Berry nirvana is in full swing, and the dessert Pavlova, a fluffy creation of meringue, will make you feel like you’re floating on a cloud

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Some desserts don’t seem right without strawberries. Tarts would be missing their bright red color and glory, shortcakes their intensely aromatic topping, and cobblers their fruity filling. Pavlova, the famous round of crunchy meringue, wouldn’t be as splendid without a crown of ripe red berries.

Pavlova is so popular in Australia, where some say it was invented, that the egg white dessert, topped with layers of whipped cream and fruit, is served in restaurants everywhere. The dish was made to celebrate the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova after she performed there in the 1930s. Apparently the cloudlike bed of meringue evoked the lightness of the beautiful dancer.

New Zealanders don’t take Pavlova’s association with Australia lightly. They claim the dessert as their own. “Not so fast,” says Kiwi chef Susan Glynn, who maintains that Pavlovas are “an institution for festive occasions in New Zealand” and who offers proof that they were already being served by New Zealand matrons in the 1920s. The fact is that the sharing and tweaking of meringue cake recipes has been going on for a long time — to everyone’s benefit.

One of Glynn’s restaurants, Suze Wine Bar in London, has Pavlova on the dessert menu. That dazzling version of the meringue is topped with liqueur-flavored whipped

cream and an array of fruits that include strawberries, mango, and raspberries. Your fork breaks through the outer layer of the meringue into a marshmallowlike center; cream and fruit perfectly complement the light, sweet crust. The dessert is not difficult to make at home. The meringue isn’t hard, but you have to make sure that it behaves. So use only bowls and beaters that are absolutely clean and dry and egg whites at room temperature, and try to pick a dry day for baking. Humidity is not kind to baked egg whites.

I have tried making the meringue nests using whites separated from large eggs and Eggology, fresh egg whites that come in a container (available at many markets, including Whole Foods). Both whip up beautifully. Vinegar and cornstarch help make the crust crunchy and the center soft. You can vary the flavor by adding vanilla or some ground toasted almonds.

Some bakers like to begin the Pavlova in an oven that has been turned to 400 or 500 degrees and turned off when the meringue is placed inside. The whites “bake” while the oven cools. Others recommend baking the meringue in a low oven, such as 300 degrees, for about 1 1/2 hours. At that point, the oven is turned off and the meringue is left to finish baking in the cooling oven. This method, I found, yielded the best and most consistent results.

When the crisp whites emerge from the oven, pile the center of the round with whipped cream and berries, mango slices, and blueberries. You want the mixture to be colorful. Biting into Pavlova is like chewing on a sweet cloud.

Pavlova with berries

Serves 8

June 2, 2004

FOR THE MERINGUE

5 egg whites, at room temperature
1¼ cups sugar
1½ teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1½ teaspoons distilled white vinegar

1. Set the oven at 300 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
Use a 9-inch cake pan as a template to draw a circle on the parchment.

2. In an electric mixer, beat egg whites until soft peaks just begin to form. Gradually beat in the sugar and continue beating until the whites are stiff.

3. Remove the bowl from the stand. Use a rubber spatula to fold in the cornstarch, followed by the vanilla and vinegar.

4. Spoon about three-quarters of the meringue onto the parchment paper in the designated circle. Use a longmetal palette knife to make a cake-shaped mound. Spoon the remaining meringue around the edge of the circle, forming a nest shape.

5. Transfer to the oven and bake for 1½ hours. Turn the oven off and let the meringue sit for 3 hours or until the oven is cold.

6. Lift the meringue from the parchment paper and transfer to a large, flat platter.

FOR THE TOPPING

2 cups heavy cream, whipped to soft peaks
2 pints strawberries
1 mango, peeled and sliced
1 pint blueberries, picked over

1. Spread the whipped cream onto the meringue. Leave some berries whole and cut the rest into halves and quarters.

2. Arrange the berries, mango slices, and blueberries on the cream.

3. Cut into slices to serve.

Adapted from Susan Glynn

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