Strawberry Angel Pavlovas
Let's just get one thing straight right now: I'm a Midwestern person at heart. Born and raised in Illinois and proud of it. It's a wonderful place to be from, and to me, there's no better place to be in the summer. But I've lived in California for seven years, and although I used to think that someday I'd return to where I'm from to raise my kids, now you'd have to drag me kicking and screaming. Or at least grumbling the whole way. Because I've been brainwashed in that crazy way that so many Californians are, which is to say that, generally speaking, I totally believe that there's no better place to live. I still can't believe that I get to live here. The mild weather, the ability to see the mountains and the ocean in the same day, and all our year-round crazy sexy produce. I never understood the appeal of an avocado until I moved to California, and the strawberries, people. The strawberries!
Now, we have access to decent strawberries pretty much all year, but man, when prime strawberry season really hits here, we've got insanely gorgeous ones coming out our ears at criminally cheap prices. Pints at the registers in corner stores, full flats being hocked on street corners, even the organic berries are a steal right now. The fragrance smacks you in the face as soon as you walk into even the largest supermarket, piles of the kind of glistening, plump fruit that reveals a bleeding red interior all the way through when sliced. Like strawberries on Mother Nature's steroids, I tell you. So awesome. And although I love a sparkling sorbet or a great shortcake recipe to showcase them, I think I've found my new favorite way to love on strawberries in their prime. I give you Strawberry Angel Pavlovas.
This recipe was inspired by one from the grande dame of the California culinary scene, she of the famous waffle recipe, Marion Cunningham. Her recipe for Strawberry Angel Pie got an instant bookmark--what's not to obsess over when you're dealing with a pie that involves a crisp meringue crust, billows of freshly whipped cream dotted with strawberries and dreamy lemon cream? Huminuh, huminuh.
As I'm wont to do with recipes with which I become obsessed, I thought about making that dang pie pretty much nonstop as soon as I found it, but hesitated because of the high risk of wasted delicious food. See, despite the insatiable sweet teeth that reside in this household, I really doubted we could demolish an entire pie in a day (not that I mentioned this to the husband, for fear he'd take pause, raise an eyebrow and ask if I'd care to make it interesting). And the reason it would all need to go down within one day is that with a base of delicate meringue and temperamental whipped cream, this is the sort of thing that you have to assemble and put in your face before it all starts to break down. But then I got all smart all of a sudden and opted to make pretty-pretty individual Strawberry Angel Pies, Pavlova-style.
Pavlova, for the record, would probably be up there for dessert after my very last meal. Not that I'm anticipating having my last meal anytime soon. That's a horrible thing to say. How morbid. Sorry. But really, guys--crisp on the outside, marshmallowy-inside meringue shells topped with a bright lemon cream and whipped cream and peak of the season strawberries? Perfection. So perfect, it should be someone's very first dessert. So let's say that instead. The first dessert for a brand new, sweet-smelling little baby angel from heaven. There, that's much better.
Strawberry Angel Pavlovas
Adapted from Marion Cunningham's recipe in The San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook
If you'd like to make this recipe into a pie like the original, then just spread the meringue in a buttered 9-inch pie plate, and bake just like you would for the shells. Fill with the lemon cream, then pile on the strawberry whipped cream.
Whether you make the individual Pavlovas or just one big pie, save your assembly for right before your serve it. The meringue can be baked a day in advance (store airtight), the strawberries sliced, and the lemon custard made the day before, stored in the fridge with a sheet of plastic wrapped pushed right on the surface (rewarm it a bit by placing the bowl in a pan of warm water and stirring well, just too loosen it up a little). This recipe can be halved to make four Pavlovas--just use a handheld mixer for the smaller amounts of eggs and cream.
4 eggs at room temperature, separated
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
2 cups fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced, plus more for garnish
1/3 cup powdered sugar
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
Position an oven rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 275 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
For the meringues: In the bowl of an electric mixer, place the egg whites, salt and cream of tartar. Beat on medium speed until soft peaks form, then slowly rain in 1 cup of the sugar. Beat on high until the meringue is stiff and glossy. Beat in the vanilla extract.
Portion the meringue into 8 mounds on the baking sheet, a generous 1/4 cup full each (a standard ice cream scoop works well to keep things even). Using a spoon, shape each mound into a little meringue nest, each about 4 inches in diameter. To create a small well in the center of each meringue shell, first rest the bowl of the spoon in the center of each meringue, horizontal to the baking sheet, then hold the spoon by the very end of the stem and turn it in a circle as you pull it up and off the meringue.
Bake the meringues in the center of the oven until they are firm and lightly golden, about 1 hour. Let them cool completely on the baking sheet in the turned-off oven with the door open.
For the lemon custard: Beat the egg yolks with an electric mixer until they are thick and pale yellow. Gradually beat in the sugar, then the lemon juice and zest. Scrape the mixture into a small, nonreactive saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let the custard cool completely.
For the strawberries: Place the strawberries in a medium bowl. Sprinkle with the confectioners' sugar and toss well to coat. Set aside.
When you're ready to assemble the Pavlovas, whip the cream until it hold stiff peaks (you should have about 3 cups whipped cream). Fold 1 cup of the whipped cream gently into the lemon custard. Fold the strawberries into the remaining 2 cups of whipped cream.
Place the meringues on individual plates. Divide the lemon cream equally among the 8 meringue shells, and top with the strawberry whipped cream. Garnish with more strawberry slices. Serve immediately.