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My mum was born and brought up in Australia. Melbourne, to be exact. I suppose that should have meant she was Australian, but with my mum somehow it never did. Her ancestors were some of the earliest settlers – no, not convicts, she told us repeatedly, in case anyone got the wrong impression. No. Her great, great not sure how many greats grandfather hailed from the Isle of Skye off the north west coast of Scotland. He was the youngest son of the Chief of the clan MacLeod, and as such had no future, no means to build a life for himself and his family in his homeland. There was no work and no inheritance for the youngest son of a clan Chief. No future at all. Instead, he sailed to the other side of the world and began afresh.
Two hundred years later in 1950, my mother, a single woman in her early twenties, embarked on the six week journey across oceans home to Scotland. She met my father, also a Scot, and didn’t return to the land of her birth other than for brief visits. I have never been to Australia though I did meet my Australian grandparents. My grandmother was Dorothy MacLeod, and she had a cake shop. My mother also loved cooking, and when her marriage broke down she, who’d never had to work in all her married life found a job doing the thing she knew best. As a cook.
Unlike my mother I didn’t need to go looking for my Scottish heritage. I was born into it, immersed in a world of porridge oats and marmalade, Celtic knots, kilts, ceilidhs, Highland Games, Andy Stewart and the comforting drone of the bagpipes.
Instead, mixed in with and sometimes lost among the tartan, was a growing collection of Koalas, several different sizes of Kangaroo and a (threadbare because it was my mum’s) velvet Platypus.
But one thing more than any other has come to symbolise the connection between the women in my family across generations and continents. For me, no celebration feels complete without a Pavlova. There’s nothing Scottish about it, other than the women in my family who’ve made them. It’s a boldly Australian invention (though a quick google search reveals that New Zealand also claim ownership… if you want to find out more about the origins, try here) and as well as being absolutely delicious is very easy to do, it can be cooked in advance, looks spectacular and can be decorated to suit the theme of any celebration.
Here’s my recipe:
For the meringue base:
4 large egg whites – eggs must be at room temperature
225 grams caster sugar
1 teaspoon cornflour
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
For the filling:
Double cream or whipping cream
Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, Kiwi fruit or any fresh fruit you like.
Tips for success before you start:
Remove the eggs from the fridge in plenty of time. They should be at room temperature. You’ll need a large mixing bowl with high sides and a small bowl for the egg whites. The most important thing is to make sure the bowl in which you’ll place the egg whites and the mixing bowl you’ll beat them in is squeaky clean, without a trace of oil or fat, or the egg whites won’t whisk up. I always wash the bowls and beaters in hot soapy water, rinsing well and either leave them to air-dry or dry them with a freshly laundered teatowel.
Cut a piece of baking paper and line the base of the tin you’re going to use. I turn my roasting tin upside down and use the flat base. That way I can make whatever shape Pavlova I need. When it’s ready you just peel away the baking paper. There’s no trying to get the thing out of a tin without it breaking up. By using a flat-based tin you can just slide it off.
Separate the egg yolks from the egg whites. I do this by cracking the egg and transferring the yolk between the shells while all the white pours out into a small bowl. Some people transfer the yolk from one hand to the other allowing the white to slip between their fingers into the bowl. The most important thing is to do ONE EGG WHITE AT A TIME into a small bowl. Then transfer ONE EGG WHITE AT A TIME into the mixing bowl. If the tiniest amount of yolk gets into the egg white you have to discard it – it’s fatty and so the egg white won’t whisk up. (If you don’t transfer one egg white at a time into the mixing bowl you could accidentally break the yolk of the 4th egg and then all the whites would have to be discarded). Put the yolks in another bowl and set aside. You don’t need them for the Pavlova but could use them to make mayonnaise.
Preheat the oven to 170C / fan oven 150C / Gas 3 or 4.
My oven is far too hot so I have to be careful it doesn’t burn. It’s better to be cooked at a lower temperature if you have the same problem.
Beat the egg whites until they just form stiff and shiny peaks. Gradually add the sugar, a couple of tablespoons at a time and whisk really well between each addition. Continue whisking for 3 or 4 minutes or until the meringue is stiff and glossy and stand up in peaks. Then whisk in the cornflour, cream of tartar, vanilla essence and vinegar.
Spoon the mixture onto the baking paper, spreading it out into a circle or a rectangle or whatever shape you want with a palette knife. I try to make the edges thicker than the middle so there’s a bit of an indentation for the cream and fruit. With a rounded knife I make small swirls round the surface of the edges. It’s best not to make too many pointy peaks though – they might look nice now but they’re liable to brown (or burn) more than the rest of the meringue.
TURN THE OVEN DOWN TO 120C / fan oven 100C / Gas 1/2 (half)
Cook for 1 1/2 hours (one and a half hours). Check it’s not too hot – you can tell it’s too hot if the meringue starts to turn brown. Ideally it should remain white, though mine never does. It doesn’t matter, it just gives it a hint of caramel.
When the time’s up turn the oven off and leave the meringue inside the oven until completely cold. I usually make the meringue the day before so it stays in the oven overnight. Stops the cat getting at it.
The next day
Carefully peel off the baking parchment and put the Pavlova on a serving dish. I use a large marble slab but a large wooden bread board would also be ideal. Or one of those round stone pizza platters.
Beat the cream until thick, smooth and glossy. Stop before it goes too thick and loses the glossy peaks. Spread on top of the meringue, smoothing over the whole thing with a palette knife. Pile fresh fruit on top, dust with icing sugar or grate some dark chocolate over it if you prefer. Or just leave it as it is. Whatever, it will be delicious.