The pavlova is ubiquitous. Pav for festive feasting and long weekends and holiday gatherings. Big rounds of crisp white meringue with soft marshmallow-y centres and topped with lashings of fruit and cream. Little baby pavs. Layered pavs and rolled pavs, pavlova with a twist (hello Vietnamese iced coffee pavlova) and even frozen pavlova.
But if you’ve ever had a meringue fail – a mixture that splits before it’s even in the oven, weepy meringue, a cracked shell – you’ll know the frustration of a far-from-perfect pav.
So to make sure your pavlova season is a success, we’ve rounded up the know-how of two of Australia’s best-loved bakers, Anneka Manning and Donna Hay. Here are their top tips – plus some recipe twists (and an upside-down serving suggestion from Stephanie Alexander!) that will make your perfect pav a star at your holiday gathering.
Summer is pavlova season. But there's no need to fear a mixture that splits before it’s even in the oven, weepy meringue or a cracked shell. Donna's here to help you achieve the ultimate pavlova.
Make sure your eggs are fresh
Fresh eggs have a thicker white, with tightly knit proteins – and that means lovely stable foam forms when you whisk the whites, says SBS Food’s Bakeproof columnist, Anneka Manning (you can read her excellent explanation of how whisking transforms egg whites into meringue foam in the “What’s actually happening” section of her detailed How to Make Meringue guide here). Older eggs will beat up into a foam more quickly, but the older the egg, the less stable that foam is, and there’s a chance the egg and sugar meringue mixture could split before baking.
Food editor and cookbook author Donna Hay says making meringue is one of her all-time favourite things to do in the kitchen, so it’s no surprise that she includes a pavlova in her Basics to Brilliance television series (starting Monday, December 10 at 8.30pm on SBS Food), and she, too, specifies fresh eggs in her recipe: “Fresh, room temperature eggs work best – when whisked they’ll become fluffy and voluminous, plus they’re more stable during baking.”
“What the perfect meringues comes down to is just straight out, geeky science,” she says in Basics to Brilliance, where she makes meringue, and her pavlova, in episode 2. (Hay even measures her eggs in millilitres, not number of egg whites!)
Use a clean bowl and beaters
Traces of fat or oil could affect how well your egg whites will whip up, so make sure your bowl and beaters are spotless, and avoid getting any egg yolk in with your whites. (Martha Stewart suggests separating your eggs while they are cold, then letting the eggs reach room temperature before whisking, since cold eggs are easier to separate).
Avoid humid days
Hay and Manning both suggest that if you can, it’s best to make pavlova on a low-humidity day.
Meringues are full of sugar, so if the humidity is high, they’ll absorb moisture from the air, which can make your meringue weep or go soft and sticky after baking. Reduce the risk by including cornflour (see below), making sure your pavlova is completely cooled in the turned-off oven after baking, and then as soon as it is cooled, store the pavlova shell in an airtight container.
Use cornflour and vinegar as an insurance policy
If you’ve noticed that most pavlova recipes add cornflour and something acidic, often vinegar but sometimes lemon juice or cram of tartar, here’s why: adding starch and acid creates a more stable foam and helps prevent several potential problems.
“Cornflour I like to add as my safety guard, it gives me a little bit of a buffer for things like humidity or maybe the wrong measures,” Hay says in Basics to Brilliance.
Cornflour is a Goldilocks addition – you want just enough, not too little and not too much.
“Cornflour stabilises eggwhites during baking and prevents weeping by stopping the eggwhite bonds from tightening too much,” Manning says. “Keep in mind, though, that too much cornflour can give the meringue an unpleasant chalkiness – often found in commercially made meringues. Generally, one teaspoon per eggwhite is a good amount to add.”
Adding an acidic ingredient also stabilises the eggwhite foam and can prevent problems such as a mixture that splits.
Use caster sugar, and make sure it dissolves completely
The smaller crystals of caster sugar are a much better choice than granulated (table) sugar; it will dissolve more easily when beaten in, and fully dissolved sugar is one of the keys to perfect pav.
Don’t rush the sugar addition.
“Be patient when gradually adding the sugar to the egg white. Each tablespoon of sugar should be dissolved before the next is added,” says Hay, who also suggests scraping down the sides of the mixer bowl at least once, to make sure every bit of sugar has been beaten in.
“Take care not to over whisk the meringue mixture – it’s ready when it’s thick, glossy, smooth and there are no more sugar granules. You can check this by rubbing a little mixture between your thumb and forefinger.”
Another tip from Manning: make sure the egg whites have been whisked to soft peaks before you start adding sugar. “If you add the sugar too soon, before the protein molecules in the egg whites have had time to unfold properly, you won’t get the well-aerated foam structure you need for a thick and stable meringue.”
Manning also has a tip for the best speed to use:
Like lots of soft centre? Pile it high
“You want to keep your pav nice and high, that way you get that crunchy outside that we're looking for and a big load of marshmallow-y centre,” Hay says in Basics to Brilliance, when she’s spreading her meringue mixture into a circle before baking.
It’s done when…
It lifts off the baking paper easily. If it doesn’t come away, keep cooking, but check every few minutes.
Cool completely in the oven
Don’t store or decorate your pavlova until it’s completely cooled. Most recipes will suggest that once the pav is cooked and you’ve turned the oven off, you leave it in there, with the door slightly ajar (In her book Bakeclass, Manning suggests using a wooden spook to prop the door open a little, if it won’t stay open by itself).
Garnish just before serving
“Anything wet that you put on the pavlova starts to dissolve the crispy crust,” Hay says. So, if you’re topping your pavlova with whipped cream, custard, or juicy fruits (like the berry topped pavlova from the Feast magazine archives below), do it just before serving.
Or turn the pav upside down!
In her book The Cook’s Companion, Stephanie Alexander writes that in her family, the pavlova tradition was always to turn the shell upside down before spreading it with cream and passionfruit, so while the cream melded with the centre, the sides and top-turned-base stayed crisp.
And finally, how to ring the changes
We’re big fans of the classic pavlova – like this one from Adam Liaw from his Destination Flavour Down Under series, topped with whipped cream and tropical fruit – but if you’d like to try something different this year, the pav is endlessly versatile.
You can create a layered Turkish delight pavlova, for a very pretty dessert:
You can smash up your pav (or, ahem, rescue one if it gets broken after baking) and turn it into a frozen passionfruit pavlova, where pavlova pieces are mixed with passionfruit curd and cream, then frozen. Genius!
Or for more ideas, including vegan-friendly aquafaba meringues, and Anneka Manning’s tropical coconut pavlova roll, take a look here:
Discover everything you ever wanted to know about meringue in Anneka Manning’s ultimate guide:
Donna Hay: Basics to Brilliance shows how to perfectly execute must-have basic recipes from meringue and brownies to pork belly with crackling, then create clever variations.
Layers of sweet meringue and mango ripple ice-cream combine together with toasty coconut flakes and roasted macadamias to make the ultimate tropical cake – sunshine on a plate really and the perfect summer celebration cake.
Is there a more classic Australian summer dessert than a pavlova with fresh fruit and cream? This version comes in ice-cream form, an excellent treat to have sitting in your freezer.
This is a very Icelandic combination; they love liquorice and chocolate.
If you like your desserts in the style of Carmen Miranda’s hat, this one is for you. A different, but really delicious version of pavlova, this is particularly good with fresh lychees if you can bear peeling them. You can use tinned, but the flavour is not as good. It’s best to get everything ready in advance, then put it all together at the last minute and serve at once before the meringue has a chance to go soggy.