A Cloud of Meringue: Pavlova Dessert

This dessert is one of my favorite go-to recipes for holidays, dinner parties, and the like.  Not only is it delicious, but it’s a relatively easy dessert to put together, and it looks impressive.  But the best thing about this dessert is that it is so light and airy that it can top off any 20-course holiday smorgasbord and still leave room for a cocktail or coffee.

There are many recipes and variations of this dessert available, but the basic combination is simple:  meringue + whipped cream + fruit.  Winter is a great time for making this, at least in the northern regions in the U.S., because meringue is much easier to cook and store when there is not much ambient heat or humidity.  Of course, the storing problem usually isn’t an issue because I never seem to have leftovers!

The name Pavlova was apparently given in honor of Anna Pavlova, a famous Russian ballerina from the early 20th century.  The meringue takes 2-3 hours in the oven, so it’s best to prepare that part the night before you plan to serve it.  The rest of the assembly can be done relatively quickly and at the last minute.

Meringue

6 egg whites, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 Tbl. cornstarch
1 1/2 tsp. white vinegar
1 tsp. vanilla

Whipped Cream

1 pt. heavy or whipping cream, chilled
1 tsp. vanilla
2-3 Tbl. sugar, to taste

Fruit – fresh or frozen, choose one option from below

1 1/2 c. berries (blueberries, raspberries, or strawberries) + 2 Tbl. berry jam
or
1 mango and 1 kiwi, both peeled + 2 Tbl. apricot jam
or
1 1/2 c.  peeled and sliced peaches, nectarines, or apricots + 2 Tbl. apricot jam

Garnish (optional)
1/4 c. fresh fruit, sliced or cut decoratively
1/4 c. chopped unsalted pistachios

Preheat your oven to 250º and line a baking sheet with either parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Using a whisk attachment, beat the eggs in an electric mixer on slow to medium speed until soft peaks begin to form.  Increase the speed and slowly add the sugar. Continue beating for several minutes more until the egg whites are stiff and glossy. Fold in the vanilla, cornstarch, and vinegar until combined.

Spoon out the egg whites onto the baking sheet in the shape of a circle no larger than the dish you plan to use for serving (about 8-9 inches in diameter). Then hollow out a wide, shallow crater in the center that will later serve as a “bowl” for the fruit. The egg whites should look like a shiny, white, fluffy cumulus cloud, with a slight volcano center. Avoid sharp peaks because they will just break off after the meringue is cooked.

Bake the meringue at 250º for 30 minutes, then turn the oven down to 175º and bake for another 1 1/2 hours more. Turn off the heat and let the meringue rest in the oven for an additional hour or so (or overnight), until the oven and meringue are completely cooled. The outside of the meringue should seem hard and crispy to the touch. Store the meringue in a cool, dry place until ready to serve.

Place the meringue “cake” in one piece on the serving plate. When removing the meringue from the parchment paper or baking mat, it’s best to use a large off-set spatula. Don’t worry if a few small pieces crumble off. They can be placed in the “crater” with the fruit before covering it all with the whipped cream. And if it cracks a bit, no big deal — it will be undetectable under the cream.

Take half of the fruit (whichever kind you choose) and either mash it or lightly puree it with the jam. Chop the rest into small chunks and add it to the mashed fruit. Spoon the fruit mixture into the crater of the meringue. Depending on the size of the crater, you might not use all the fruit.

In a chilled bowl, whip the cream with the sugar and vanilla until stiff peaks form. Cover the entire meringue with the whipped cream, making it look like a very white, fluffy cloud. Garnish with the reserved fruit pieces, if you like. I like it just smooth and creamy, but if you want to add a little crunch, you can also sprinkle chopped unsalted pistachios on top. Serve immediately and enjoy!

