Meringues, however lovely, do not fall into those categories. While I like meringue dolloped on top of a pie, I've never really believed it could stand on its own. Egg whites enhanced with sugar do not a complete dessert make. Or so I thought. The latest birthday in our group was for a friend who is currently both gluten and dairy free. I'm pretty comfortable with food restrictions, and I can easily do one or the other but the combination is sort of mind boggling.
Then I remembered meringue's showy cousin - the pavlova. Egg whites and sugar, whipped carefully and cooked slowly at low heat. Afraid that it would come out tasting like air, I opted for a version with cocoa powder and shaved dark chocolate. It came out with a shatter to the touch crust and a slightly chewy center, much more substantial (and delicious) than I had hoped. Piled with fresh berries, it didn't feel at all like a consolation prize.
Chocolate pavlova with fresh berries (serves 6, adapted slightly* from Nigella's recipe here)
6 large egg whites, room temperature
2 cups superfine sugar (or regular sugar whizzed about in the food processor)
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 ounces dark chocolate, finely chopped
4 cups fresh or defrosted berries (we used a mix of strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries)
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons (ish) fresh lemon juice (optional but recommended)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest (optional but recommended)
:: Preheat the oven to 300 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpat.
:: Beat the egg whites with a mixer until satiny peaks form (this is past the foamy stage, but the egg whites won't be very shiny yet), and then beat in the sugar a large spoonful at a time until the meringue is stiff and shiny. Beating the sugar in slowly is worth the time - you won't end up with a gritty meringue. Add the vinegar and whip it in. If you run your finger through the meringue, it should feel thick and very smooth and it should easily form peaks.
:: Sprinkle the cocoa and the chopped chocolate over the egg whites. Gently fold everything with a rubber spatula until the cocoa is thoroughly mixed in. "Folding" is one of those instructions that drive new cooks crazy. It's just a way to gently mix the ingredients. I take the rubber spatula and run it around the edge of the bowl, sort of lifting up the batter and then gently draw it through the middle of the bowl the pull the ingredients through the center. Repeat several times, until the mixture is uniform. What you don't want to do is just stir it around like crazy. You're trying to get the ingredients mixed without deflating the meringue, so the lifting motion will help keep the air incorporated.
:: Mound the meringue onto the lined baking sheets, making 6 mounds total. I did all of mine on one large baking sheet and they juuuust fit, but they expanded a bit as they baked and this made it difficult to separate them afterward so I'd recommend spreading them out a bit more. The mounds will be fairly large, about 5 inches across and a couple inches high.
:: Use a metal spoon to form a large well in the center of each mound. The meringue will rise as it bakes, so keep that in mind.
:: Place in the oven, then immediately turn the temperature down to 275 degrees F and cook for about one hour. When ready, they should look crisp and dry on top, and you may see some cracking in the middle of the wells. Nigella recommends opening the oven and touching the meringues to check for doneness. I read another recipe that recommended avoiding opening the oven altogether, so I didn't check.
:: Turn off the oven and walk away. I actually left mine in the oven overnight, for serving in the morning.You can apparently make the pavlova a couple days ahead and store it in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. DO NOT refrigerate it. Refrigeration wrecks havoc on meringue. When removing the pavlova from the baking sheet you'll want to use the thinnest metal spatula you have, to reduce the risk of shattering the delicate crust.
:: About half an hour before you want to eat, toss the berries with the sugar, lemon juice and zest. Just before serving pile the berries in the center of each pavlova.
Unless you are more talented than I, a few of your pavlova will probably shatter or crack a bit. They still taste excellent, but if you're compulsive about only serving perfect looking dessert you'll want to plan on making a few more than you actually need.
I'll be honest - I don't pavlova will ever win out over cake for me, but as a gluten-free, dairy-free dessert option, they're pretty spectacular. If you can add whipped cream, they'll be even better (as D and I discovered when we devoured the cracked leftovers later on).
* I changed the baking instructions (lowered the temp after looking at several recipes). The original recipe calls for a single 9 inch round, but I made 6 individual servings instead. Nigella also calls for adding freshly whipped cream to the pavlova, which sounds divine but wouldn't work for us as we needed a dairy free option. If I were to make fresh whipped cream, I think I'd be tempted to add a little bit of mint. It seems like it would play well with the berries and the chocolate.