Fit for a Ballerina: Rhubarb-Vanilla Pavlova

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I’m nothing, if not determined. I’ve been working on a number of more complicated recipes recently to stretch my skills, and at some point pavlovas caught my attention. I’ve never made one, nor have I eaten very many in my life, but suddenly I had to figure out this elegant, swirly, marshmallowy dessert. Then I realized that I didn’t know much of anything about them, other than they are an excellent delivery system for whipped cream and fruit. Turns out pavlova has a hotly disputed origin story, particularly in Australia and New Zealand. It was named for the famed Russian ballerina of the early 1900s, Anna Pavlova, who toured the world, including Down Under, possibly because it was light as air (like the ballerina herself), or because the meringue disk resembled her tutu. Whether or not it was created there or not, it became and remained an iconic dessert in that part of the world.

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The pavlova recipe that caught my eye was a “meringue cake” from Martha Stewart, which was topped with a rhubarb compote, buuuut that ended up being a 3-time failure. After researching a number of other recipes in the process of troubleshooting, I think the egg-to-sugar ratio was a little off, and the baking temperature was definitely too high. I liked it because it was baked in a small springform pan and rose really high, but every time it completely collapsed in the middle, and I finally decided that 15 egg whites was quite enough to waste on one recipe…

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So I searched for a new recipe, and I decided to go with the traditional freeform pavlova style, at least until I could master a basic one. I was going to stick with the rhubarb compote topping, but when I came across the pavlova with roasted rhubarb in Yossy Arefi’s Sweeter Off the Vine, I decided to go in that direction. Still, I was looking for something to add to it… a sauce on top? Her recipe calls for pomegranate molasses, which just didn’t speak to me at that particular moment. What about caramel? Would caramel taste good on this thing? What if I could make a rhubarb-infused caramel?! I wasn’t sure if the syrup from cooked fruit could caramelize, but I was surely going to try. Well, that didn’t quite work, *but* I ended up with a luscious Rhubarb-Vanilla Sauce, which I would swim in if it were possible. This is my new favorite fruit-based topping; if you must know, I drizzled the last of it over Greek yogurt and crumbled graham cracker pie crust this morning and I don’t feel the least bit sorry about it.

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As for the meringue, the wise bakers of the internet seem to support the ratio of 1 cup sugar per 4 egg whites, plus cornstarch, a little salt, cream of tartar, vanilla, and vinegar in most cases. The general baking temperature seems to be between 225-275°F; in Yossy Arefi’s recipe, she bakes it for 60-90 minutes at a constant temp of 225°F. I found that even 90 minutes wasn’t quite enough for a stable marshmallow interior, so the second time I made it, I turned up the heat to 250°F for the last half hour, which worked much better.

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This dessert is perfect for any sort of spring or early summer occasion; it is light, refreshing, and the sweet-tartness of the rhubarb pairs beautifully with the mild meringue. After I took the photos, it occurred to me that fresh sliced strawberries would be absolutely lovely on top, so feel free to add those too. Happy meringuing! 🙂

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Rhubarb-Vanilla Pavlova
Meringue & rhubarb topping adapted from Sweeter Off the Vine: Fruit Desserts for Every Season by Yossy Arefi
Yields 8-12 servings

I halved the amount of rhubarb topping in the original recipe because I ran out, but I felt that it was plenty, so the smaller amount is reflected here. Feel free to double it if you want a heaping pile of roasted rhubarb.

For the pavlova:

  • 1 cup (200g) superfine sugar
  • 1½ teaspoons cornstarch
  • 4 large egg whites, at room temperature
  • ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • ⅛ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

For the rhubarb topping:

  • 6 ounces (170g) trimmed rhubarb stalks, cut into 2″ pieces on the bias or the size of your choice
  • ½ tablespoon pure vanilla bean paste or the seeds of ½ vanilla bean
  • 2 ½ tablespoons (33g) granulated sugar
  • Pinch sea salt
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

For assembly:

  • 1 cup cold heavy whipping cream
  • 1 tablespoon superfine sugar
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • ¼ cup Rhubarb-Vanilla Sauce, or to taste
  • 1 cup (170g) fresh strawberries, sliced

To make the pavlova:
Preheat an oven to 225°F and position a rack in the center. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, and trace an 8″ circle in the center; flip the paper over so that the meringue doesn’t touch the ink.

Whisk the sugar and cornstarch together in a small bowl, breaking up any clumps of cornstarch. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or with a handheld electric mixer in a large bowl, beat the egg whites, salt, and cream of tartar on medium-high speed until soft peaks form; do not under- or overmix. Bump the mixer up to high speed and gradually add the sugar mixture 1 tablespoon at a time with the mixer running. Whip the egg whites until they are stiff and glossy, about 7 minutes; there should be no discernible sugar granules. Add the vanilla extract and vinegar and mix for another 30 seconds.

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Dollop the meringue onto the parchment-lined baking sheet inside the traced circle and use a small offset spatula to spread it evenly to the circle’s edges. Make a shallow indentation in the center of the meringue, leaving a 1″ border around the edges; this will be a “nest” for the rhubarb and whipped cream. The original recipe says to bake the meringue for 60-90 minutes, or until the outside looks dry and slightly creamy in color; mine was still underdone at 90 minutes. What worked better for me the second time was turning up the temperature to 250°F after 60 minutes, then bake for the additional 30 minutes.

When the meringue is done, turn off the oven and prop the door slightly open; let it cool completely in the oven. The meringue should feel firm and crackly on the surface, and the interior will be marshmallowy; if it’s underdone, the marshmallow will be quite soft and the meringue may collapse when you add the whipped cream and toppings. When it has cooled, carefully peel it from the parchment paper and put it on a serving plate. (Mine in the photos above was slightly underdone, so it didn’t come off the parchment cleanly– this precipitated the increase in oven temperature.) The meringue can be made 1 day ahead and stored in an airtight container at room temperature.

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To make the rhubarb topping:
After the meringue is done, heat the oven back up to 375°F. In a mixing bowl, combine the sliced rhubarb, vanilla paste, sugar, salt, and lemon juice. Spread the rhubarb in a baking dish in a single layer. Bake until the rhubarb is soft and juicy, but not falling apart, 20-25 minutes; you can test the pieces with a fork. Let them cool to room temperature before using for the pavlova.

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To assemble the pavlova:
In a medium mixing bowl, whip the heavy cream with a hand mixer (or a whisk and a lot of arm strength!), adding the sugar once it starts to thicken. Add the vanilla, and whip the sweetened cream to stiff peaks. Spread it with a small offset spatula on top of the meringue (in the center indentation), then add the cooled rhubarb pieces, leaving behind the juices. Drizzle the Rhubarb-Vanilla Sauce over the top of the pavlova, and scatter on the strawberries, if using. Cut it into wedges and serve immediately with more sauce.

Make ahead tip:
In addition to making the meringue a day ahead, you can make the whipped cream up to a day ahead as well. Whip it according to the directions above, then scrape it into a fine-mesh sieve set over a bowl. Cover it tightly with plastic wrap and put the whole rig in the fridge. The liquid will drain from the cream, leaving a cloud of whipped cream that will not weep as it sits on top of the meringue.

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© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2017.


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