Perfect pavlova: tried and tested recipe inspired by Nigella Lawson and Ottolenghi

Chef Beth O’Brien tried out six different recipes by some baking greats before creating her own mango and lime version of this classic dessert

Pavlova recipe tests by Beth O'Brien

Pavlova really is the perfect dessert to showcase fresh fruit. I tested six different pavlovas with wildly different toppings: Ottolenghi’s cinnamon pavlova with praline cream and fresh figs; Donna Hay’s classic pavlova with cherries; Nigella Lawson’s lemon pavlova; Graham Herterich’s coffee and walnut pavlova with poached pears; Nicola Lamb’s pavlova with macerated berries; and Zoë Francois’s pavlova with lemon curd and raspberries.

The meringue

When making pavlova, you need a structurally sound meringue to act as the base. The recipes I tested all used some combination of vinegar, cream of tartar and cornflour to help stabilise the meringue and I think the vinegar and cornflour bring structure, but the cream of tartar wasn’t essential. The addition of water also contributes to a softer interior and a crisper crust. When whisking the egg whites and sugar, I found that it takes at least 10 minutes to achieve full meringue potential: you want the peaks to be stiff, so that they point directly upwards when you remove the whisk.

To shape the pavlova, use a “light hand, a glad heart and a spatula” (Nigella Lawson) and act quickly, as the meringue will start to deteriorate at room temperature. You can play around with shapes (low and flat, or tall and mountainous), but make sure not to leave any thin bits, as they will crack as they bake.

When it comes to baking, you want a gentle, dry heat. I found 130 degrees was plenty and turned down to 110 degrees after 30 minutes. More importantly, you need to cool the pavlova really gently to avoid the meringue cracking and collapsing. If time allows, turn off the oven after baking and allow the pavlova to cool overnight.


The filling

In my opinion, a zesty/tangy/sour component is necessary in a pavlova, to counterbalance the sweetness of the meringue. Whatever fruit you use has nowhere to hide, so use good-quality fruit – preferably whatever is in season. If you are using berries, it really helps to macerate them in a little sugar (and citrus or mint) before topping the pavlova.

Ottolenghi’s pavlova was complex and delicious, with praline, mascarpone, figs, chocolate, honey and cinnamon, while Nigella Lawson’s lemon pavlova was simpler, but equally enjoyable. I also loved Graham Herterich’s pavlova, with the perfect contrast between the coffee-poached pears, walnuts and mascarpone cream. Whatever you choose to adorn your pavlova with, try to do so just before serving, as the meringue will start to absorb the moisture of your filling.

Beth O'Brien's mango and lime pavlova. Photograph: Beth O'Brien

My version

I loved the brown sugar meringue in Ottolenghi’s pavlova, so I went for a Swiss meringue with half dark brown and half caster sugar. Swiss meringue has a lovely finish and is more stable than its French counterpart.

For the filling, I opted for a tart lime curd to counterbalance the sweet meringue and a slightly sweetened, lime-spiked whipped cream, topped with mango and toasted pistachios.

The contrast between the different textures (crunchy, creamy, marshmallows, smooth) is crucial for the perfect pavlova. I also like that the curd uses most of the yolks left over from the meringue. You can also use the base recipe for the meringue and replace the fruit with whatever takes your fancy: macerated strawberries, gooseberry compote, raspberries with mint.

Recipe: Mango and lime pavlova