THE signals of summer are suddenly everywhere, like a downswell of orange blossoms filtering through a shift in the warming wind. Clamshells of ripe berries at the market, the low hum of Vin Scully's broadcast on the radio, barbecues and white linen shirts and the promise of dinners outside.
Now imagine a dessert perfectly matched to this unfolding season, one with vertical aspirations and pockets of light -- an edible basket of fruit called a Pavlova. Assembled from a meringue cloud, pillowed with cream and spilling over with an abundance of fruit, a Pavlova is also a disarmingly easy dessert. Simple to make, quick to assemble, a perfect vehicle for a whole season of berries and cherries and apricots and peaches, it's a dessert with an unexpected, rustic elegance.
Piled high on a tray or even a wooden board and carried out as the coda to a late spring patio dinner, it makes the kind of impression a cook dreams about.
There's also something inherently funny -- even slightly perverse -- about naming an oversize, rustic dessert topped with a tumble of fruit for a waif-like Russian ballet dancer. That's part of the Pavlova's charm, of course. Invented in either Australia or New Zealand (both lay zealous claim to it) in the early 20th century, the meringue dish was named to honor the legendary Anna Pavlova, who visited both countries in the 1920s. Fresh strawberries, kiwis and passion fruit combined to top the original.
Now the national dessert of both countries, the Pavlova has come down to us as a kind of edible symbol, not only of balletic art, but of colonial ingenuity. Unlike its ornate meringue cousin the \o7vacherin\f7, a beautiful if rather fussy dessert, the Pavlova is composed of a free-form meringue upon which whipped cream and fresh fruit are piled with lovely abandon. That's it. No piping bags, no careful composition. The fresh cream is mounded almost recklessly, the berries strewn like a handful of petals newly gathered from the garden.
The meringue base is as easy to make as the Pavlova is to assemble -- it's basically just beaten egg whites with sugar. And the meringue can, and should, be made a few hours ahead of time.
THE trick to a good Pavlova is a meringue that has a crisp outside and a tender but not gooey interior. Unlike many smaller meringues, which are crisp throughout, a Pavlova depends on varying textures. Its signature crunchy exterior, crevassed like a desert floor, breaks through to a light and airy center that has a texture like homemade marshmallow. The trick to accomplishing this is incredibly simple: the addition of a little cornstarch and vinegar.
Simply beat egg whites at room temperature (if they're cold they won't get as much loft) with a pinch of salt until soft peaks form, then add superfine sugar, a little at a time so as not to deflate the meringue. (Though you can use regular sugar with good results, the superfine ensures that the sugar gets fully dissolved into the meringue.) Continue beating until the meringue has stiff peaks, then sprinkle the cornstarch over it and add white wine vinegar and a little vanilla. A few more whisks and the meringue is done.
Then just mound the meringue onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet, spooning the meringue up slightly higher on the sides than in the center so that it's a little concave, and put into a 350-degree oven. Immediately turn the oven down to 300 degrees, then cook the meringue for an hour and a half. It will rise to impressive proportions, blooming and then forming cracks and fissures as it cooks -- it's like a cool geologic experiment viewed with time-lapse photography. When the meringue is done, turn the oven off, prop open the door and leave it alone. Don't worry if the meringue falls: Unlike a souffle, it should settle a bit, and the resulting dips and valleys create a perfect base for the filling. Left undisturbed, a few hours later your Pavlova shell is cool and dry and ready for assembly.
Meringues are light, easy and kind of miraculous -- but they should be served as soon as they're piled with their luscious fillings because they'll soon get soggy.
As soon as your guests are ready for dessert, top a cooled Pavlova shell with unsweetened whipped cream (the meringue is sweet enough) flavored with a vanilla bean or a hint of cinnamon and start piling on the glorious fruit.
Use whatever fruit looks good at the market, or a combination of your favorites.
To highlight the flavor of fresh berries, toss them with a little sugar, maybe a little grated orange or lemon zest, a splash of liqueur or Banyuls vinegar. The acid gives a little zing, which balances the sweetness as it brings out the spicy notes of the fruit.
Macerate perfumey strawberries, delicate raspberries, huge blackberries or a handful of tart blueberries for half an hour, then they're ready to go. A sprinkle of crushed pistachios brings color as it further plays up the varying textures of the dessert.