrus or passionfruit curd in among the meringue to get that tartness this dessert needs.

Pavlova with Berries & Pastry Cream
serves up to 8

For the meringue:
300g (1 1/2 cups) caster or granulated sugar
1 tsp white distilled vinegar
6 egg whites at room temp
2 tsp cornstarch
1 tsp vanilla extract

For the pastry cream:
250 ml (1 cup) whole milk
3 tbsp cornstarch
3 large egg yolks
3 tbsp sugar
4 tbsp unsalted butter, cubed, at room temp
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

For the quick jam:
1 cup fresh or frozen raspberries
1 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp sugar

For the Chantilly cream:
300 ml (1 1/4 cups) heavy cream
1 tbsp powdered sugar, sifted
1 tsp vanilla extract

To decorate:
Two handfuls of fresh raspberries
3-4 baskets of the best strawberries you can find

To make the meringue, preheat the oven to 300°F. Line two large baking trays with parchment paper. Trace an 8-inch cake pan on both sheets, then turn the paper over.

If you’re using natural granulated sugar, whiz it up in a food processor for a few minutes to make it finer (one of the keys to good meringue is fine sugar, which dissolves better and therefore results in a smooth texture without any graininess).

Wipe the bowl and whisk attachment of a KitchenAid mixer with a little vinegar to ensure there isn’t any fat residue (fat is the enemy of meringue). Pour the egg whites into the bowl, making sure there is no egg yolk whatsoever (again, fat is no friend of meringue). Beat the eggs whites with the whisk attachment on medium speed until the whites have soft peaks (2-4 minutes). Add the cornstarch and keep whipping at medium-high. One tbsp at a time, add the sugar. Continue beating until the egg whites are glossy, tripled in volume, and have stiff peaks. Add the tsp each of vinegar and vanilla and mix to combine.

Pipe or dollop the meringue into the circles you traced before. Build up one of the layers more than the other—this will be your bottom layer. Make sure to build up a little bit of a wall on the outer edge to contain the fruit and creams.

With the extra meringue, make little “kisses” either around the circles or on a separate tray.

Turn the oven down to 250°F. Place the trays in the oven, as close to the middle as you can, and bake for about 1 hour and 30 minutes. Rotate the trays halfway through. The kisses will be quite crisp at this point, and if you want to keep cooking the larger circles just take out the kisses and carefully place on a cooling tray, then cook the circles another 15-20 minutes. Turn the oven off and let the large meringues cool in the oven for an hour, then crack the oven and leave them to cool completely.

Meringue is best eaten soon after it’s made, but it keeps well for about a day. Carefully wrap in plastic wrap and keep at room temperature overnight (the kisses can be kept in a well-sealed container).

To make the pastry cream, warm the milk in a small pot and, once it’s very warm to the touch, set aside. Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks and the cornstarch in a medium saucepan until smooth, then whisk in the sugar. Dribble in 1/2 cup of the hot milk, whisking constantly. Slowly add the rest of the milk, whisking quickly all the while. Return the milk and egg mixture to the pot. Turn the heat to medium and continue whisking, making sure it’s cooking at nothing higher than a low boil. Cook, whisking constantly and quickly, making sure to scrape the bottom and sides, until the pastry cream has the consistency of mayonnaise. Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter, a couple cubes at a time, until completely emulsified and smooth. Whisk in the vanilla.

Transfer the pastry cream to a bowl. Lay plastic wrap over the top and press into the pastry cream so it’s completely covered (this will ensure it doesn’t form a skin). Cover the container and chill in the fridge until ready to use.

To make the quick jam, in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the raspberries, lemon juice, and sugar. Stir occasionally, then often, once the mixture begins to boil. Watch it carefully and stir so that it doesn’t burn (turn the temperature down if you have to), until the berries have completely broken down and the mixture looks like jam. Scrape into a jar or bowl and cover, then refrigerate until assembly time.

When you’re ready to decorate, make the Chantilly cream. Using a stand mixer or hand mixer, whisk the cream, powdered sugar, and vanilla until stiff enough to pipe. Set aside.

Remove the pastry cream from the fridge and whisk a couple of times to loosen. Transfer to a piping bag fitted with a large (1/2″ at least) tip. Transfer the Chantilly cream to another piping bag fitted with the same size, or slightly smaller, round tip. Slice some of the strawberries in half, and some in thin slices—keep some whole, but remove the stems.

Place the bottom meringue disk on a large platter. Pipe kisses of alternating pastry cream and Chantilly cream, then dollop half of the raspberry jam on top. Sprinkle with raspberries and strawberries of alternating sizes (use most of the thinly sliced strawberries on this layer). Top with the other meringue disk, and repeat the process of creams and fruit. Place some meringue kisses on top of all that. Pipe the rest of the pastry cream and Chantilly cream in kisses around the platter, then arrange more kisses around the cream. Scatter the rest of the fruit on the platter, among the kisses and cream.

Eat as soon as possible—if it sits, things will start to go a bit soggy. I like to assemble my pavlovas within an hour of eating. Enjoy!

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