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The Dessert Australians and New Zealanders Are Squabbling Over

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In honor of where we came from (that is, our mothers), we're exploring the origins of some of our favorite foods and drinks. Today: the pavlova.

The pavlova, that airy dessert made from crisp meringue shell topped with whipped cream and fruit, is quintessentially Australian—at least according to the Australians.

New Zealanders would beg to disagree.

Something of a sibling rivalry exists between the two countries, and they love to squabble over who gets credit for anything from Russell Crowe to a racehorse named Phar Lap. One of their longest-running disputes is over the origin of the pavlova, or “pav,” as both sides affectionately call it. Australians say they invented the recipe; New Zealanders say they did. In reality, they’re probably both wrong.

A Crunchy, Chewy, Creamy Dessert for Nut Butter Fanatics
A Crunchy, Chewy, Creamy Dessert for Nut Butter Fanatics

The pavlova is named after the famed Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, who toured Australia and New Zealand in 1926. As the New Zealand story goes, the chef of a Wellington hotel at the time created the billowy dessert in her honor, claiming inspiration from her tutu. Australians, on the other hand, believe the pavlova was invented at a hotel in Perth, and named after the ballerina when one diner declared it to be “light as Pavlova.”

Anna Pavlova was a superstar of her day, adored and admired all over the world. As a result, a lot of chefs named their dishes after her. In France, there were frogs' legs à la Pavlova; in America, Pavlova ice cream.

And even on the other side of the world, the first published “pavlova” recipe had nothing to do with meringue. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this first mention of a dessert called pavlova appeared in a 1927 cookbook called Davis Dainty Dishes, put out in New Zealand by the Davis Gelatine company. But that recipe is for a multi-layered jelly, so it does little to settle the debate. New Zealanders, however, claim any pavlova recipe is proof enough that they invented pavlova, and that recipes for the meringue pavlova appeared on their little island soon after. Australians counter that: Even if New Zealanders get credit for the name, an Aussie chef is responsible for inventing the true pavlova we know today, they say.

Pavlova with Boozy Blueberry Sauce
Pavlova with Boozy Blueberry Sauce

But the most recent research, by Dr. Andrew Paul Wood and Annabelle Utrecht (a New Zealander and an Australian, respectively), suggests that the true pavlova has roots in Germany and America. Last year, after a solid two years of digging through old recipes, the duo told the Australian website Good Food that they had found somewhere over 150 recipes for meringue-based cakes that look an awful lot like pavlova, all published before Anna Pavlova even arrived down under in 1926!

One of the first pavlova-like recipes Wood and Utrecht found is for a meringue, cream, and fruit torte called the Spanische Windtorte, much loved by the Austrian Habsburgs of the 18th century. They also found similar torte recipes among those brought to America by the German immigrants who settled in the Midwest. Particularly with the invention of the hand-cranked egg beater in the late 1800s, these and other meringue recipes seem to have become hugely popular among American housewives.

Lemon Meringue
Lemon Meringue

Wood and Utrecht believe the pavlova recipe as we know it may have traveled to Australia and New Zealand on the back of a cornstarch box. Unlike French meringue cookies, pavlova meringue often incorporates cornstarch, which gives it a marshmallow-y interior. So, as such companies are wont to do to this day, an American cornstarch manufacturer put a recipe for a dessert similar to pavlova on its packaging and began exporting to New Zealand.

In the end, neither New Zealand nor Australia can really claim to have birthed the pavlova: They didn’t invent the recipe, and they weren’t even the first to name a dessert after the dancer (Wood and Utrecht found a recipe for "strawberries Pavlova" dating from 1911). But one of them was probably the first to put the name to that recipe, and both of them deserve the credit for keeping this dessert alive and well while all the other dishes named Pavlova didn’t make it past the era when a ballerina was the biggest star in the world.

Pumpkin Pavlova with Pecan Brittle

Pumpkin Pavlova with Pecan Brittle by Kendra Vaculin

Peanut Butter Pavlova

Peanut Butter Pavlova by Alice Medrich

What's you favorite way to top a pavlova? Tell us in the comments below!

Tags: Mother's Day, Long Reads, Food History