September 23, 2019

Valentine’s Dessert: The Passionate Pavlova

According to polls, 40 percent of Americans have negative feelings about Valentine’s Day. The El Paso Zoo announced “Quit Bugging Me” for the holiday, in which patrons can name a cockroach after their ex and watch as it’s fed to a meerkat. The event proved so popular that the zoo added monkeys to the list of animals being fed. The Bronx Zoo has the same program, which calls it an “eternal and timeless gift.”

Each year in the U.S., billions of dollars are spent on greeting cards, and a few million roses are imported from South America. For a society obsessed with saving trees and lowering carbon emissions, this hardly seems loving (not the planet, anyway). 

In the restaurant industry, holidays like New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day are known as amateur nights, when obligatory clichés are on the menu. That doesn’t feel so … well, romantic. For one thing, chefs, bakers and other kitchen staffers rarely get to celebrate Valentine’s Day. It’s one of the busiest nights of the year for restaurants, which means the staff and chefs aren’t with their special someone and sometimes resent being at work. The evening is fraught with pressure — expectations, proposals that could go wrong, or tables for couples who want to eat and run in order to get to the “main event.”

Ask chefs what their idea of a perfect Valentine’s Day is, and most probably would say it’s a night off, avoiding the expensive prix fixe menus, roses and hoopla, and staying home, watching a movie and enjoying a bottle of bubbly and a bed picnic with their lovers. 

“Find your passion; chase it as Anna Pavlova did.”

Not that chefs aren’t romantics. I’d think most people who are passionate about food are romantic by nature. But what about singles? What about widows? Perhaps what we should celebrate on Valentine’s Day is passion. After all, what’s sexier than a person with purpose and passion, whatever the passion is? True love for one’s passion, be it a passion for cooking, teaching, music or architecture — that’s worth celebrating. And when two people bring together their passions — and nurture the passions of one another, the effect is a magical connection.

Take, for example, Russian dancer Anna Pavlova, considered the most influential ballerina of the early 20th century. After seeing the ballet “Sleeping Beauty” when she was 8, Pavlova decided she would become a dancer. At age 18 she was already a prima ballerina, touring all over the world and impressing audiences with her vivid facial expressions and her body’s fluidity.

Pavlova’s passion for dancing was boundless; her natural talent and incredible work ethic live on in the dance companies and schools named after her — even in one of the world’s most famous desserts. Legend has it that a diner in Australia proclaimed their dessert — crisp meringue with a fluffy marshmallow interior topped with lightly sweetened cream and fruit — to be “light like Pavlova.”

Find your passion; chase it as Pavlova did. You don’t need grand gestures to show you care; sometimes the simplest embrace can be the most romantic. If you don’t have a special someone in your life on the “official” day of love — but you have passion — love could be lurking around the corner. 

In the meantime — sweet consolation — more Pavlova for you.


For the meringue:
5 ounces egg whites (about 5 eggs worth, cold)
1 cup baker’s sugar (fine sugar)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon white vinegar

For the cream:
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream, chilled (or 1 can coconut cream chilled)
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla paste (or extract)
1/2 teaspoon rosewater or orange flower water (optional)

Passion fruit gelée:
1 cup passion fruit pulp
1/8 cup cold water
3/4 teaspoon powdered gelatin

2 cups fruit of choice (berries, sliced nectarines, peaches, bananas, pomegranates, figs, nuts, chocolate shavings, honey)

Preheat oven to 340 F.

Separate egg whites from yolks while eggs are cold, then allow them to come to room temperature. 

Using a clean, oil-free mixing bowl and beaters (or a stand mixer), beat whites until soft peaks form. Add sugar 1 tablespoon at a time and beat until thick and glossy or until a bit of meringue rubbed between your fingers doesn’t feel gritty (about 5 minutes.)

When the mixture is smooth, add cornstarch and vinegar and work in by hand until mixed through. 

Tracing around a cake pan, draw an 8-inch circle on a piece of baking paper. Turn over the paper onto a flat baking tray, dabbing a bit of meringue in corners of the paper to make it stick to the pan. Coax half the meringue mixture into a circle with a spatula and then pile the other half on top of the base coat, leaving it no more than 2 inches high with a dome top and edges sloping in. 

Gently transfer the pan into the oven and immediately turn down temperature to 240 F. Bake for 1 1/2 hours without opening the oven door (jarring the over door could collapse the meringue).

After baking, turn off the oven but leave the Pavlova in the oven to cool completely. You can do this the night before and leave the meringue in the oven overnight. Or store cooled meringue in an airtight container on your counter; don’t refrigerate.

To make the passion fruit gelee: Sprinkle gelatin on top of 1/8 cup cold water until powder absorbs. Then stir into passion fruit puree.

Microwave (or stovetop) for 1 minute until gelatin is dissolved. Pour into a small flat container to gel. When hardened, cut into cubes to decorate the top of dessert.

For whipped topping: Place cold heavy whipping cream or chilled coconut cream into a cold bowl. Using cold beaters, whip gently until thickened, then add in confectioners’ sugar and extracts, if using. Whip until soft peaks form, taking care not to overbeat. 

Assemble the dessert right before serving. Carefully loosen meringue from paper with a knife and place on a cake stand. If there are cracks, hide them with the cream.

Pile cream in the center leaving a border so meringue shows.

Carefully top with fruit and passion fruit gelée cubes. 

Serves 6 to 8. 

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.