There’s no taste like home
BY JAY FRIEDMAN
PHOTOS BY RINA JORDAN
“Those Kiwis are crazy,” Helen Taylor insists, in a playful way.
She actually likes New Zealanders, but Helen disputes their claim of first creating pavlova. “The dessert comes from Australia,” she asserts. It’s at this point that I realize I’m not sure if she comes from Australia, as I initially thought.
Helen’s at home with food. She loves to stroll and shop the farmer’s markets, appreciating the colors and imagining potential outcomes of her purchases. I met her through a mutual friend; they’re in a cooking club they call the Food Whores.
She’s proud of Australian cuisine, having witnessed the change from a “meat and 2 veg” culture. We talk about iconic foods like Tim Tams (chocolate biscuits available at Cost Plus), fairy bread (white bread spread with butter or margarine and topped with colored sprinkles), musk sticks (musk-flavored lollipops), and Lamingtons (cube-shaped sponge cakes coated with chocolate and desiccated coconut, famously sold as part of fund-raising drives for schools and churches). Helen even indulges my photographer with her first taste of Vegemite (“the secret is good bread, good butter, and just a thin layer of Vegemite”), who took note that it helps children avoid getting a sweet tooth.
We’re in her spacious dining room on Mercer Island, surrounded by forest, some sun streaming in. I’ve got a sate lilit ikan (minced seafood satay) in one hand and a wild hibiscus flower-infused glass of prosecco in the other. (Wild Hibiscus Flowers in Syrup is another Australian product.) Helen was hesitant to prepare pavlova, as she prefers savories over sweets, and improvised recipes over precise ones. She was thrilled to throw together some satay, substituting ling cod for the snapper that usually accompanies the ground shrimp, and has her husband Murray grill before he leaves.
“We ate these in Indonesia,” Helen recounts. “The fishermen bring their catch, and you see them cooking on the side of the road, smoke billowing up.” These should be spicier, she explains, but the variability is part of the fun of cooking. Beckoning me to a bowl of raw vegetables, she encourages me to alternate bites with a whole chili pepper, which I gladly do. Satay is the perfect food on a stick, well-suited for a beer, or—on this day—prosecco. I see on the refrigerator an early childhood photo of her now-adult son Robbie, looking naked. He’s eating the same satay and drinking from a bottle (which I’ll assume is neither beer nor prosecco). Helen’s clearly been at this a long time.
Properly fortified for the task, it’s now time to make pavlova. The dessert is named after famed ballerina Anna Pavlova, who toured both New Zealand and Australia in 1926. “She performed Swan Lake,” Helen tells me, momentarily mimicking the dancing on air. “So you want to make the pavlova big and fluffy. It’s important to get the egg whites really stiff—to hold like meringue.”
As she beats the whites (the yolks will go to make lemon curd) with a gentle ferocity that comes only with experience, she flips the bowl over, as if doing a magic trick. Nothing falls out.
She adds baker’s sugar (or a combination of baker’s and powdered sugar; granulated is too gritty), beating until the mixture is thick and shiny. It looks like latex paint. Now a little corn starch and just a teaspoon of white vinegar, and it’s ready to bake.
The key, Helen says, is to cook it long and slow. She piles the meringue on a baking sheet, but warns not to shape it, as it will fall while cooking. Next, she turns off the pre-heated oven, and places the sheet inside for 24 hours. (“If you have kids, you might need to seal the door shut.”)The initial high heat crisps the exterior, while the duration of time sets the interior without drying it out.
As in a TV show, Helen’s pre-prepared some pavlova, this time in miniature, individual portions. She examines the blobs, explaining that a restaurant chef would fire her for these, as they’ve cracked in places. “But having just seen Julie & Julia last night, I know I shouldn’t apologize for how they look,” she states. “Besides, I can just turn them over or cover them with topping.”
Helen whips up some cream for the first topping, then layers on homemade lemon curd (using those egg yolks), followed by a pour of canned passion fruit pulp. “This is what makes it truly Aussie,” she exclaims.
While you can top with mangoes, bananas, berries, or whatever fruit is available, Helen prefers something tart to counter the meringue’s sweetness. “Where we lived in Perth, everyone has a passion fruit tree—or knows someone with one,” she tells me. “They’re prolific producers, so we actually get lots of the fruit.” Here in the States, though, she relies on the canned variety.
When I suggest a top-your-own pavlova party, her eyes light up at the possibility. “That sounds like fun, and something creative,” she muses, adding “I would think that fresh pomegranate seeds would be lovely, especially as color for the holidays.”
Indeed, this is a dish for the holidays, or any special occasion. “If you’re of English background, you might see plum pudding at nine out of 10 big dinners, but there will always be pavlova,” Helen says.
The question, it seems, is one of quality. Helen laments that fewer and fewer are homemade, as being busy or lazy leads people to buying store-bought pavlovas. (She laughingly shows me an egg-shaped package of Pavlova Magic powdered mix—just add sugar and water.) She’s passionate about the downturn in quality.
“You’ll see them stacked up in huge piles at the supermarket,” she says, shaking her head. “They’re factory-made—fake and hard with the meringue left out too long…simply dreadful, and full of chemicals to get them huge and uniform to fit into the boxes. I’d much rather use my money to buy a tub of ice cream, which I don’t make at home. If you like food and cooking, you’d never buy a pre-made pavlova.”
“How’s your pav?” Murray asks upon returning home, grabbing some leftover satay while Helen prepares his personal pavlova. He shakes his head, wondering why we’re having the same conversation about Australian roots as when he left. I’ve ascertained that she’s from England and he’s from Kenya. A lovely couple, they fulfilled a dream of moving to Australia in 1979, working a number of food-related jobs (harvesting grapes in the Barossa Valley, shucking scallops in Tasmania, and picking strawberries in Queensland) as they toured the country before eventually settling down in Perth. They lived in Australia for nearly twenty years before coming to Seattle in 1999—though they talk of the time when they’ll go back down under.
Helen says she’s definitely Aussie—”I even took the official oath.” As for the pavlova, and whether its credit should be given to the Kiwis or OZ, all that ultimately matters is that it’s good. It was crispy crunchy on the outside, and still light and delicate on the inside. Marshmallowy, sweet—and seductively tart. Julia would have surely approved.
Jay Friedman is a freelance food writer who’s also been described as sweet and seductively tart, has been to New Zealand but remained objective in writing this article.
Wild Hibiscus Flowers in Syrup is available from the Wild Hibiscus Flower Company (www.wildhibiscus.com).
John West Passion Fruit Pulp in Syrup is available from the Australian Meat Pie Company in Burien (www.australianpieco.com) and from the Simply Australian website (based in Rainier) at www.simplyoz.com.
For a fabulous Classic Pavlova recipe, click here