If you’re like me, you may have recently noticed pavlovas popping up around the internet. They’re a lovely, delicate, meringue confection, often topped with cream and fruit. Also, if you’re like me, always on the lookout for the story behind the dessert, you may have also wondered to yourself, “Why are they called that?” Well, here is the history of Anna Pavlova, the great Russian ballerina and choreographer, in whose honor the pavlova was created.
Anna Pavlova was born on this day, February 12, 1881, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her parents were not wed at the time of her birth, and Pavlova was later adopted by her mother’s husband after her birth father died, and took his surname.
As a young child, her mother took her to a ballet performance of The Sleeping Beauty, which sparked her interest in ballet. At the age of 10, Pavlova was accepted into the prestigious Imperial Ballet School, but not before at first being rejected for her slight and “sickly” appearance. Pavlova’s body was atypical of the classic ballerina of the time. She was short and slender, with very arched feet. This made it difficult for her to dance en pointe. Eventually, she would compensate for this by inserting leather soles into her shoes, as well as hardening the toe and shaping it into a box. Some criticized this as “cheating,” but her invention led to the modern-day pointe shoe, which allows dancers to remain en pointe for extended periods of time.
It is said that she had bad turnout and often performed with bent knees. But her determination was great. In addition to her classes at the ballet school, she would take extra lessons from noted ballet teachers of the time, and practice for hours and days on end. She never shied away from the hard work required of a great dancer. She once said, “God gives talent. Work transforms talent into genius.”
At the age of 18, Pavlova graduated from the Imperial Ballet School. While her style was unconventional, she became an increasingly popular dancer, and a favorite of Marius Petipa, one of the most influential ballet choreographers ever. In 1905, she, along with choreographer Mikhail Fokine, created the solo dance of The Dying Swan, a four-minute act that follows the last moments of a swan’s life. At the age of 25, she finally earned the title of prima ballerina, after a performance of Giselle, which was known as a notoriously difficult ballet for dancers to perform.
By the age of 30, Pavlova had founded her own dance company to tour the world. Striking out on her own in this way, she performed for millions of people throughout the world, introducing many to ballet for the first time. She also never stopped learning her craft. She was known, during her travels, to take classes from local teachers, learning traditional dances of Mexico, India, and Japan.
Pavlova continued touring until her death in 1931. Before a tour through the Hague, her train was in an accident, and the dancer was left waiting on the platform in the cold for 12 hours, in only a thin coat and pajamas. Shortly after, she developed pneumonia and was told that she needed surgery to save her life, but was also told that the surgery would likely prevent her from ever dancing again. She declined the surgery and, as a result, died just before her 50th birthday. Her love of dance was so powerful that she is said to have uttered, just before her death, “Get my ‘swan’ costume ready,” though this may have been a romantic embellishment.
It is said that Pavlova’s “swan” costume is the basis for the pillowy pavlova, and it is hard to look at the fluffy design of the pavlova and not imagine a resemblance. In the 1920s, Pavlova’s tours were very popular in the United States, as well as New Zealand and Australia. And it is the latter two countries who are responsible for the popularity of the pavlova pastry, which was named in honor of the dancer’s tour. Since the 20s, in fact, Australia and New Zealand have been in a friendly disagreement about which country is actually the birthplace of the pavlova. But to this day, neither country has been able to prove their case beyond a doubt. (In fact, in 2008, a book was published that definitively stated that the first recipe appeared in New Zealand. However, more recently, the dessert has been traced back to a similar German torte that came to the United States and evolved from there.)
Wherever the pavlova was first created, it has become an important cultural fixture in both Australia and New Zealand, where it is often served around Christmas and is usually topped with cream, strawberries, and kiwi.
Mini Chocolate Pavlovas
Makes two 4-inch pavlovas.
1 large egg white
1 small pinch of table salt
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 tsp vanilla
4 1/2 tsp cocoa powder
1/2 cup heavy cream, very cold
Raspberries, as desired
Chocolate shavings, as desired
Preheat oven to 250 degrees.
Place a piece of parchment paper onto a cookie sheet. Using a bowl, trace two 3-inch circles onto the parchment paper, then flip the parchment over on the cookie sheet. You should be able to see the circles through the parchment. Set aside.
In a large bowl, beat the egg white with salt until smooth, adding sugar one tablespoon at a time and beating in completely until it has doubled in size, and is smooth and glossy. Then, beat in the vanilla.
Sift the cocoa powder over the top, and use a plastic spatula to fold the cocoa in completely. Spoon the mixture into the two circles on the parchment paper (pile them as high as possible, as they will deflate as they bake and cool.) Bake for 30 minutes. Turn off the oven, leaving the door closed, and allow to cool for 15 minutes. They should be crisp on the edges, but squishy in the middle.
Top with whipped cream, raspberries, and chocolate shavings, and serve immediately.
This delicate dessert is not unlike its namesake, the sensational Anna Pavlova. It’s light, not too rich, and honestly, it’s hard to go wrong with whipped cream and chocolate shavings on anything. I love them, and I hope Ms. Pavlova would, too! Happy Birthday, Anna!