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With nostalgia clouding my memory, I can’t be entirely sure if my grandmother was the great cook I remember her to be, but I am still certain she made a bloody delicious pavlova. It's a dish I am hardwired to love, one that provokes a sense of nostalgia not only for my family and for summer holidays but for Australia itself. And I know I am not alone: When it comes to the relatively sparse culinary canon of my home country, there is really only one dish that hits this universal note. It is no exaggeration to say that every family, regardless of background, has its pavlova tradition, that the ‘Pav’ is as Australian as the apple pie is American. It's more than a national dish—it's a national emblem.
Why or how this confection of meringue, cream, and seasonal fruit has become a great unifier in a young country whose food culture often resembles a potluck of dishes from elsewhere is a mystery. Maybe it's because the billowing white meringue with slightly crisp exterior and marshmallow clouds within is a perfect blank canvas, allowing different regions to add their fruit of choice? Or maybe, on a deeper level, its affordability speaks to the country’s egalitarian streak? Or perhaps I'm over-analyzing a simple Australian pleasure?
Like the Peach Melba, the pavlova was originally named for a touring performer, in this case the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova in the 1920’s. Poor old New Zealand still claims ownership over the pav, but like a big brother stealing toys from the younger, the dessert has become, in the eyes of many, the property of Australia. But there's long been conjecture about where the dessert exactly originated.
The holiday season is vastly different in Australia than it is in the United States. First, it's summer; and secondly, you must imagine for a moment that the equivalents of Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, and the Kentucky Derby all occur within weeks of Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. (In addition to the latter, there's Australia Day and the Melbourne Cup.) And for these celebrations, the weather demands a dessert that is cooling, but the occasion demands something indulgent and dramatic. The pavlova fits both bills. Those who live in the tropics might mound wildly fragrant mango or banana on top of the meringue and cream; South Australians might opt for apricots; Tasmanians and Melbournites might prefer strawberries, kiwi, and raspberries. The variations are innumerable, and each has its charm. Yet I'm a purist—for me, there is only one topping that constitutes a classic Australian pavlova: passion fruit.
Climbing over the back shed or fence as they did in so many sprawling Australian backyards, the passion fruit was once ubiquitous—a semi-tropical vine that would run wild and yield masses of fruit. It is, I believe, the ingredient responsible for the dessert’s initial success; the tang of the passion fruit serves as the perfect foil to the meringue's sweetness. It's an Anglosphere dessert with a dangerously tropical note—a reflection of Australia at the time of the dessert's rise.
For Australians, making a pavlova is considered a rite of passage. And because they can be a little difficult to make (though there's hardly anything that can't be saved by a heap of cream), there's always a certain amount of superstition when it comes to the recipe. Most have their own family recipe, or else they rely on the most trustworthy guides rather than the latest deconstructed-something from the hot young chef. It's a mark of true tradition, and one Australians hold onto tightly as we have so few others in the kitchen.
Stuck as I am—in winter in New York City—and with the holidays around the corner, I will still bake a pavlova or two. Curiously, baking a pav for American friends has become something of a tool of culinary diplomacy amongst the many Australians in this city, similar to the act taking a freshly baked pie to your neighbor. If an Australian shows up with a pavlova this holiday season, remember: It is an act of love from Down Under.