Some Things Do Grow on Trees

I’m not entirely sure why seeing fruit growing on a tree for the first time impressed me so. I grew up in rural Ohio, and was exposed to cultivated agriculture on a daily basis. My high school was surrounded by fields of corn! But not once, until I left Ohio, was I afforded the opportunity to see a fruit tree in all its glory. I can still recall the first time I traveled to Greece, awestruck with all the many fruits exploding off the heavily weighted branches of numerous trees. Apricots, plums, lemons, pistachios, blackberries, and my favorite, figs, were dangling before my very eyes. Only once was I lucky enough to have the opportunity to continue my stay until late August, when figs reach their full ripeness.

Once again, this year, fortune smiles upon me, and I will be around to split open the first fig of the season. There’s something special about peeling back the skin and taking a bite of the soft, fragrant flesh, and then crunching the delicate, minuscule seeds with your teeth. Then again, there’s also something special about taking a bite of a tomato or a cucumber and realizing that their grocery store counterparts never quite lived up to their potential. Sadly, I must admit, that even the produce I buy at the farmer’s market seems a bit watered down in comparison. The only produce that ever comes close to what I am able to enjoy while in Greece, is that which was grown in someone’s personal garden. Of course, in New York City, grass is hard to come by, let alone gardens. I don’t think my husband would be too happy if I dedicated a quarter of my family’s living space to an indoor garden, so I will have to be content with whatever I can get my hands on.

There’s nothing more exciting than after waiting for an entire year for a fruit or vegetable to return into season, than when you take that first bite, and it immediately transports you into food bliss. Every time I have a ripe summer peach, I recall the very first peach my father brought to me from Georgia. Taste and smell are the two strongest senses, instantaneously recalling memories from your past. I suppose that’s why we human beings have such a love affair with food.

It’s unfortunate that a majority of our society’s youth can not even distinguish an eggplant from a bunch of grapes, let alone how those fruit are grown. We have lost ourselves in gleaming supermarket aisles, amongst neatly packed rows of fruits, vegetables, and meat, never questioning where this product or that came from. Sadly, many children are never even fed a quarter of the numerous fruits or vegetables available to them, out of monetary constraints, or worse, parental ignorance. I can’t tell you how many times I have been confronted with the latter situation in such a populated and often economically-privileged society as Manhattan. Americans, for the most part, are truly clueless about food. And I don’t feel bad saying it, as I am an American, who, for the better part of my life, carried on in food ignorance.

Wherever your travels may take you this summer, venture to see the local, seasonal produce. Most states and countries are famously known for something or other, so I am sure that you will have the opportunity to try a local delicacy or two. If this summer you decide to stick around your hood, try to uncover a hidden gem. Hey, you never know, your neighbor down the block may just have a cherry tree growing in his back yard. Do you happen to have a summer eating/growing experience you would like to share? We would love to hear from you. You can simply reply to this post, or email us at: twodancingbuckeyes@gmail.com Happy summer….and happy, healthy eating!

TDB Homemade: Yogurt Freezie Pops

My daughter stopped drinking milk when I finally broke down and got rid of her bottle. (Ok, so I let her drink her milk from a bottle until she was two. There are worse things one can do when parenting, right?!? I felt some sense of pediatric guilt, but ultimately, I was tired of buying Avent nipples every week because she was biting holes in them. ) My daughter is one of those stubborn types, like myself, who instead of holding out a week with not drinking milk from a bottle, she decided to refuse a cup, sippy, or straw to drink her dairy for almost a month. Fortunately, she grew fond of frozen yogurt sticks. And while the organic brands are void of artificial colorings and flavorings, I still think it’s better to know exactly what’s going into my family’s food, so I decided to try to make my own. With very little effort and a small amount of time, it’s possible to create a fun, healthy treat for your kids. But honestly, they’re pretty tasty, and I find myself sneaking one out of the freezer for myself from time to time!

