Having been routinely thwarted in my attempts to cluster dinner guests based upon their bizarre food issues, I’ve been confronted with a growing need for gluten-free foodstuffs, particularly desserts. And while there are numerous excellent websites devoted to the topic, whose results I can only presume are quite palatable, the initial investment in GF baking can be somewhat daunting.
In place of regular wheat flour, whose gluten is literally responsible for keeping things from falling apart, a somewhat bewildering array of gums, starches, and ancient grains are pressed into service. This kind of complicated replacement seems totally worth it for people who are cooking GF all the time, but I don’t really want to have to track down and purchase xanthan gum and ground amaranth for one cake, you know?
SO. That leaves me with the more traditional GF dessert alternatives that depend on eggs or nut flour for body and structure. While I do have a store of lovely nut-based cakes, lately I’ve been utterly taken with the queen of desserts from Down Under, the pavlova. Allegedly named for the Russian ballet dancer on one of her Australian tours, the blowsily elegant combination of fruit, cream, and meringue is really just delightful in its airy deliciousness.
While the sweetened egg white base is usually identified as a meringue, it technically isn’t. The addition of cornstarch to the mixture enables a crispy exterior as in a regular meringue, but also allows for a lush, marshmallowy interior which I find to be FAR preferable to the often gritty dryness of straight-up meringue.
I’ve been using this recipe by Shuna Fish Lydon, who is also responsible for the lovely blog eggbeater. Her process is pretty clutch–starting out low and slow and gradually adding speed and ingredients to the mixture over a period of about 10 minutes. This gives time for the sugar to dissolve fully into the mixture and obviates the grittiness sometimes found in regular meringues. Having done these several times in recent weeks–passion fruit cream and pineapple, regular cream and strawberries–I am totally sold.
And now, a few tips–some to be found in the recipe, but well worth repeating. EVERYTHING, from your hands to your bowl to your beather, that touches the egg whites must be absolutely clean and grease-free. Any fat in the mixture will diminish the rise you get out of them. And we want them fluffily full of ire. Be sure to sift, or at least whisk, the dry ingredients. While the base mixture spends a good amount of time in the mixer, you still want to be as lump-free as possible to start with.
Don’t go overboard and pipe fancy shells. Go with a rustic pouf and make a slight indentation with the back of your spoon. An artfully piped shell doen’t have the solid volume to give you a nice amount of sweet, squidgy goodness on the inside of the crackly shell. And, naturally, let your whimsy guide you on the toppings and filling front. I generally don’t do cream on my own and don’t feel deprived with just fruit, though ice cream or sorbet could be nice too.