No Such Thing As Luck and Mini Berry Pavlovas
Life has been good to me lately, very good. I’m grateful for the opportunity to write about it here, because I’m not always comfortable horn tooting to my friends. Listening and offering advice (yes, often unsolicited, sorry) and providing a shoulder to lean on comes more easily than sharing good news, bad days, or otherwise. I feel self conscious when I talk about myself and worry that others think I’m narcissistic or a braggart. Many of my friends are embroiled in family dramas, their pain so deep it shows on their lined faces. Do they want to hear about my upcoming trip to Italy? Or the Osprey nests we saw on another friend’s private island in Maine last week? Or what about the genuine bone-in Jamón Ibérico that’s perched in its “jamon holder” on my kitchen counter on loan from generous friends? Would my stories be a welcome distraction from a loveless marriage and parenting challenges? Or would the contrast in our life stations and emotional states exaggerate their pain? Does misery really love company? When I can’t answer these questions, my answer to their “How are you?” is short and sweet then I steer the conversation back to them.
But perhaps the biggest reason I’m reluctant to share good news with friends is that I can’t bear to hear the words, “You’re so lucky!”
“You’re so lucky you know how to make bread.”
“You’re so lucky to have a job you love.”
“I wish I could go to Italy. You’re so lucky!”
I’m not lucky. I don’t believe in luck.
Physics? Yes. “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Thank you, Sir. Newton!
Karma? Absolutely. What goes around comes around. Eventually.
I also believe in hard work. Malcolm Gladwell suggested we need 10,000 hours in a subject to become an expert. Ultimately our successes, and failures too, are driven by the choices we make and the trade offs we’re willing to accept in life.
My bread is good; it’s true. I may not have 10,000 hours of breadmaking under my apron, but I made over 200 loaves of bread before I stopped counting. I have a job that I love, because I traded a fat paycheck for happiness, something I was only able to do because I had worked hard for the years leading up to my career change. We’re going to Italy instead of painting the exterior trim of our house, trim that was installed more than six years ago and has since sat unfinished. The trim can wait one more year, a trade off we both agreed to. I can’t say the same for Italy.
If you’ve stopped by here before, you know that my cosmic joker hasn’t always been kind. 2013 was a particularly tough year for Greg and me for reasons too painful to share here yet, even though it seems like I talk about anything here. In the darkest of those days I still believed that something good would be born from the bad, that we would find a silver lining. Our Italy trip is that silver lining. I believed it too when my dad died in my junior year of college, a sudden tragic event that brought me closer to the mom I’d worked so hard to distance myself from. And I believed it when I watched cancer slowly consume her eight years later. While mom slept, my sisters and I forged new bonds in her kitchen, getting to know each other again in the meaningful ways that you can’t with a monthly long distance phone call. Those silver linings were hard earned and had nothing to do with luck.
Lady Luck didn’t have a hand in these lovely pavlovas either. Suffice to say I am well on my way to 10,000 hours in the matter of pavlova baking. I made them for a gluten free wedding I catered earlier this month. My go-to moves for gluten free desserts involve chocolate, coconut, and/or nuts, but it’s July and a summery dessert was a must.
My first batch baked up flat. I didn’t get the egg whites stiff enough. My second batch was dark and brittle. They say the third time is the charm, but not for me. After two dozen egg whites and too much powdered sugar I still didn’t have a foolproof recipe and method, only a growing mound of sugary hockey pucks. I told myself it was time to move on and find another dessert. The clock was ticking, and I had countless other dishes left to prepare for a hundred plus guests. This isn’t the same as giving up, I told myself. I could return to Operation Pavlova after the wedding.
Failure, especially when repeated, is a humbling reminder of how much I still have to learn in life. It’s particularly hard to swallow when it’s dished up in my kitchen. “Maybe just one more try,” I said to my refrigerator as I reached for my last carton of eggs. At last my efforts were rewarded. Batch four was beautiful, light and crisp on the outside with a slight chew reminiscent of a marshmallow on the inside. There would be pavlovas at the wedding after all.
I’m making more again soon. If you’re lucky I’ll share some with you!
Mini Summer Berry Pavlovas with Vanilla Cream
8 large egg whites
1 pinch of salt
2 ½ cups powdered sugar
4 teaspoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
2 cups mixed berries, fresh or frozen
1/4 cup sugar (more depending on the sweetness of the berries)
Juice from half a lemon
1 cup mascarpone cheese
1/4 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons powdered sugar
Seeds from one vanilla bean (or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract)
1 cup mixed berries, roughly chopped if large
Fresh mint leaves or tarragon
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpats.
- Whisk together the egg whites and salt until very stiff and the whites start pulling away from the edge of the bowl–right before they break. Gently begin spooning in the sugar one tablespoon at a time. Go slowly. Keep beating until glossy, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle in cornstarch and vinegar. Blend on low until combined.
- Spoon a scant two tablespoons of meringue onto the baking sheet for each pavlova, placing them about an inch apart. (I used a #40 disher, which is about a 3/4 ounce ice cream scoop.) Make a small depression in the center with the back of the spoon.
- Put into the oven and immediately decrease the temperature to 275°F. Bake for 30 minutes until they’re dry to the touch with just a hint of ivory color. Turn off the heat and leave them in the oven with the door cracked for another 30 minutes. Remove the pavlovas from the oven. When completely cool seal in an airtight container. If it’s a particularly humid day and your meringues get sticky, dry them in a 225°F oven for 30 minutes.
(The meringues will keep for up to two weeks if sealed in an airtight container and stored in a cool, dry place.)
- To make the sauce, pour the berries into a saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the sugar and lemon juice. Cook the mixture down until it reaches a sauce-like consistency, stirring occasionally. Let cool. Using a blender or food processor puree until smooth.
- For the filling, combine ingredients in a medium bowl and beat with an electric mixer until smooth.
- To assemble, place the meringues on a serving platter. Fill the centers with a generous dollop of vanilla cream. Spoon the berry sauce on top. Sprinkle with mixed berries and fresh mint or tarragon. Serve immediately.
Makes about 4 dozen.