Pavlova in the summertime is one of my most treasured childhood memories, so I persuaded Terence to make this passionfruit pavlova recipe over Christmas. Partly because I love pavlova — meringue, cream and fresh fruit, it’s hard to go past that — and partly for reasons of nostalgia. Pavlova in the summertime was and will remain a family food tradition.
I have many fond childhood memories of my Nanna making pavlova in the summertime in Sydney, especially over the Christmas school holidays. I wanted to relive those a little bit this summer so asked Terence to make a summery pavlova. He’s tweaked Australian chef Neil Perry’s passionfruit pavlova recipe, which we publish with the chef’s permission.
Those childhood memories are so strong that just one look at a pavlova with its crunchy mountain of sugar and egg whites, smothered in freshly whipped cream, fruit piled on top, and passionfruit dripping over the edge, brings back an impressionistic flood of faded images, distant sounds, and vivid emotions.
Pavlova in the Summertime, Childhood Food Memories and a Passionfruit Pavlova Recipe
I see Nanna in her compact 1950s kitchen in my grandparents’ brick and fibro home in Sydney’s north-western suburbs. She wears a white cotton apron wrapped around her waist, and beneath it a light floral cotton dress she calls her ‘frock’.
Nanna’s back is to me as she beats the eggs in a big lemon-coloured ceramic bowl with an old-fashioned hand-mixer. The sunshine is streaming through the window in front of her and it’s warm in that kitchen. A sheep bleats outside in a vacant yard behind the neighbour’s house.
I’m young. Maybe eight or nine. I’m wearing a white sundress with blue and yellow flowers with shoestring straps. I’d have to go outside and climb onto the paling fence, standing on the timber join on my tippy-toes to see the sheep.
I also know there is a goat in there but on this particular day when I look out that window all I see is the deep, beautiful blue Sydney sky, and that blinding sun that fills the kitchen with light. No goat in sight.
When Nanna’s done, she turns to face me and leans back against the kitchen sink, looking down at me with her sparkling hazel eyes, eyes that were almost always shining with joy. I note a look of pride on her face as she shows me the stiff peaks before setting the bowl down to hand over the sticky meringue-covered beater for me to lick clean. My treat.
Nan lifts her apron up to her face to wipe the beads of perspiration from her brows. It’s a scorching hot summer and we always felt the heat more in the western suburbs. Not that I mind, because it meant I could play under the sprinkler.
But I sense that Nanna is a little exhausted by her effort. Perhaps it’s also her asthma — or maybe the heart condition that will later become apparent.
My Pop returns from where he’s been working in the vegetable garden in the backyard. He pulls his work-boots off first and leaves them outside beside the doormat. He was on the rotary hoe, so he’s covered in dirt, as well as sweat, which I see dripping down his forehead, temples, back, and arms.
My Pop is a huge man. A gentle giant. He wears khaki King Gee overalls and a white Bonds singlet. And at that moment he enters that kitchen he also wears an enormous smile and glints in his eyes. My grandfather bends down to kiss my Nanna on the cheek and as he does he dips his finger into the bowl of meringue.
“Ken!” she exclaims, reprimanding him, but her feigned anger is part of a game, and he kisses her on the cheek again before stooping down to collect me and pick me up in his arms. Even though I squirm and pretend I’m too big to be picked up, I lap up the affection. I’m at Nanna’s height now and she hands me the spoon to lick clean. Before I do, I thrust the thing in my pop’s face to give him a go.
Later in the evening, after we finish our roast chicken and creamy potato salad dinner in the dining room and I help my grandmother with the dishes, Nanna will slice colossal pieces of pavlova for each of us, pour herself a small brandy, and we’ll take the plates into the living room, where we’ll tuck into those sweet, crunchy hills of heaven while we watch TV.
My childhood summers growing up in Sydney are full of such sweet, simple memories, most of them involving food. There was a lot of time spent in the vegetable gardens at both grandparents’ houses, helping to water the plants, pick tomatoes and cucumbers, and eat grapes from the vines.
There was even more time spent in the kitchen, helping my mum and my grandmothers, whether it was peeling veggies for my Nan or helping my Russian grandmother shape pilemeni and vareniki dumplings. Or helping my more culinary adventurous mum to stuff snail shells, crumb schnitzels, or cut veggies for stir-fries.
Then of course there was the joy of sharing family meals with loved-ones. There were the Christmas roast lunches with Mum, Dad, my aunt and uncle, and handful of cousins at Nan and Pop’s home in Northmead, with whichever great-aunts and uncles dropped in to extend their Christmas cheers.
We’d join the kitchen table to the dining table, and pull dusty chairs out of the garage, and the big spacious dining room would all of a sudden feel crowded and small, with everyone jammed in together, elbows knocking our neighbours as we ate.
Then there were many years of family gatherings, generally on Sundays for a late lunch, at my Russian grandparents house in Blacktown that always lingered well into the night. We never quite knew who would call in, but it didn’t matter, as there’d always be an extra plate of food and shot of vodka or two.
It was most likely the Russian Orthodox priest or the Russian neighbours my grandparents had befriended on their way to Australia post-World War II, or after they arrived when they spent time in DP (‘displaced person’) camps. Or perhaps it was my young uncles’ latest girlfriends or university mates.
