Ten years ago, we lived in an old wooden farmhouse in Vermont. It sat at the top of a slope that rolled down to a lazy river, and in the middle of the slope was a huge and ancient apple tree, the variety of which we were never able to establish. Long before we had kids, on one of The Author’s birthdays, friends of ours shimmied up the tree and installed a swing for us to play on. The ropes of the swing were about 20 feet long, and because the tree was on a hill, when you swung even a little bit, you all of a sudden were about 8 feet in the air. If you pumped your legs vigorously, enough to get the swing so high that your toes could touch the dangling apples on the branches above, well, you were very high up indeed. It was thrilling, if not a bit terrifying.
The Author and I would use the swing occasionally, me more often; I would dandle there and look at the river while The Author mowed, or pruned, or generally did some kind of yard work while I ostensibly helped.
Then one day we were parents, and it seemed that not too shortly after that, The Oldest turned three and took a keen interest in everything, including the swing. One day I was pushing her, and she laughed and laughed and asked me to push her higher, so I did. And joyfully, exuberantly, as she soared towards the leaves, she yelled into the air, “I’M SO HAPPY!” It broke my heart.
When I tell this to people, they look at me quizzically, as if I might be slightly demented.
But here’s the thing: that one perfect moment, with the fresh air rushing by her face, the river and its wet smells flowing past, the geese flying overhead, the branches of the apple tree seemingly bending down to meet her as she soars through space – I saw in that moment not just her happiness, but also the fact that it was only a moment. I would never be able to ensure that this is how she will always experience life. How could I encapsulate her in joy? It’s impossible.
I suppose every parent has a moment when they look at their newly-born child and realise that they are responsible for this tiny thing, and the hugeness of that realisation is staggering and awe-inspiring. And we continue to have those moments throughout our children’s lives; there have been other milestones – of kindergarten, first crushes, puberty, braces – that put me right back in that first moment of awe and despair that I may never live up to this very difficult task which has, by my own doing, become mine.
But that iconic snippet of time, under a fragrant apple tree in a small corner of Vermont, is the one that always sticks with me. I take out the memory and puzzle over it every now and then, and I wonder if in fact I am a bit demented, foreseeing the end of the joy even as the laughter is ringing in my ears.
I hope that all three of my children are happy. I hope that they continue to experience wild joy, moments of pure bliss, throughout their lives. I know in my heart that to fully embrace these, to understand how lucky that is, they need the opposite; they will have to have heartbreak, broken friendships, disappointments, unhappy times. As their mother, I don’t want the latter for them. But I definitely want them to have a complete and satisfyingly full life. And so I have to accept that there is no notion of light without the dark.
Summer Pavlova with Lemon Curd & Berries
I have tended to dislike Pavlovas, finding them too sweet for my taste. But a few weeks ago I made one at work and decided to use the extra egg yolks to make lemon curd (I usually use whole eggs for curd, but either way will work.) Here, not only is it a case of “waste not, want not”, but the high yolk ratio makes for a richer curd, and I am hooked: the tart richness of the curd definitely balances the airy sweetness of the meringue and brings the whole thing together in a completely satisfying way.
This is also a doddle to make, as long as you get the oven temperature right and don’t rush any of the mixing steps, for the meringue as well as for the curd. This recipe makes one generous 23cm pavlova, or eight generous individual pavlovas.
And here’s a general baking tip, but especially useful for baking meringue: use an oven thermometer to ensure that the temperature you are turning the dial to is the temperature that your oven is. You only need to do this a few times to see if your oven is accurate, and then you can pretty much take it from there. Over time, it can also gives you a good indication of how quickly your oven cooks, no matter what the temperature. We have two convection ovens at work; both of them heat accurately according to the same thermometer, but both take a different amount of time to cook the same thing, so obviously temperature is not the only thing to bear in mind. Knowing the temperament as well as temperature of your oven will help with all your baking. For what it’s worth, my oven at home is a temperamental beast, and I find it very difficult – but not impossible – to get a good meringue out of it. I guess I’ll keep trying!
