Strawberry and almond pavlova

I’m sure that as I add more recipes for puddings to this blog, I’ll describe many of them as my favourite, but truly, The Pav is right up there. The killer combination of meringue, lightly whipped cream and fresh fruit screams summer, although, this would equally brighten a table on the coldest of winter days. Of course, to be The Perfect Pav, each element has to be right (but don’t worry, it’s not difficult – mainly whisking followed by a bit of an assembly job). The meringue should have a crisp shell, with a squidgy, marshmallow-like interior, topped with silky, softly whipped cream and crowned with glorious fruit.

Here, the traditional combination is meddled with slightly. I’ve added some vanilla and sugar to my cream, and the strawberries are macerated (that is to say, left to sit) with a little sugar and balsamic vinegar (stay with me), which not only brings out their flavour (and by all means skip this step if you have really good, ripe strawberries, but consider it mandatory for flavourless supermarket imports) but makes their red redder. Finally, I’ve added some toasted almonds for a bit of crunch.

Making the meringue is the most time consuming bit, simply because you need to cook it, or rather dry it out, in a relatively low and then cooling, switched off oven to achieve the desired texture. I don’t worry too much about its appearance, simply because without fail, my meringue always sinks a little and cracks, sometimes quite drastically. When it comes to the assembly stage, I use the cream as a sort of delicious mortar to stick it back together again, and then pile more cream over the top to cover everything up. By the time you’ve added fruit, it will look magnificent, and even if it’s a little wonky, it still beats a solid, dusty, albeit perfectly swirled, shop-bought meringue shell. I’ve specified, with characteristic lack of restraint, 600ml double cream. You probably don’t need this much, but will need more than 300ml, the next commonly available sized container down, so if you’re opening a tub…

4 egg whites, at room temperature

250g caster sugar plus 1 tablespoon

2 teaspoons cornflour

1 teaspoon white wine vinegar

2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract

600ml double cream, and see above

2 tablespoons icing sugar

400g punnet strawberries

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

50g flaked almonds

Preheat the oven to 180C / 160C fan, and cut a piece of baking parchment to fit the baking tray you’re going to use to cook the meringue on. With an electric whisk, or a freestanding mixer with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites until you just have firm peaks. Still whisking, add the 250g caster sugar, a (large) spoonful at a time, making sure it’s fully incorporated before adding the next. As you add the sugar, the whites will become stiff and glossy. Once all of the sugar is incorporated, add the cornflour, white wine vinegar and 1 teaspoon of the vanilla and give the mixture a final quick whisk to incorporate these final ingredients.

With a teaspoon, dab a little meringue in each corner of your baking tray and use it to glue the baking parchment into place. Pile the meringue onto the baking tray in an approximate circle, perhaps around 25cm across if you were to measure (and if it helps, you could draw a circle onto the underside of the baking parchment), and smooth the top and sides with a spatula. Place it into the oven and straight away reduce the temperature to 150C / 130C fan and cook for an hour. After an hour, switch off the oven (don’t open the door) and leave the meringue inside to get completely cold.

About an hour before you want to serve, hull and chop the strawberries – the smallest in half, the bigger ones smaller – and place in a bowl. Spoon over the tablespoon of caster and balsamic, give it a quick stir, and leave in the fridge to get juicy, red and delicious. Next, toast the almonds. Heat a frying pan over a medium flame, and without adding any oil, tip the almonds into the pan. Keep the almonds moving until they start to turn golden and smell toasted and delicious (and don’t leave them alone, they’ll turn from toasted to burnt in mere seconds), and tip onto a waiting plate to stop them toasting any further.

You can whip the cream and top the meringue with it now, or when you’re just about ready to serve. In either case, whisk until firm, but still creamy rather than dry, adding the icing sugar and final teaspoon of vanilla as you do so. Once you’re ready to assemble, place the meringue onto a plate and pile on the cream. Spoon over the strawberries, and their delicious juices, and finally sprinkle with the toasted almonds. You could easily serve 8 with this, and generously so.

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