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Sunday, 11 May 2008

The great New Zealand pavlova (Παβλόβα – γλύκισμα της Νέας Ζηλανδίας)

I’ve just made my fourth batch of Greek Easter cookies – koulourakia. They’re a great breakfast food dunked in the morning cup of milk or coffee, and a great stomach filler in between meals. I’ve been making good use of those bright yellow free-range yolks we’ve been given by chicken-raising friends and neighbours. Yesterday, I used five of them, so I’ve got five egg whites lying in a bowl in my fridge. All good New Zealanders know what to do with egg white leftovers: make a pavlova. More likely, kiwis need to know what to do with leftover egg yolks; pavlovas have been made in New Zealand since at least 1929, before electric hand-mixers were even invented.

Pavlova, a meringue dessert covered in whipped cream and fresh fruit, was invented in New Zealand and named after a Russian ballerina of the same name who had visited the country, although some people would prefer to say that the Australians invented it. The earliest Australian recipe for it is dated 1935. Pav (as kiwis usually call it) is usually decorated with strawberry and kiwifruit, which does seem to hint more clearly to its origins. I can only go by what we were told at school and through the media while I was living in Aotearoa, which sent out clear messages that it was of Kiwi origin, in similar ways to what the Greeks have to do to make it clear to the whole world that Macedonia is Greek and not Fyromese. Wherever it came from, it’s a great desert.

In my hopes to find an original pavlova recipe, something my mum always made for every party we held at our house in our big wooden house in Mt Victoria, I consulted two of the very few NZ cookbooks I have in my Cretan kitchen. One of the books is almost as old as myself. As I browsed through the yellow pages of the NZ Women’s Weekly Cookbook, I wondered what on earth made me carry this book to the other side of the earth when I left my birth country. I suppose it was the fact that it had the words ‘New Zealand’ on the cover. I didn’t need much else to convince me to bring it over. My other NZ cookbook is the famous Edmonds Sure to Rise Cookery Book, every kiwi’s first cookbook, every flatter’s (someone sharing an apartment with other people) saviour, the source every Aotearoan consults for how to make banana cake, the book I still scour for New Zealandisms like pikelets and whitebait fritters.

Both cookbooks contain exactly the same recipe for pavlova, which is given below. Ivy recently made a pavlova using lemon juice, something a kiwi would never do. A teaspoon of vinegar is added to remove an over-eggy smell, while a tablespoon of cornflour is added to give the meringue a smoother appearance. I also have my mother’s old notebook in her own handwriting. Even though she never cooked New Zealand dishes, she was never one to say no to a good dessert; the great New Zealand pav is in her recipe book. She Greekified it a little – Greeks cannot make a cake to feed 8 people with only 3 egg whites; she doubled the recipe. Delia says that it’s very hard to make a pavlova without the correct recipe, so I find it hard to believe that she actually made a good pavlova, since she doesn’t have the right recipe at all. I especially like to make pavlova for Waitangi Day, a day of mixed feelings in Aotearoa. On the one hand, it represents the day New Zealand was ‘invented’, without taking into account when Aotearoa was born; on the other hand, it’s my parents’ wedding anniversary, when they were married in the Greek Orthodox Church of Wellington. And I can quietly eat the leftovers the next day on my birthday.

You need:
5 egg whites
3 tablespoons of cold water
1 ¼ cup of sugar
¼ teaspoon of salt

1 heaped tablespoon of cornflour
1 teaspoon of vanilla essence
1 teaspoon of vinegar
Whisk the egg whites till stiff. Add the water and beat again. Add the sugar one tablespoon at a time, beating after each addition until the meringue is thick and glossy. Fold in salt, cornflour, vinegar and vanilla essence. Dollop the meringue into an 8-inch, preferably springform, tin (I used a
tin with a removable bottom – another New Zealand remnant form my mother’s cupboards) that is lined with baking paper (which has also been greased with butter or oil). Shake it a little to make it settle evenly into the tin and bake in a slow moderate oven (150 degrees Celsius) for 30 minutes. Then lower the temperature to 135 degrees Celsius, and keep cooking for another 30 minutes. Turn off the oven and leave the pavlova in it overnight to cool. Make sure it’s far away from draughts, otherwise the meringue will melt and the crusty effect will be ruined.

When it has cooled down completely, peel away the papers and turn onto a plate dusted with icing sugar. If the bottom paper doesn’t come away easily, leave it, and remove the dessert from it as you slice it. Decorate the pavlova with whipped cream and sliced seasonal fruit, the most common being kiwifruit and strawberries. I decorated mine with strawberries from Crete and kiwifruit from Macedonia. Greeks took a long, long time to start producing good kiwifruit; they had to learn NOT to let the fruit ripen.

Pavlova needs to be cooked in the evening – a time when you are not going to use the oven for anything else afterwards – and allowed to dry out in the oven overnight. When cooked, it should have a thick crusty beige colour, with a soft lily white centre. It may sink a little after cooking, but this doesn’t matter so much, since it’s going to be covered in whipped cream. Neither does it matter if the crust breaks; the cream will help it to adhere to the meringue. My mother used to shape it into a ball so that when it sunk, it wouldn’t distort the shape of the cake. It keeps for up to a week (outside the fridge in an airtight container; in New Zealand, we had a special pavlova cake tray – now long gone – to keep it in); add the cream and fruit as nearest to the hour as when you are going to serve it – keep it in the fridge till then.

This post is dedicated to Will and Bella Parker, ex-patriate New Zealanders who were travelling with a group of other kiwis visiting my beautiful town just the other day. I noticed something very New Zealandish about the tour group’s T-shirts. They were all wearing name tags. I caught the name on one of them: Ngaire, a beautiful Aotearoan name. If I had another daughter, I'd name her Elina (the Greek word for flax linen is λινό, lino), just so I can call her Ngaire. There was no mistaking that group for anything other than kiwis, so I said hello. They all stopped and greeted me, tiki and koru gleaming emerald green round their necks: “What are you doing here?” they asked me, a funny thing to ask a Greek, most would think. Kiwi accents stay with you forever. “I should be asking you that question!” I replied, and we all laughed together. I bumped into them when their coach pulled up outside the Agora; I’ve already told you before, you never know who you might bump into there.

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MORE KIWIANA:
Afghans
Apple cake
Banana cake
Corn fritters
Gingernuts
Potato fritters
MEDITERRANEAN KIWI