‘The last supper’. Such a peculiar thought. When we enter this world mewling and puking, our first mouthfuls are the same. But after a lifetime of different experiences our ‘last suppers’ are so diverse.
Of course, we don’t usually we know which our last supper will be, so it’s rare that it’s a pre-planned meal. There are exceptions, of course. Photographer Henry Hargreaves did a macabre, but utterly compelling series called No Seconds, where he recreated and photographed death row prisoners’ last meal. They vary from lobster and steak with apple pie, to the modest dinner requested by Victor Feguer, an Iowan charged with kidnap and murder: a single olive with the stone in it. So eye-wateringly humble and so specific. I wonder what memory he had associated with the olive which made him love it so much.
I’ve pondered my last supper before, but I’ve never come to a conclusion. I know I’d like it to be cooked by Clarissa Dickson Wright. She’d do heart-cloggingly good food which would ensure that the other guests would be one step closer to joining me. I also figured that she’d be a jovial kind of person to have about on such an occasion, with a healthy view on death (listen to her Desert Island Discs), and a large supply of Claret at hand which would, obviously, be key.
Though I’m yet to decide upon an exact starter or a main course, I do know that the pudding would be pavlova. It is, quite simply, my favourite pudding. It also has so many happy associations: birthday pavlovas, summer evening pavlovas, Christmas pavlovas and, (my personal favourite), breakfast pavlova, which is never made specifically, but which is leftover from the night before – by which time the juice has seeped out of the fruit, marbled the cream, and turned the exposed inside of the pavlova into a marshmallow-like foam.
I have inherited the recipe below from my Mum, and it’s one which I will never veer from. I’ve included some tips at the bottom. Not because a pavlova is a remotely tricky pudding to make, but just because I can’t bear the thought of a disappointing pavlova.
4 egg whites
225g caster sugar
1 teaspoon of cornflour
1 teaspoon of white wine vinegar
150ml of double cream
150 ml of Greek/natural yogurt
200-400g soft summer fruit eg. strawberries, raspberries
1. Whisk the egg whites until they’re hard. Very hard.
2. Feed the egg whites with sugar. At the start, just add one tablespoon at a time, whisking as you go. You can speed things up a little after you’ve added the first 100g. But patience really is the key here. By the end, you should have a stiff, glossy-white mixture.
3. Whisk in the white wine vinegar and cornflour.
4. Transfer the mixture from the mixing bowl onto baking parchment. I use a silpat mat.
Some people like to pipe the meringue-mixture into neat circles. I prefer a more organic nest-shape, So I use a serving spoon or spatula to create waves and flicks. Whether you’re making one large pavlova, or lots of mini pavlovas, make sure that there’s an indent in the middle of the nest, so that the filling can sit in it. Don’t do this by pressing down the middle, but instead, by building up the walls.
5. Put the pavlova in a pre-heated oven at 140C for an hour and a half.
6. In the meantime, whisk the double cream and stir in the yoghurt. Just before serving, gently mix the fruit into the cream/yoghurt, and then pile it into middle of the pavlova nest.
Tips On Making The Perfect Pavlova
(Yes, I know, these are a lot of tips, but a pavlova is serious business! )
- Make sure that the bowl you crack the egg whites into is pristine-clean. Egg whites can be temperamental, and even the smallest bit of dirt in the bowl, or yolk in the whites might stop them from stiffening properly.
- I can’t stress the importance of making sure that the egg whites are whisked until they’re stiff before you start adding the sugar. Or the importance of adding the sugar very slowly. These two points in the recipe are the only real scope for danger.
- Note, the white wine vinegar and cornflour is what gives the pavlova a squidgy inside. If you forget to add these, then you’ve made a meringue instead!
- AMOUNTS: The amounts above will make one large pavlova, or 12 mini pavlovas. You might find, with the mini pavlovas, that it’s hard to fit in as much ‘filling’, so you’ll have leftovers. Serve this in a bowl, so that people can add more if they want.
- The advantages one big, nest-like pavlova are 1) it’s more spectacular to serve, and 2) there’s often a better ratio of meringue : filling. But it can be messy to serve, and often looks more like Eton Mess by the time it gets into the bowl. Individual pavlovas are sweet, and neater. The only downside is that there’s often not quite as much room to fit in a filling.
- When you put the pavlova in the oven, think of it more as ‘drying’ rather than ‘cooking’. Whatever happens, don’t be tempted to whack up the temperature to cut cooking times. The key is to leave it at a low temperature for a long time, until the moisture is sapped from the egg whites. The bottom oven of an Aga is good for this. Also, if you have the time, then leave the pavlova bases in the oven once you’ve switched it off, so that they can keep on dehydrating.
- Most traditional pavlovas are filled with just whipped cream. Remember, the pavlova base is very sweet, and I think that adding 1:1 cream: Greek/natural yoghurt helps cut through this sweetness a bit, and makes for a more balance dessert.
- Stir the fruit into the whipped cream/yoghurt just before serving, otherwise the juices will bleed into the white mixture. Often, people just place a few berries on top, but I think it looks a bit token. My advice is to go big on fruit, and stir it right in, to make sure that there are berries in each mouthful.