Anna Pavlova + Mini Chocolate Pavlovas

Anna Pavlova - Edited

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.

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Mini Chocolate Pavlovas
Makes two 4-inch pavlovas.

Ingredients:
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

Instructions:

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.

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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!

Penelope Nejad’s Banana Meringue Pie

Emily Nejad

Emily Nejad and I met last spring when we sat next to each other at a Forth Chicago event for female entrepreneurs. When I sat down and realized who she was, I immediately began fangirling. I had never had one of her cakes, but I had already been following her on Instagram for months, regularly admiring her colorful, textural masterpieces. I asked if she would be interested in sharing a family recipe with me, and I’m so pleased that she said yes!

If you live in Chicago or the surrounding areas, you may already know Emily as the powerhouse behind Bon Vivant Cakes. Emily grew up in southern Indiana, attended Ball State for musical theater, and moved to Chicago. A musician before she was a baker, she and a friend started a band called Celine Neon, whose bright and theatrical videos and energetic electro-pop sound could easily be considered the sonic version of one of Emily’s cakes.

Even though her cakes might seem the product of years of baking experience, the Bon Vivant story is only about two years old. “I was baking for friends and it occurred to me that there might be a market for the cakes I was making. I put up a website and started an Instagram account and went from there,” she says. She was still waiting tables at the time, but after making a cake for a baby shower for a well-known Chicago blogger, her business blew up.

Elegant, whimsical, and each totally unique, Emily tries to ensure that her cakes represent the person ordering them. When you order a cake on her website, she wants to know everything about you. She describes her method on her site: “I want to know your hobbies, your passions, and your favorite band so that I can blast it in my kitchen while I’m baking your cake.”

Emily insists that she does not come from a long line of amazing cooks. “My maternal grandmother is not known for her culinary skills,” she says. “She used to make something called ketchup salad. Holy cow, it is BAD.” Emily’s mother, Penelope, however, has been cooking since she was young. “My mom was the sixth of nine kids. By the time she was a teenager, she was making meals for her whole family.” During college, Penelope met her future husband, an Iranian engineering student with, as Emily describes it, “a gregarious personality and a purple velvet disco suit.” They were married and the couple settled into their roles of bread-winning dad and stay-at-home mom. But in 2009, when the family hit some financial hardships, Penelope decided to go back to work. With her experience cooking for her family and baking during college, she decided to open a restaurant. Emily emphasizes that her mother decided to this “with no experience, in a bad economy, in a one hundred-year-old building, in southern Indiana.” Needless to say, things could have gone badly. “There are many reasons that this was risky, but she did it anyway, because her kids needed health insurance and a college education. So she went to work.” Things have grown quickly for her mother, just as they have for Emily. “Today she owns 3 restaurants, has around 50 employees, and works harder than anyone I know,” says Emily proudly.

Penelope Nejad

The recipe that Emily wanted to share is not a long-held family recipe. Instead, it’s her mom’s banana meringue pie that her mother used to make for holidays and Emily’s birthday. It originated from a recipe in a Presbyterian cookbook from Knox, Pennsylvania, that her mom has tweaked over the years. “Banana cream pie is my favorite pie, hands down,” Emily says. “My favorite time to eat it is at breakfast. There is nothing better than waking up and knowing that there is leftover pie from the night before.”

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Penny’s Banana Meringue Pie

Filling Ingredients:
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 tsp salt
3 cups
whole milk
4 egg yolks, slightly beaten
2 tbsp butter, room temp
1 tbsp, plus 1 tsp vanilla
2-3 bananas

Meringue Ingredients:
3 egg whites
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
6 tbsp sugar
1/4
tsp vanilla

Pie Instructions:

Make 1 pie crust of your choice and set aside. (Emily says she prefers an all-butter pie crust. I prefer, and almost always use, this recipe.)

Mix sugar, cornstarch and salt in ½ quart saucepan, making sure that the sugar and cornstarch are mixed thoroughly so that they don’t clump once heat and liquid is added. Add milk.

Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until mixture thickens and boils. Boil and stir one minute.

To make your pudding, you’ll temper the hot mixture into the egg yolks: stir half of the hot mixture gradually into the egg yolks, being very careful not to scramble the eggs. When the yolks are warmed, add the hot mixture back into the saucepan with the rest of the hot mixture. Boil and stir one minute.

Remove the pan from heat and stir in butter & vanilla.

Right before you add the hot pudding to the pie shell, add the sliced bananas to the bottom of the pie crust.

Pour pudding into pie shell to set; press plastic wrap over filling.

Refrigerate at least 2 hours but no longer than 48.

After the pudding has set, add the meringue to the pie. Make whatever swirly pattern you’d like with the fluffy meringue. Bake at 375 for no longer than 5 minutes on the bottom third of the oven, checking constantly. It can burn really easily. It’s done when the peaks of meringue start to brown.

Meringue Instructions:

Beat egg whites and cream of tartar, add the sugar 1 tbsp at a time until very stiff and glossy, and then stir in the vanilla. You must use very clean stainless bowl and stainless whisk.

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Seeing as how Emily and her mom both started their own businesses around food, I wondered if her mom had influenced Emily as an entrepreneur. She says, “My mom and I started growing as entrepreneurs at relatively the same time. There were a lot of parallels in our lives. The advice we pass back and forth to each other is, ‘Trust yourself. Trust your vision. You have something special.'”

If you want to keep up with Emily, follow her on Instagram @BonVivantCakes, where she showcases her cakes, and new creations, like cookie dough chocolate pops (WHAT?!), which you can sample this Saturday, September 23, at Chicago’s West Elm on North Avenue. AND she will be creating edible art for the MCA’s 50th Anniversary celebration on Oct 21st!

Emily, thank you so much for sharing your story, your mother’s story, and this delicious recipe with me! I’m so excited to see what’s next for you!