Being born in the six weeks between March 15 and April 30 is a serious hazard if you’re Jewish. It means in any given year, your birthday could fall on Passover. It’s the holiday where Jews put away almost everything with grains in it and pull out the matzah, something non-Jews seem to love but that I and most Jews I know can’t wait to be done with. Having a birthday on Passover means no cake, no cookies, maybe no soda depending on how religious you are. My brother has played this little game of Russian Roulette every year of his life, sometimes winning and sometimes losing the birthday cake battle.
Between my family and my best friend’s family growing up, there were three kids with birthdays during this time which meant almost every year, at least one birthday was celebrated sans cake. Instead, there would be a special-order ice cream cake please hold the delicious cookie crunch between the ice cream layers. Ok, fine, it wasn’t exactly a hardship but I always felt my brother was missing out on the years when ice cream cake was on the table.
Why did we always opt for ice cream cake? Because the options when it comes to Passover dessert were pretty sad for the most part. There was cheesecake without the crust or those macaroons that come in a tin and that no one really wanted to eat. Especially sad were the Kosher-for-Passover box mixes that used ground up matzah instead of flour and would give an aged fruit cake a run for its money in terms of density. There was, of course, the dense flourless chocolate cake but it wasn’t really a legitimate substitution for a birthday cake, or at least, as kids we didn’t think so. That’s not to say we would have seen a pavlova as a proper substitute for ice cream cake either, but given a choice today, I absolutely would.
Really, a pavlova is a meringue that is so large the insides aren’t “done” by the time the outside is baked. Instead, it retains a marshmallow-y soft center surrounded by a crispy shell which sums up pretty much everything good about baking sugar and egg whites. Then it’s topped with fruit and whipped cream and can be just as decadent as a chocolate cake except also a bit airy and exotic, which, for an ancient holiday, is a nice surprise. I’d always shied away from making them because, while beautiful, what exactly would I do with all those leftover egg yolks? But after years of making this intense cake I was ready for something new. I realize to some people “bored of chocolate” sounds like blasphemy, but just go with me here, because what you get is amazing.
Those leftover yolks get made into a curd, lime in this case although lemon or even mango would be just as delicious. And while I was at it I added a little coconut milk to the whipped cream.This year my brother’s birthday does fall on Passover. True, we live too far apart to celebrate in person and by the time I see him, we’ll be able to have cake – the kind with flour it in. But we might just have this cake anyway. It’s tall and tropical and rich and creamy; worthy of a birthday. And there’s an almost 100% chance that at some point in the future we’ll be on the same coast, celebrating his birthday on Passover. When that happens, we’ll have this cake.
Pavlova – with Lime Curd* and Coconut Whipped Cream
Adapted from The Joy of Cooking
What exactly is forbidden on Passover? The actual scripture says anything with wheat, rye, spelt, barley, and oats. But tradition also says corn, potatoes, and rice are verbotten (unless you’re a descendant of the Sephardic Jews who come from Spain in which case rice is ok. What can I say; we’re a complicated people). To comply with these rules you’re essentially looking for a gluten free cake which is actually not so hard to find anymore, but when I was growing up it was near impossible. This cake isn’t even intentionally gluten-free, it just happens that way. Or you could forget about labels and make it because it’s delicious.
The lime curd and lightly coconut-y cream were nothing to sneeze at, but you can really use any combination of whipped cream and sauce on top of the meringue shell. Some ideas to get you going: chocolate sauce and a coffee-flavored cream, raspberry sauce and lightly sweetened cream, apricot sauce and a bourbon-spiked cream, or choose your own adventure.
For the Pavlova Meringue:
4 large egg whites (room temperature egg whites will beat more easily and with smaller bubbles)
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 cup sugar
3/4 tsp cream of tartar**
1 tsp vanilla extract
For the Lime Curd:
4 large egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 cup lime juice (from 5-7 limes)
1 1/2 tbs lime zest (from 2-3 limes)
4 tbs of butter cut into at least 8 pieces
For the Coconut Whipped Cream
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tsp coconut milk
2 tbs powdered sugar
The Pavlova Meringue: Preheat the oven to 250 and line a baking sheet with parchment paper (you could use foil but it will make marking out the circle hard). Use a 9-inch round cake pan to trace out a 9-inch circle on the parchment paper – that will guide you for the size when shaping the meringue.
