Mini pavlovas with whipped cream and assorted fruit toppings should sit in the fridge over night for the deliriously delicious, near-Eton mess experience!
Simple and gorgeous, mini pavlovas are the perfect dessert for Christmas Day and for any time of year. And what’s more important: small meringues are much easier to bake than a whole big pavlova.
The exploding meringue episode
I had some notable disasters with the Big One in the past. My previous oven was a little capricious (serious understatement) and it didn’t like baking things evenly; it insisted on having its middle not quite as hot as the sides.
So, one time I was ambitiously planning on doing a full-on pavlova gateau, stacked, layered with cream and the full fireworks. But the very first meringue layer after a longish spell in the oven was not looking good: the edges were turning nasty brown and the middle was still raw.
Running out of time, in desperation I thought I might try and finish it off in a microwave! Genius, right?
Wrong. Do not EVER try that at home.
The meringue erupted quite violently, Vesuvius-style, then rapidly went completely black and the stink of burnt protein couldn’t be rid of for hours. A quick trip to the supermarket with my tail between my legs ended the endeavours.
There is absolutely no danger of that happening with individual meringue nests: they are easy to bake in the least reliable ovens.
How to make the perfect meringue mix?
Meringue is nothing but egg whites beaten with sugar. There are a few myths about making it, but also are a few points to pay attention to, in order to bake outstandingly epic meringues.
The egg whites must not have any with yolk mixed in, but an odd drop will not scupper the project. The mixing bowl must be clean, but I never bother with wiping it with vinegar as some recipe sites suggest.
Cream of tartar, a pinch of salt, a teaspoon of vinegar will not harm the whites but none is essential – beating is.
So the key element is a good mixer, standing or handheld; the former obviously making easy work. I guess they used to beat meringue by hand in the days gone by but try it only if you have tonnes of time and very strong arms.
The proportions are always at least twice as much sugar as the egg whites, by weight. One large egg white weighs about 35-40 grams so that’s the amount of sugar to use per egg.
How to add sugar to egg whites?
The recipe below demonstrates the simplest technique: egg whites beaten to soft peaks, sugar added by a spoonful.
Another way is to warm up the sugar in the oven before it goes into the whites, little by little again.
Or the extreme method, by Ottolenghi: heat the sugar on a parchment-lined tray until its melting round the edges, then tip it all at once into barely foaming egg whites. It sounds bonkers, but it works – you have to account for the risk of carrying a paperload of red hot sugar across the kitchen though. Not advisable if young ones are helping.
Whichever method you apply, the perfect meringue is glossy and shiny, and ready when the sugar is completely dissolved. You can test it by rubbing some mix between your fingers: if should not feel gritty.
Piping or spooning?
I do detest piping with my whole heart, especially when it is meringue mix. It is impossibly sticky and wants to go everywhere but into the piping bag. Fortunately this is not a job for pipers - it's perfectly, even better, doable with two dessert spoons.
For ease, you can glue the parchment to the baking tray with dots of meringue mix. Marking circles on the paper also helps - make sure to do it with ordinary pencil as it sometimes transfers onto meringue that crawls outside the border.
First dollop the mix in rustic piles onto the parchment.
Then grab a clean, slightly wet spoon and press down the middle of each pile to make a hollow. Finally, run a clean wet spoon again around each nest to smooth and tidy them up a bit. And if they look still a little unruly, that's their charm.
The oven temperature for meringues shouldn’t be higher than 120C/230F, gas absolute minimum. The nests should be baked through, dried and crunchy and that takes about an hour and a half.
After that, ideally leave them in the switched-off oven, slightly ajar, until completely cold or overnight.
Baked this way, meringues will keep for weeks in an airtight container.
What is the best topping for meringues?
Without question, plain unsweetened whipped cream, subtly flavoured with vanilla.
I do also like to use dark chocolate ganache as meringue topping but it’s more suited to meringue kisses, dainty and bite-sized. Pavlova must have cream – and fruit.
What fruit topping for pavlovas?
In my recipe it is trifold: raspberry fruit and puree, pomegranate seeds and passionfruit pulp with lychees. But treat these as suggestions because I can just as well imagine chunks of mango and pineapple, sweet strawberries and all the other kinds of berries in season, filleted citrus or fresh figs.
And a word about serving: assembled pavlovas should chill in the fridge for a couple of hours for the cream to penetrate and soften the meringue slightly. A half-dissolved base almost amalgamated with the cream stained with fruit juice, a day or two old, is utter bliss for me.
(Of course, there will always be awkward customers who want their meringues so crunchy it squeaks in their teeth.)
More meringue recipes
After Ottolenghi’s recipe, raspberry meringue roulade is the crowning glory of all meringue recipes, and it’s not that difficult to make.
Little meringue kisses sandwiched with chocolate ganache, dark and white, are pure indulgence.
Date and walnut nougat meringues are crisp on the outside and delightfully soft inside, with jammy dates and crunchy walnuts in the centre.