And, much later, when I went to uni, Terence would be there, and one or two friends who we’d drag along for the Russian food, vodka, music, laughter, and — much later in the night — the melancholic tears of my grandparents who never stopped missing their homelands and family they left behind.
My parents also created some of my memorable meals, from sophisticated fondue nights when I got to dress up and my parents’ friends would arrive in floor-length maxi-dresses (the women, of course) and flared trousers and paisley shirts (the blokes), to the crazy barbecues in the backyard involving cold beer, burnt sausages, big bowls of salad, and bloody steaks. I sipped raspberry cordial.
It wasn’t only about the food. There was always music, stories, and lots of laughs. Although it was the food that would provide the most delicious memories. Whether it was the time we spent together shopping and prepping or cooking and eating, the food bits of my childhood were the most vivid.
It was the stuff that would inspire my passion for eating and drinking, for cooking with my husband, for exploring the cuisines of different countries, and trying to understand people and places through their food.
The act of cooking and eating was an excuse for socialising, for gathering around a table to share meals as much as make memories, but it was those meals that brought us together as family and friends. Especially the annual gatherings for occasions like Russian Easter and Christmas.
It was the food, always the food that was responsible. It was never: should we spend some time together on Sunday catching up and reminiscing and laughing or crying? No, it was always: come over for Sunday lunch or let’s have a barbecue.
And it wasn’t only the feasts at home that were so memorable. The eating we did on holiday was even more so, whether it was buying fresh seafood at a local fishing co-op in some northern New South Wales or Queensland coastal holiday town or, even better, catching our own fish from the beach or boat that we’d then barbecue for dinner in a caravan park or camping barbecue area, always by the water.
Some of my most treasured memories involve collecting bucket after bucket of oysters with my Dad from the sandy floor of the lake near where my parents lived, and then preparing them with Mum in different ways — oysters Kilpatrick, oysters Mornay, or fresh with lemon and vinegar.
I’ll never forget one of the editors of a guidebook publisher Terence and I worked for many years ago telling us that their research had revealed that eating and drinking were the most important activity for travellers — for their readers anyway.
We were already taking our restaurant and bar research seriously, but I was pleased to know how important food was to people, especially when they’re on holidays. And that it wasn’t only me and my family who obsessed over food and the rituals of making and eating meals together.
Food not only satisfies basic needs for calories nor strange cravings. It actively takes part in memory formation, from those childhood food memories of dishes associated with the summertime, to fond recollections of family gatherings and celebrations around ancestral dining tables that we’ll cherish forever — long after loved-ones are gone.
Later, when we’re far away from those we love, whether it’s a distance due to geography or time, we can use those childhood food memories as a trigger, as I do over Christmas, to remind us of times past and treasured memories that might be lost if it wasn’t for a piping hot grilled cheese oyster, a throat-numbing shot of vodka to wash down a boiled dumpling, or an enormous piece of fruit-laden pavlova.
I no longer have my Nanna’s pavlova recipe so Terence’s makes Neil Perry’s passionfruit pavlova recipe here in Cambodia, which we’ve republished with the chef’s permission. We add fresh local mangoes.
Have a happy summer holiday filled with your favourite people and food, dear readers.
Passionfruit Pavlova Recipe by Neil Perry
- 315 g eggwhites about 10
- 525 g caster sugar
- 3 tsp cornflour
- 3 tsp white vinegar
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 4 egg yolks
- 100 g caster sugar
- 80 ml passionfruit pulp from about 4 passionfruit, plus 80ml extra, to serve
- 50 g unsalted butter coarsely chopped
- 1½ tsp lime juice
- 1 l pouring cream 4 cups
- 2 tbsp caster sugar
- ½ tsp vanilla extract
- Preheat oven to 200°C. Whisk eggwhites and a pinch salt in an electric mixer on low speed until they start to break up, then increase speed to medium and beat until soft peaks form (2 minutes). Add one-third of sugar and whisk to combine, then gradually add remaining sugar and whisk on high speed until stiff peaks form (2-3 minutes). Fold through cornflour, vinegar and vanilla, then form into a 24cm-diameter round with edges slightly higher than centre on a baking tray lined with baking paper. Reduce oven to 160°C and bake pavlova until lightly browned on the outside and cooked on the inside (25-35 minutes), turn oven off and stand in oven for 10 minutes, then remove and cool to room temperature (1 hour).
- Meanwhile, for passionfruit curd, place yolks in a heatproof bowl, whisk to combine. Combine sugar, passionfruit pulp and butter in a saucepan over low heat, stir occasionally until butter melts and sugar dissolves (5 minutes). Add one-third of passionfruit mixture to yolks, whisking continuously, then return to pan and stir continuously until thickened (3 minutes). Do not boil. Add lime juice, remove from heat, pass through a coarse sieve into a container. Cover closely with plastic wrap, cool (10 minutes), then refrigerate until chilled (1 hour).
- For vanilla cream, whisk cream, sugar and vanilla to stiff peaks in a bowl.
- Fold passionfruit curd through vanilla cream, then form quenelles of mixture and spoon over pavlova. Top with extra passionfruit pulp and serve.