Between now and Christmas, I will be doing a series of festive edible centerpieces to help you wow your friends and family and to stand out at any of the 14 holiday potlucks you will inevitably be invited to. So, Part 1 of this centerpiece series–a pavlova wreath with beautiful festive cranberries.
If you aren’t familiar with pavlova, it is essentially a baked meringue dish. It has a crispy exterior with a soft, marshmallowy interior. It seems to pop up mostly in the summer, when it is topped with whipped cream and fresh strawberries. But this recipe brings the pavlova to the winter months, and the cranberry is the perfect balance to the sweetness of the meringue itself.
You will need:
- 1 cup fresh cranberries
- 1 and 3/4 cups granulated sugar (total)
- 4 egg whites
- 3 Tbs light brown sugar
- 1/4 cup water
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1/8 tsp salt
- 2 tsp cornstarch
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 tsp vinegar (white wine vinegar if you have it)
You will also need a cookie sheet, parchment paper, and a stand or hand mixer. Before you plan to actually start, take your 4 eggs out and leave them on the counter until they get to room temperature. This will help them get the right volume later.
You will also need to put half of the cranberries in a small bowl. To this, add 2 Tbs granulated sugar, 3 Tbs brown sugar. You should also add a tiny bit of water, just so that as you mix it, the sugar becomes a sort of thick syrup. Just leave this mixture out to sit, stirring every time you happen to be in the kitchen. Really these cranberries are just slowing sweetening.
Now to make the cranberry sauce. Don’t worry, this is NOT more of the Thanksgiving version you’re probably sick of by now. This is a simple dessert version. To a small saucepan, add the second half of the fresh cranberries, 1/2 cup of granulated sugar and 1/4 cup water. Swirl it around to get all the sugar into the water. Let this cook over medium heat for just a few minutes. Don’t go anywhere. As it cooks and you occasionally swirl, the cranberries will soften in the sugar mixture and eventually burst. You can hear them and see them when they do. The sugar mixture will also thicken slightly.
(Hint: Occasionally a cranberry might splash the sugar mixture up a bit when it pops, so keep a lid handy, just in case of attack)
When most of the cranberries have popped (and it looks something like this ^) carefully transfer the mixture to a food processor and blend until mostly smooth. This sauce will thicken as it cools. You could make this sauce while your pavlova is cooking, but I prefer to get everything done early so I can relax.
So, on to the pavlova. Preheat your oven to 200 F. On a piece of parchment paper cut to fit your baking sheet, trace a circle in the size that you want your pavlova wreath to be. I traced a smaller circle inside it for the opening in the wreath.
Once your eggs have reached room temperature, separate only the whites into a large bowl (or into a stand mixer, if you are lucky enough to own one). Beat them for just a minute until they are foamy, then add the salt. Continually mixing, slowly add 1 cup of sugar. The egg whites will stiffen and get brighter and glossier as the sugar is incorporated. Continue mixing until the sugar is fully dissolved. It will take some time. You can test it by rubbing a bit of the mixture between your thumb and finger. If you feel any grit, keep mixing. When it is smooth, sift or sprinkle in 2 tsp cornstarch, and add the 1/2 tsp vanilla and the 1 tsp of vinegar. White wine vinegar is technically best, but I’m not a big believer in buying a bunch of different types of vinegar just to use tiny amounts anyway. Gently fold these ingredients in, being careful not to deflate your egg whites.
Dot the corners of your baking sheet with a tiny bit of the mixture, then place your parchment paper pencil-side down onto the pan. The meringue on the corners will help it stick. A lot of people have issues with the paper sticking to the pavlova, but if you sprinkle a little more cornstarch on the circle of your sheet and spread it around, it should be much easier. Here’s a stunning photo of what my prepared pan looked like.
(Yeah, so my real camera was still charging. Don’t judge me)
Spoon piles of the meringue onto the sheet, continuing all the way around the circle. At the end you can just use a spatula to clean up the edges and smooth out the top. Now just bake the whole thing for 2 hours .Yes, I know, it’s a long time. But that’s why I suggest making the sauce and berries in advance. Now you can go watch TV.
At the end of 2 hours, turn off the oven, but leave it closed. Allow the pavlova to cool in there for about 1 and a half hours (Yay, more TV time). This will prevent cracking. Now, pretty much every pavlova cracks. This is partly due to the sudden temperature change, which the closed oven thing will avoid. It is also partly because when it is cool, and you take it out, you are generally supposed to invert it onto the serving plate. So feel free to do it that way.
But if your pavlova is completely cool and didn’t crack, you may find yourself too proud of it to intentionally break it by flipping it. So you can also try to VERY carefully slide it off the sheet and move it, right-side up to the plate. Just be warned, the crust of this thing is basically paper. Crispy, delicious paper.
Once you have in some way gotten your pavlova onto the serving plate, its time to make the whipped cream. Okay, yeah, so I lied slightly about getting EVERYTHING done in advance. But whipped cream is just much better when it is freshly whipped. And it only takes a few minutes. In a medium or large bowl, whip 1/2 cup of heavy cream with the electric mixer, slowly adding the final 2 Tbs of granulated sugar. Cream for pavlovas is best soft, so stop once you get soft peaks.
Just before serving, cover the top of your pavlova in the whipped cream, then the cranberry sauce, and finally spoon the sweetened berries over it. As you can see, I went for a rustic approach to my decorating. I think it works best for desserts like pavlovas that aren’t meant to look perfect and symmetrical. (And of course it’s much easier)
So there you have it. A beautiful, festive-looking pavlova wreath to impress your guests when you place it in the middle of your holiday dessert table. They will be just as pleased when they dig in. Although fair warning, it will probably collapse somewhat as soon as you cut it, so take any and all photos beforehand. The pavlova should have a crispy exterior with a soft center, and will be very sweet, which makes the cranberry toppings the perfect accompaniment. Enjoy!