This is one of those years in South Louisiana when Cupid haters get some relief since February 14 falls squarely on the final Saturday of Carnival season. No need to sweat the red roses when you can crisscross the state for bawdy floats and bead collecting. But, if a side of you loves a good schmaltzy Valentine’s dinner at home staring doe-eyed across the table at your sweetheart, I have the perfect dessert for you. It’s gorgeous, simple, comes in red and white and, yes, uses local Louisiana strawberries. Plump, juicy berries are now available from regional growers, but if you source them from the farmers market, don’t drag your feet. This past Saturday, vendors at the Red Stick Farmers Market sold out of strawberries before closing time.
The Valentine’s Day dessert I’m recommending is a pretty throwback – Pavlova. It’s a meringue-based dessert named for Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova and created in either New Zealand or Australia (still debated between the two). The meringue, we’re led to believe, is a nod to a fluffy white tutu. But more important than this dish’s whimsical elegance is that it tastes great and is easy to pull off.
There are numerous recipes for Pavlova, but this one is reliable. And, it doesn’t insist you draw a circle on a piece of parchment paper to use as a guide as you pour the meringue onto a baking sheet. You are perfectly capable of making the shape of a circle on your own, and, anyway, perfection is overrated.
Not only did the strawberries in my Pavlova come from a Louisiana farmer, but the eggs did as well. You only need the whites. Hang onto the yolks for aioli or to enrich quiche or scrambled eggs.
1 teaspoon cornstarch
4 egg whites
1 cup, plus 2 tablespoons, sugar
1 teaspoon white vinegar (or lemon juice)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ½ cups whipping cream
1 teaspoon almond extract
Fresh fruit for garnish
Heat oven to 275 F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper, spray it lightly with cooking spray and dust with cornstarch. Beat egg whites in a clean, dry bowl at high speed with an electric mixer until foamy. Add 1 cup sugar gradually, about ¼ cup at a time, until the whites form stiff peaks and begin to look glossy. This takes about 3 minutes. Add vinegar and vanilla extract. Spread mixture onto parchment paper in the shape of a 9-inch diameter circle. As you form spread the meringue, press down slightly in the center, allowing the outer rim to be slightly higher (like you would pizza dough).
Bake for 45 minutes. Carefully remove from baking sheet and cool completely on a rack. Some cracking is normal. When it’s cool, you should be able to slide the meringue off the paper and onto a serving plate.
Beat whipping cream at medium speed until soft peaks begin to form. Add 2 tablespoons sugar and almond extract. Spread over the top of the meringue, leaving the rim. Garnish with fresh fruit. Cut into slices to serve.