During the summer months, when fresh berries and fruit are abundantly available in your local markets, use whatever combination you fancy to include in your frozen pops. However, frozen fruit can also be used with fantastic results. Before you throw out bananas nearing their expiration, peel them, wrap them in plastic, and place them in the freezer for later use. When you’re ready to use them, just thaw them, and add to your frozen pop blend. As for which type of mold you choose, it’s really up to your personal preference. There are many different shapes and sizes available on the market today. Stay away from thin plastic molds, as they tend to break easily when attempting to remove the popsicle before consumption. More flexible, thicker plastic molds work better. I have had great success using popsicle molds from IKEA. But you could even use paper or plastic cups, allow the liquid to harden in the freezer for about 15 minutes, then place a popsicle stick into the liquid, and allow them to continue freezing solid. Always remember to run the mold under some warm water for a few seconds to release the popsicle easily, avoiding a lot of unnecessary effort and frustration.

Yield: 6 pops

2 c.  yogurt
2 ripe bananas, peeled
6 oz. of fruit (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, etc.)
1-2 Tbl. raw honey

In a large bowl, combine the yogurt, bananas, fruit, and honey. With a stick blender, blend all the ingredients together. (Alternatively, you could place all the ingredients in a blender or food processor.) Pour the yogurt mixture into the molds, dividing evenly, and filling almost entirely up to the top of each mold. Place the stick inside each mold and place in the freezer. The pops should be completely frozen in about 4 hours.

The Frozen Veg

Some evenings… ok, most evenings, become hectic in my house. My son finishes school and must be zipped downtown for an after-school-something class; my daughter is starting to get cranky, stuck in the stroller; my son needs to be picked up from his after-school-something class; the bath needs to be drawn; and then there’s the dinner that needs to be made. Phew! I am sure that many of you can relate.

Of course, an easy answer might be to pick up the phone and order take-out. But, to be perfectly honest, I love to cook for my family, and I like to know exactly what is going into our bellies. (Don’t get me wrong. This gal does enjoy a great meal at a good restaurant from time to time!) I do need to have a few items on-hand, though, which can aid me in the stressful evening hours. One of those items happens to be frozen vegetables. Fortunately, most everyone around the country now has access to a grocery store carrying organic frozen veggies. And honestly, the cost difference between organic and un-organic is not too great when you think of the total cost on your body and the environment.

Some of you may turn your nose up at frozen vegetables, and I can totally understand your potential reservations. But frozen vegetables and fruit are often nutritionally superior to their fresh counterparts that you find in your supermarket. Of course, when a certain vegetable or fruit is in season, particularly at your local farmer’s market, there’s no question that fresh is better. Fruit and veggies, which are produced for sale in supermarkets, are picked prior to full ripening so they may be successfully shipped throughout the world, and thus, never achieve their full nutritional potential. Frozen fruit and vegetables, however, are picked at their peak ripeness, locked in a relatively nutrient-rich state throughout the flash-freezing process. Yes, some of the water-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins B and C, are broken down or leached out when the first process of freezing, which is a blanch in hot water, takes place. (This quick immersion into boiling water removes the enzymes which operate even in sub-zero temperatures, “breaking down” the food in such a way to alter its color and flavors. In no way are they harmful to your body.) I guess that’s a small price to pay for the convenience and opportunity to eat produce out-of-season?

One of my favorite frozen veggies is sweet corn. From time to time my food market even offers a discount. At which time, I stock up on five or so bags since they can last for months, or in my case, a few weeks, in the freezer. I have been known to buy un-organic frozen veggies when there is no other option, but when it comes to corn, I absolutely do not deviate from organic. Corn is one of the most widely grown GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) crop in the United States. The only way to be absolutely sure you are not consuming a GMO product is to buy organic. That way you never have to guess what’s in the bag.

