For all of the sugar artistry, the showiness of elaborate frosting and gorgeous fruit, on display in a pastry kitchen, desserts are mostly about fundamentals. Basic techniques. Basic ingredients. So it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that egg whites feature so prominently in the latest cookbook from British Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi.
He began his career as a pastry chef, after all, as did Helen Goh, his collaborator on “Sweet,” their new dessert cookbook. There’s a pavlova on the cover of the American edition. There are about 10 recipes for meringues inside the book.
If you’ve ever been to Ottolenghi’s shop in the Notting Hill neighborhood of London, meringues are the first thing you see, towering in the window, confronting you as you walk in the door, begging to be eaten as soon as possible.
And when Ottolenghi and Goh visited The Times’ Test Kitchen, not too long ago, it was a meringue that they demonstrated, in the form of a pavlova tricked out and rolled up like a yule log.
“Meringues are the basis of so many classical desserts; they’re so instrumental in baking,” Ottolenghi said above the loud engine of the KitchenAid mixer. “When you want to show off, you do meringues.”
Most often, a pavlova is made as a giant meringue, a Frisbee-sized, free-form confection that’s baked, then topped with whipped cream and fruit or whatever’s on hand. Ottolenghi and Goh have spread out their meringue on a sheet pan and baked it like a sponge cake, then dropped whipped cream, sliced peaches, blackberries and almonds on top and rolled it up, jelly roll style. The result is showstopping.
Although “Sweet” is Ottolenghi’s sixth cookbook, it is his first devoted solely to desserts, and you get the feeling as he talks about it that the book’s making was as much a fun, sugar-high playtime as it was a study in dessert technique. In the kitchen, the two chefs, who each have two children under the age of 7, act like kids themselves, finishing each other’s sentences and jokes as they assemble the parts of the dish.
“Take a deep breath and roll,” instructed Goh after she and Ottolenghi had loaded the layer of meringue with spoonfuls of cream, fruit and nuts. “If it goes wrong,” pointed out Ottoenghi as he ate the rest of the peaches, “you can always turn it into a trifle.”
“Sweet” took about three years to write but, said Ottolenghi, he and Goh — the longtime Ottolenghi product developer — have been “talking cakes for 10 years.”
Roughly half of the recipes are from the Ottolenghi restaurants — there are five in London — and half were developed for the book. “We wanted to make it really user-friendly,” said Goh, “not just special-occasion.” So although there are a few stunners — a lemon and blackcurrant stripe cake, say, with towering vertical pink and yellow layers — there’s an emphasis on family-friendly treats and not a few cookie recipes for which, as Ottolenghi put it, “you don’t need a lot of kit.”
Those of us whose kitchen shelves are lined with Ottolenghi’s previous cookbooks (among them “Plenty,” “Jerusalem” and “Plenty More”) will note a few marked differences from that stack and this book. Most obviously, the chef who often seems to be credited with reinventing Middle Eastern cuisine (“I can credit myself with making it a little bit more sexy”) has written a book that isn’t particularly regional. Yes, there’s the rosewater and the pistachios, and there is halvah in the brownies, but “Sweet” reads like a fairly traditional European — even British — dessert book. There are recipes for celebration cake, for sticky fig pudding, for Victoria sponge cake, even a recipe for fruitcake.
The difference is also in the methodology. “The subject matter is so different,” Ottolenghi said about “Sweet.” “It’s about the technique; savory is more about the ingredients.”
And if you’re wondering about the next cookbook: yes, it’s already in the works. “The next one is going to be Ottlenghi simple,” the chef said, after he and Goh sliced — and sampled — their pavlova. It’ll be “more functional, about how food functions on a daily basis. I look at the recipes and they’re so short.”
Meanwhile, if you like your dessert recipes short, maybe try the Cats’ Tongues, delicate biscuits that take all of three steps to make; or the lime posset, a cream-based pudding that takes just two steps, plus adding some papaya and lime. If, however, your idea of fun is beating giant bowls of egg whites — Ottolenghi’s first kitchen job was doing just that — there is recipe after recipe for that, for sponge cakes and Powder Puffs, as well as that remarkable stripe cake. And yes, for meringues, whether you roll them up or display them prettily near your kitchen window.
Rolled Pavlova With Peaches And Blackberries
About 1 hour, plus cooling time. Serves 10 to 12.
• MERINGUE BASE
8 3/4 ounces (250 grams) egg whites, from 7 to 8 eggs, at room temperature
1 3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons (375 grams) granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1. Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a 15-inch by 10-inch jelly roll pan with parchment paper so the paper rises 3/4-inch over the sides of the pan.
2. Place the egg whites in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and beat on medium-high speed until soft peaks form, about 1 minute. Gradually add the sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time while beating, until the mixture turns into a thick and glossy meringue, about 5 minutes. Reduce the speed to low. Combine the vanilla, vinegar and cornstarch to form a slurry, and add to the meringue. Increase the speed to medium and beat until fully combined, about 1 minute.
3. Spoon the meringue into the lined pan and use a spatula to spread it out evenly. Place in the oven and immediately reduce the temperature to 400 degrees; the contrast in temperature helps create the crisp outside along with the gooey marshmallow-like inside. Bake until the meringue is pale beige in color and crusty on top, about 35 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside in the pan until completely cool. The meringue will have puffed up in the oven but will deflate slightly when cooled. The meringue base (unfilled) can be prepared up to a day ahead. Leave it in the pan and drape with a kitchen towel until needed. You are then ready to fill it with the fruit and cream up to 4 hours before (but ideally as close as possible to) serving.
• FILLING AND ASSEMBLY
1 2/3 cups (400 ml) heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons powdered sugar, sifted, plus extra to dust
Prepared meringue base
5 large, ripe peaches, unpeeled, pitted and cut into 1/4-inchwide segments
10 1/2 ounces (300 grams) fresh blackberries
1/2 cup (50 grams) toasted, sliced almonds
1. Make the filling: Using an electric mixer with the whisk attachment, beat the cream on medium-high speed until very soft peaks form, about 1 minute. Add the vanilla extract and powdered sugar and whisk to incorporate.
2. Place a kitchen towel flat on top of the meringue (or use the one that is already there, if you’ve made this the day before) and quickly but carefully invert it onto the work surface so that the crisp top of the meringue is now facing down and sitting on top of the kitchen towel. Lift the pan off and carefully peel away the parchment paper. Spread 2/3 of the whipped cream evenly over the meringue. Cover generously with most of the sliced peaches, blackberries and almonds (save the rest for decorating the finished pavlova log).
3. Starting with the longest side closest to you, and using the kitchen towel to assist, roll the meringue up and over, so that the edges come together to form a log. Gently pull away the kitchen towel as you roll, then slide the meringue onto a long tray or platter, seam side facing down. Don’t worry if the meringue loses its shape a bit or some of the fruit spills out; just hold your nerve and use your hands to pat it back into the shape of the log.
4. Pipe or spoon the remaining whipped cream down the length of the log. Top with the remaining fruit and almonds, dust with powdered sugar and serve. The pavlova should be eaten on the day it is assembled and served, although leftovers can be stored in the fridge and eaten cold.
Note: Adapted from a recipe in “Sweet” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh.