By Jennifer V. Cole
We tap into the lore surrounding who really created this airy dessert inspired by Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. Find the recipe to our Raspberry Pine Nut Pavlova, here.
We live in a time when all it takes is a YouTube account or one viral tweet to propel someone to “celebrity”—even if the status is fleeting. So, it’s almost mind-boggling to imagine a period not even 100 years ago when a premiere ballerina, Anna Pavlova, was so beloved and admired that chefs around the world demonstrated affection and admiration by creating dishes in her honor, with at least 50 documented Pavlova-inspired bites before 1927. In the United States, there was Pavlova ice cream. In France, frogs’ legs à la Pavlova. But it’s the airy meringue dessert bearing her name, crowned with cream and fruit, that has persisted through the years.
The origin of that now-classic preparation has been a hotly debated topic in the Southern Hemisphere for decades. Australia claims to have created it first, with Bert Sachse, a chef at a hotel in Perth, Western Australia, creating sweet baked meringue so ethereal that a diner is said to have uttered, “It’s as light as Pavlova.” And so, the name stuck. New Zealand also claims the dish, citing that during her 1929 visit, a chef at the Wellington Hotel was so inspired by the ballerina’s tutu that he created the dessert in her honor. Researchers have discovered that the first Kiwi mention of Pavlova actually appears in a New Zealand cookbook, Davis Dainty Dishes, in 1927. The Oxford English Dictionary, in its etymological research of the term, determined this recipe was the deciding factor in the great Pavlova debate and crowned New Zealand the rightful owner. But that dish had nothing to do with meringue at all. Instead, the dish was a creation of layers of flavored gelatin, a type of tiered congealed salad.
Because the Aussies and Kiwis tend to fight like loving siblings, the debate of topics such as who really lays claim to Russell Crowe and who owns the Pavlova is practically a celebrated pastime. The dispute actually inspired a bipartisan duo, Dr. Andrew Paul Wood from New Zealand and Annabelle Utrecht from Australia, to dive deeper into the history of the dish than perhaps anyone has gone before. The two, who created a highly entertaining all-Pavlova Twitter account (@DocAndTheFrock), poured over historic menus, researched vintage recipes, tracked down all mentions of the dessert they could find, and generally found themselves nose-deep in the quest for the meringue truth.
And what they discovered might be unsettling to both of their home nations. Their research suggests that the true Pavlova hails from Europe and America. They found more than 150 recipes similar to the modern Pavlova that predate the ballerina’s visits to either country. One of the very first they’ve been able to locate is for a meringue, cream, and fruit dish called Spanische Windtorte, a favorite of the Hapsburgs in Austria in the 18th century. They found similar recipes imported to the United States by German immigrants. It’s surmised that the invention of the hand-turned egg beater propagated the popularity of meringue dishes across kitchens of the housewives of the American Heartland.
But the duo’s real aha moment in unraveling the origin of this dish really has nothing to do with old-world culinary tradition or admiration for a lithe young lady named Pavlova. It was a marketing scheme from an American cornstarch manufacturer, William Duryeas’ Maizena. To get the airy, marshmallowy consistency of a Pavlova, the meringue often incorporates cornstarch—a key differentiation between it and French meringue cookies. The American company put a recipe similar to the modern Pavlova on the side of its cornstarch box and began exporting the package to Australia and New Zealand.
It appears that neither Australia nor New Zealand can claim to have created the venerated meringue dessert. But without either country’s zeal, it’s sure that the dish would have languished into obscurity. We don’t exactly wander into French restaurants looking for Pavlova-inspired frogs’ legs these days. We’re incredibly thankful the dish has survived. And there’s something beautifully poetic about recalling a time when a Russian ballerina was one of the most famous people on earth. Fingers crossed there’s an Oprah Cake 100 years from now.