Everyone (except me!) in our family has birthdays between March and April. It dawned on me this year that the gift of a homemade cake is the gift I give. It is a labor of love and I care about it deeply and we have a lot of fun planning each year’s cake. Apparently, we are bringing back the 80’s with this year’s birthday themes: Pac Man and Rubik’s cubes.
Kai’s cake was a 3-layer Neapolitan cake shaped like Pac Man. He picked out bright yellow sprinkles and we used black fondant for Pac Man’s eye. Vanilla cream cheese frosting separated each tender layer of vanilla, strawberry and chocolate cake. Silky smooth chocolate Swiss meringue buttercream coated the whole tasty concoction.
For JP’s birthday he picked a lemon cake. He has become a pro at the rubik’s cube so I fashioned one out of store bought angel food cake and used different colored fondant for the cubes. We found 12 bright colored candles that gave off matching flames. The 3-layer white cake was separated with a bright lemon curd and sunshiny Italian lemon meringue buttercream frosting. It was pure delight.
Over the years, I have made many different types of frostings but my favorites are Italian meringue and Swiss meringue Buttercream. The first time I tried to make Italian meringue buttercream I couldn’t get the egg whites to transform into the voluminous mass it was supposed to. I realized that I needed to learn to make a meringue before successfully making the buttercream. Since then I have learned and am now adore meringues. I find them absolutely beautiful, something other-worldly. Edible clouds created by the magic of science.
There are three different types of meringues: French, Swiss and Italian. This recipe utilizes the french style. It was the first type of meringue I successfully made. It is a basic meringue of egg whites, cream of tartar and fine sugar. To create the marshmallow-y center that I so love, we add vinegar and cornstarch and flavor it with vanilla extract and lemon zest. Once these extra ingredients are added, I consider it a pavlova. Most pavlovas are topped with whipped cream and macerated strawberries but I find these delicious enough on their own. The outside is crisp and the inside is the texture of a gooey marshmallow. It melts on the tongue like cotton candy. Meyer lemon zest adds just the right amount of brightness and citrus zing to make the whole treat truly amazing.
Successfully making a meringue is actually quite simple. I’ll let you in on the tips I learned:
- Let the egg whites sit out on the counter to warm up for at least 30 minutes. This will help the whites reach their full volume. As the whites warm, they will thin out and resemble liquid more than thick gel.
- Wash and dry the mixer bowl and whisk. Residual oils can inhibit the whites from whipping.
- Whip on high. Turn that mixer up and let it do its thing. Medium speed just won’t do.
- Add cream of tartar to keep the egg whites from drying out.
- Go slow adding the sugar to prevent it from being gritty. Feel it between your fingers and if its gritty then put it back on high and whip until the meringue is smooth.
Meyer Lemon Pavlova Bites
The crisp outer shell and marshmallow-y center, make these mini pavlova bites irresistible. This recipe is adapted from Edible Seattle. Not only are these pavlovas delicious, they are also gluten free! These puff up slightly but I fit about 22 on each 11×17 baking sheet.
Makes about 45 tablespoon size bites
- 120 g (about 4) egg whites, at room temperature
- 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 1/4 cup fine sugar (or granulated pulsed in a food processor for 25 seconds)
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon distilled vinegar
- zest of 2 meyer lemons (about a tablespoon)
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Food coloring, optional
Heat oven to 300 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Let egg whites stand in a bowl for 30 minutes on the counter while you prepare the other ingredients.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, whip egg whites, cream of tartar and salt. Start on low and mix with the whisk attachment. After 30 seconds start increasing speed until the mixer is at high speed. Continue to whip the egg whites until they reach the stiff peak stage – about 3 minutes from start to finish. Once the egg whites are at stiff peaks, start adding the sugar one spoonful at a time. Go slowly to allow the sugar to be incorporated, about 4 minutes. The meringue will look shiny and thick. Once the sugar is incorporated, stop the mixer and feel the mixture between your fingers to be sure it isn’t gritty feeling. If gritty, continue mixing on high speed and check every 30 seconds. Once it feels smooth stop the mixer and sprinkle cornstarch, vinegar, lemon zest and vanilla extract over meringue and gently fold in with a flexible spatula.
To color: divide mixture into separate bowls. Swirl a couple drops of food coloring into the pavlova by using a toothpick. Use a cookie scoop or spoon to drop pavlovas on to cookie sheet.
Bake on a center rack for 20 minutes. The pavlovas will be puffed and firm. Turn off the oven and open the oven door to let the pavlovas cool completely – about 1 hour. Once cool remove from the oven and store in an air tight container.