11 Dec 2018

Pavlova - the real nightmare before Christmas

8:51 am on 11 December 2018

Lucy Corry reveals the lonely life of a pavlova-denier.

Opinion - Christmas is a tough time for the food intolerant.


Photo: 123RF

Vegetarians and vegans must avert their eyes from giant slabs of dead pig, the allergic must pack extra epi-pens and the gluten-avoiders must face death by a thousand pitying looks.

As a person who loves to eat, I have every sympathy for these people. As a person with a dreadful secret, I'd ask them to offer me the same courtesy. Because the hardest thing of all is to be Someone Who Hates Pavlova at the Christmas table.

To many, this status is unthinkable. Other people go all gooey for a slice of sweet, wet air, encased in a tooth-eroding shell.

Revealing you don't like pavlova is like admitting indifference to the All Blacks, or pets. It's just not done. You've got to make the right noises when your workmates discuss the weekend's big game; you must smile indulgently when friends show you photos of their cats. Worst of all, you learn to say 'mmmm, delicious!' when you're offered a slice of soggy pav, even though you're screaming inside.

I've managed to hide my condition for a long time. I don't remember pavlova being a regular festive feature when I was a kid, but that's possibly because I was traumatised by having to eat things like tongue in raisin sauce at other times of the year. If you'd watched your mother peel the tastebuds off a giant ox tongue, then drown it in a glossy sauce where bloated raisins swam like dead blowflies, your memories might be a bit blocked too.

There might be something wrong with me, but pavlova is just not my jam. It's not because I'm a sugar quitter, either. I like mainlining the white stuff as much as the next person (unless they're my father-in-law, who famously once demolished a whole pavlova in one sitting). As a cook, I find that lofty confection of sugar and egg whites technically marvellous. As an eater, not so much.

This was brought home to me a couple of weeks ago when I made my second-ever pavlova. I separated the eggs, I weighed the sugar, I cranked the mixer up to 11 and turned the heat down low. It all worked perfectly and I felt pretty proud when it came out of the oven. But when it came to eating it, I felt nothing except the sickly burn of sugar eroding the lining of my mouth. It was like waking up after a night of drinking cheap wine, with a faint headache and an urgent need to brush my teeth.

At first I blamed myself. Had I failed at being a New Zealand woman of a certain age in December? Was my pavlova crap? The evidence seemed to suggest otherwise: the others at the table had wolfed it down and the plate was bare. Instead, I started to wonder if perhaps I wasn't the only one who felt this way. With user testing inconclusive, I conducted a highly unscientific poll. I posted a photo on Facebook and asked if the pavlova was a national treasure, or an over-hyped sugar coma on a plate.

Gratifyingly, about a third of the respondents were on my team (or they sat on the fence, saying they'd eat one occasionally). "It's over-hyped," one person said. "It's ok about once a decade, then you remember why you waited 10 years to make it again." Another claimed that her sister made the best ones, and she still didn't like them, adding that the chalky texture gave her goosebumps.

But the rest of them all turned to marshmallow at the thought of it. My own sister claimed it was the perfect Boxing Day breakfast (which is ridiculous, because everyone knows that the only BD breakfast worth having is trifle). "An inseparable strand of our Kiwi DNA," one so-called friend wrote lyrically. "Tastes like Christmas, and summer holidays, and cherished family memories."

Ugh, it was enough to make me want to panic-eat candy canes. But then I got to thinking about a pavlova I ate in July. It was made by my 80-something Aunty Pat, whose pavlovas have legendary status. I was somewhat invested in this particular pavlova because I'd been asked to watch it in the oven while she went out (I've never been so nervous in my life). Anyway, when she served it I didn't dare decline. It was a triumph of crunchiness and chewiness, with a billowing crown of whipped cream, sliced mango and passionfruit.

I've eaten in some award-winning restaurants this year but none of their desserts have stuck in my mind like Aunty's pavlova did. Perhaps it's because I had seconds. Anyway, remembering how heavenly it was made me realise that not all pavlovas are created equal. If you're planning to foist one on your dearly beloveds this Christmas (or at any time), you should probably make it like Aunty Pat does.

Aunty Pat's Ultimate, Never-Fail Pavlova

Aunty Pat got this recipe from her sister more than 25 years ago, though the original source may be a Plunket recipe book. This is best made with electric beaters (or extremely strong forearms). Make sure the water has just boiled when you put it in.

  • Three egg whites
  • Two cups sugar
  • One tsp vanilla essence
  • One tsp cornflour
  • One tsp vinegar
  • A pinch of salt
  • Three tbsp boiling water

Heat the oven to 160C. Line an oven tray with baking paper. Put all the ingredients, except the boiling water, in a bowl. Start beating, then add the boiling water. Beat on high for 15 minutes, then scrape the mixture onto the baking paper in a rounded shape. Bake for 15 minutes, then turn the oven to 100C and bake for another hour. Turn off the oven and let cool as long as possible (Aunty Pat suggests leaving it in overnight). Serve topped with whipped cream and seasonal fruit.