Whenever I am in a pinch to make a side dish, or salad, for dinner, I whip out a bag of sweet corn from the freezer, and put it in a large bowl on the counter to unfreeze. If you happen to be running short on time, however, you can add the corn to boiling water for 2-3 minutes, drain, and then run under cold water. Once you have the base, the corn, ready, you can add anything your heart desires. Colored bell pepper, grape tomato, green onion, cucumber, cilantro, and parsley, are just a few of my favorite vegetable additions. In the summer months, I even add blueberries. Sometimes I add ground cumin with the salt and pepper to the seasonings, with lemon, lime, or a balsamic vinaigrette. It’s totally up to your liking, though. This salad is extremely versatile and can be altered to effectively pair with almost any style of main dish you are preparing.

I have been known to use frozen peas for a warm side dish, sautéed with garlic and ginger, or as an addition to a quick stir fry. (Not to mention my daughter loves eating them straight out of the freezer, still frozen! I guess they’re like little vegetable freeze pop balls to her.) I also like to use frozen asparagus tips because asparagus, which I love, has such a short growing season. I tend to broil them in the oven with a little soy sauce, garlic, and sesame oil. Yum! Once thawed, they are extremely fast to cook; about 6 minutes in the broiler. Spinach is another great frozen vegetable to have on hand. I also will sauté it with some olive oil, onion, garlic, and ginger, making a quick, delicious side dish that my kids love. You can thaw the spinach and use it to top pizza or use as a filler inside filo dough. Just be sure to drain as much of the water as possible because spinach retains a LOT of water. Who wants to eat a soggy pizza???

I think that pretty much covers all the different vegetables I use frozen. As for fruit, I don’t use it as much, but I have used it in pies and it makes a fantastic topping for ice cream. Just be sure when you are buying either frozen fruit or vegetables that no sugar or salt has been added. You should be safe if you are buying organic products, but it doesn’t hurt to look.

I hope this might be of some use to those of you strapped for time, and at least, inspire you with some new ideas for the occasionally un-loved frozen veg!

Homemade Jam

Since we discussed peanut butter earlier, (and what’s PB without the J?) I think it only fair to include a small piece on the topic of homemade jam. I know, I know…..it’s much easier to pick up a bottle of jam or preserves at the grocery store than it is to make your own. Or is it? Honestly, it’s not so hard. And there’s nothing more divine than biting into a PB&J sandwich with homemade summer strawberry jam! If you are lucky enough to have a farmer’s market near your home during the summer months, pick up some fruit of your choice, and just see how easy it is to make your own jam. Jam lasts for about six monthsin the refrigerator, so once you’ve made it, you will be set for a while. (That is, unless your family consumes copious amounts of jam!)  

**Of course, since we’re now in the thick of dreary winter, and that summer strawberry seems like a distant memory, there is always the option to use frozen fruit instead. Most grocery stores carry a wide variety of different fruit. If you are planning on using frozen fruit, first let it thaw out. You also will not have to cook it as long as you would if you were using fresh fruit.**

My favorite jams to make are strawberry, apricot, and fig. The beauty about making jam is that you really don’t have to measure anything accurately. Before you go to bed, cut up your fruit, put it in a heavy bottomed pan, add a splash or two of whiskey (you can omit this if you like), some sugar, and then cover the lid.

Depending on the sweetness of the fruit, either add more or less sugar to your liking. For example, if I use a pint of strawberries, which is 2 cups, I would add 1-1 ½ cups of sugar. However, if I am making apricot jam, I would add at least 2 cups of sugar to 2 cups apricots. It truly depends on your palate. I don’t like jam that is too sweet because, in my opinion, I lose the flavor of the fruit.

In the morning, you will see that the fruit will have released a majority of its liquid. Place the pan onto a stove burner and turn the heat to high. Keep a close eye on your liquid to make sure it doesn’t boil too long, resulting in a super sticky burned bottom, which is practically impossible to scrub clean. (Obviously I am trying to teach from my own mistakes!) When the jam begins to thicken, turn off the heat. Allow to cool and place in a clean glass jar. Voilá! C’est magnifique! You will now know exactly what ingredients are being consumed by your family. And it feels great to be able to boast to your children that they are consuming PB&J sandwiches with their mother’s homemade jam!