Meringue is also best made on a dry day – the sugar absorbs moisture from the air, and it is surprising how quickly that makes the meringue sticky, weepy, and even gummy in texture.
For the meringue
- 4 egg whites (120g), room temperature
- 200g caster sugar
- 1.5 tsp cornstarch or arrowroot
- 0.5 tsp vanilla
- 1 tsp white vinegar
For the curd:
- 4 lemons
- 200g granulated sugar
- 4 egg yolks
- 2 eggs
- 100g unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
For the assembled pavlovas:
- 500g strawberries
- 200g raspberries
- 200g blueberries
- 500ml double cream (heavy cream)
Preheat oven to 110C/250F.
Even if you are only making one (as opposed to 8 identical) pavlovas, it helps to mark a circle as a guideline. Cut a piece of parchment to fit your baking sheet, and using a pencil or permanent marker, trace out one 23cm circle or eight 9cm circles. Flip the parchment over pen-side down onto the baking sheet and set this aside.
Beat the egg whites in a mixing bowl until they are quite fluffy. Now, slowly add the caster sugar, one tablespoon at a time. This should take about a minute. If you rush this step, you run the risk of deflating all the air you have just put into the egg whites!
When the sugared whites are glossy, whisk in briefly the cornstarch, vanilla and vinegar.
You can use a piping bag to pipe a circle onto the guidelines on the parchment paper, then continue piping smaller circles inside until you have a fairly solid and uniform base about 2 cm thick. Then pipe a few layers of meringue on the outer edge of the circle, until you have built up a wall about 4 cm high. Alternatively, you can use a spoon to dollop all the meringue onto the paper and then smooth it out to the edge of the pre-scribed circle, keeping the edges thicker, like a crater. (Either technique can be used for small pavlovas.)
If you have any meringue left over, you can make small “kisses”: use a spoon to quickly dollop a portion of meringue onto the baking sheet. You need to be decisive and firm in your actions to get a nice curl at the top of the kiss. You can also use a piping bag to do this, and I have used a star nozzle for mine many times; I like the uniform look, especially when I sandwich the baked kisses together with chocolate ganache…
Bake the meringues for 60 minutes in centre of oven. Then turn the oven off and leave the door ajar for about an hour, to finish drying out the meringue. When the meringues are cool, store them in an airtight container until ready to use.
While the pavlova is baking, you can make the curd. Tip the egg yolks, whole eggs, and lemon juice into a heatproof bowl (I use stainless a stainless steel mixing bowl because it takes the heat well and – crucially – cools down quickly when you take it off the heat). Put your bowl over a pan of simmering (not boiling water) and stir the ingredients continuously. Note: if you stop stirring, you run the risk of making lemon scrambled eggs, so be sure you have about 10 minutes of uninterrupted time to do this step.
You can use a spoon to stir the cooking curd, but I prefer a whisk. You will know the curd is done when it becomes thick, like a batter, and has a uniform colour. When that happens, take it off the heat, add he lemon zest and the butter, and stir until it is smooth. Put the bowl in the refrigerator to cool, or, if you are making this ahead of time, transfer the curd to a clean container and refrigerate.
(This recipe yields more lemon curd than you will need for the pavlovas, but you could save some for the filling of a layer cake, or whisk it into heavy cream for a roulade filling, or you could slather it on toast, or you could eat it straight from the jar for a little tart moment of joy.)
To make the assembled pavlovas, wash the fruit and cut the strawberries into bite-sized pieces. I usually sprinkle the strawberries with a tablespoon of sugar to heighten the sweetness and to bring out the juice.
In a large bowl, whisk the cream until it has just started to form soft waves.
Put the meringues on individual plates or a serving platter, and scoop two or three tablespoons of lemon curd into the well. Cover the curd with a layer of the whipped cream, then spoon the strawberries onto the cream. Dot the whole thing with the raspberries and blueberries.
Enjoy it while the berries – and the summer – last.