In a medium bowl, combine the sugar and cream of tartar thoroughly and set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the beater attachment or use an electric hand-mixer and a large bowl, beat the egg whites and salt together on medium-low speed. Beat them for a few minutes until the clear white becomes a mass of little bubbles and you can see the trail the beaters leave for a few seconds. Increase the speed to medium and continue to beat while slowly adding in half of the sugar mixture; this should take a minute or two. Increase the speed to medium-high and slowly pour in the rest of the sugar while beating. At this point the whites should have a lot of air and be puffy but not yet glossy. Add the vanilla and beat until it’s incorporated. Then increase the speed to high and beat for another few minutes until the whites are tall and glossy and you get stiff peaks on the beaters when you turn them upside-down (don’t be like teenage-me and forget to turn off the beaters before testing this).
Once the whites are fully whipped, carefully scrape the mixture out onto the baking sheet, into the pre-drawn circle. Spread the mixture to fill the 9-inch space and create a little well in the center (to fill with sauce and cream later). The “bowl” in the middle of the meringue shouldn’t be too deep and it should go out to about an inch or two from the edges.
Bake the meringue for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until the top layer is firm and it’s just barely browned on the outside. It shouldn’t really look brown, just slightly darker than the color it started out as, and maybe just a teeny bit brown along the edge where it touches the pan (but better to keep it somewhere between white and browned). You should check it halfway through and rotate the pan to make sure it doesn’t cook unevenly.
When it’s done Don’t Remove it From the Oven! Turn the oven off, use a kitchen towel to prop the oven door open about 4 inches, and leave the meringue in there to cool to room temperature gradually over about 30 minutes.*** You can make the meringue shell a day or two in advance and wrap it up in a cool dry container (or just wrap it in foil if your house isn’t humid or too hot).
The Curd: While the meringue is baking, you can make the curd. Make a double boiler by putting a medium size heat-proof bowl inside a medium size pot with an inch or two of water so that the bowl is suspended above the water – not touching it in any way. That way you can control the heat of the bowl which will never be hotter than the steam hitting it from below.
Bring the water in the pot to a boil over medium heat so that it’s boiling but not in dangerous boiling over. Into the bowl, add the egg yolks, whole egg, sugar, salt, and lime juice. With the bowl over the boiling water, whisk it continuously until the mixture thickens into the consistency of a loose mayonnaise – so that you can see streaks in the curd where the whisk was and if you list the whisk out, the curd that falls down sits on the surface for a minute before being reabsorbed. This should take 7-10 minutes but it’s ok if it’s a little undone, the curd will just be more flow-y if that happens. Just be sure to whisk constantly so you don’t get sugary lime scrambled eggs.
Once the curd is cooked, remove it form the heat and whisk in the lime zest. Then whisk in the butter, one or two pieces at a time, letting it incorporate fully before adding the next piece. Whisk continuously until all the butter is in. then cover the surface of the curd with plastic wrap (to prevent a skin from forming) and let it cool until you need it. This can also be made a day or two in advance.
If you have gotten some solid bits of egg despite your whisking you can strain the curd after the butter is added by putting it through a fine-mesh strainer. I rarely do this, because, well, I’m lazy. If you are a more diligent cook and willing to take this step I salute you.
The Cream and Assembly: Pour the cream into the bowl of a stand mixed or a bowl big enough for your electric hand-mixer. Whip the cream using the beater attachment on medium-high until it forms medium peaks, about 3-5 minutes. Then add the coconut milk and powdered sugar and continue to beat for another minute or two until it forms stiff peaks.
Spread about three-quarters of the lime curd in the little hollow you made it the meringue shell and then top it with the whipped cream. Then spread the remainder of the curd on top. The more you press down, the move the meringue will crack so choose wisely how you want it to turn out. Serve it immediately after the curd and cream are added – it will quickly soften the meringue shell and if you leave it to sit during dinner then what you’ll have for dinner will be a soft and messy meringue which, while still delicious, it not quite as impressive.
* I can’t even tell you how many times while writing this post I typed out “lime crud” and giggled to myself.
** Cream of tartar helps the egg whites to bind together so that you can whip more air into them without them breaking and they’ll hold the air longer. I’ve heard you can skip it, and it makes sense since you aren’t waiting very long between whipping the whites and baking them so they don’t have much time to fall. But I haven’t tried it myself so it’s a do-at-your-own-risk kind of thing.
*** If you let the meringue cool too quickly it will a) crack much more than it will naturally (it will still have cracks, that’s part of the charm) and b) the hot meringue will attract condensation as it cools and the little beads of moisture will make the meringue soggy. Neither are what you want.