By Maria Konecsny
Meringue making runs in my blood. That much is clear to me. So why, then, did the first pavlova I attempted to make end up as a giant, flat meringue pancake? The batch of egg whites and various sugars (including coconut - was that my downfall?) had started to stiffen, but then went glossy and peak-less. I tried the recommended tips after consulting google; add a pinch of salt, didn't work; add a 1/2 tsp cream of tartar, no difference. I guess it was too late for either of those. So I mixed through nuts and cassia, and baked it anyway. I don't like wasting things.
My great-grandmother, Oma Rosa, was a wedding cake baker by trade. Back in the day, there were no electric beaters, let alone stand mixers. She would beat, on average, 60 eggs by hand to make the cakes for a standard village wedding where she lived in Sanktanna, Romania. She had some help; my Oma and her two sisters, as well as my adolescent aunties, were all put to work with wooden spoons and bowls filled with egg whites. My dad, the only boy in the congregation of women, had the lucky job of carrying the finished cakes down to the cellar, where they awaited their transport to the house of the wedding party. The younger women of the family tell stories of hard work and aching arms. I really can't imaging having to beat 60 eggs by hand - reckon I would just go vegan in regards to baking cakes.
Anyway, I tell you this story because, although my great-grandmother could have told you a thing or two about beating the perfectly stiffened egg white with some authority, I cannot, despite this skill running in my blood. But I did persevere with this pavlova, which I was determined to make for an Ottolenghi-style Christmas feast. And here's what I learnt:
Use fresh eggs
I'm lucky, my neighbour has chickens and so I can almost literally catch them as they land in the straw. How do you tell a fresh egg? I have noticed that fresh egg whites stick to the egg shell. When I crack and separate them, I have to detach the egg whites off the pointy ends of the egg with my finger or waste a significant amount.
Use only clean and absolutely dry bowls and utensils
A splash of white vinegar in hot water can really help to make sure your stuff is clean. And then dry them like your life depends on it.
Be prepared, then take your time
I don't have a stand mixer - I still use my grandmother's electric beater. I felt like it didn't have enough power to beat the egg whites hard and fast. They anti-peaked from the fuss I made by ditching the older tool for the new one (Thermomix with butterfly attachment) midway through the beating. The next attempt, I got everything ready and had a plan, then I took my time. I didn't push my little old beaters to the point of exhaustion this time, but just let them find their rhythm. If my Omas could do it by hand, then I could do it with this electric beater, which they held for many hours in their later kitchens.
Use a sugar thermometer
The pavlova recipe I'm talking about follows the Swiss-style of meringue making. You combine the sugars and egg white before heating over a water bath to 55 degrees Celcius. This technique is quite different to the classic French style (which the standard Aussie pavlova is made by). If you get it right, the result is a gooey interior with a crisp exterior, a style I personally much prefer to the sometimes dry French-style meringue.
For everything else, and if you are not a pav-pro, read this article by Anneka Manning for SBS Food, "How to make meringue: our foolproof guide on how to make the perfect meringue, plus tips, tricks and fixes to troubleshoot any problems". She doesn't miss a thing. There are no less than 11(!) problem solving and information sections covering everything from your mixture splitting before baking, to your finished meringue going from crisp to soft. Happy baking.