A school-night potluck is the last place you'd expect to see something as elegant as a cloudlike meringue, covered with berries and frothy with vanilla-scented whipped cream. But looks can be deceptive. These airy, elegant desserts are easy to whip up, even while toting a toddler.
In fact, it was at a preschool potluck that cookbook authors Linda Jackson and Jennifer Evans Gardner first met. Jackson had made delicate, chocolate-flecked meringue kisses. Gardner had brought tiny raspberry meringue tarts. Their eyes met across a table covered in supermarket cookies and one lonely, cold lasagna.
"It was love at first sight," Jackson says, laughing. Fortunately, her husband didn't object. The new friendship just meant more meringue for him.
Now the Los Angeles-based meringueophiles have whipped up a cookbook dubbed, appropriately, "Meringue" (Gibbs Smith, $24.99, 224 pages). It's a collection of every variety of meringue-based desserts, from Pavlovas and vacherins and frostings to tiramisu twists and sky-high lemon pies.
"A few years ago, I found myself making meringue desserts every weekend," Jackson says. "People were oohing and ahhing, saying, 'This is so difficult, I could never make it.'"
But the truth is, it's so easy, a child could do it. Literally. Gardner has been teaching children to make meringue at her cooking school for the past nine years.
"The hardest part," Jackson says, "is separating the eggs."
Nothing is airier or more elegant than the classic Pavlova, a fresh berry-topped cloud of meringue that pays homage to Anna Pavlova, the great prima ballerina of the 1920s. Australia and New Zealand have been arguing about whose brilliant idea it was since 1926, when Pavlova floated through both countries en pointe and on tour. Some say the dessert mimics her tutu. Others say it's lighter than air, just like her jetés.
Whatever the origin, it's a gorgeous dessert for late summer, when the berries are so achingly ripe they may just explode.
"I love the layering," Jackson says, "the lightness and sweetness and fresh fruit."
But berries aren't the only fresh fruit that's lovely in a Pavlova. Oakland food writer Romney Steele -- who grew up cooking at her grandparents' Nepenthe restaurant in Big Sur -- has always had a passion for meringue. She likes to spoon homemade rhubarb sorbet into meringue shells, drizzled with strawberry syrup, or go Tunisian with almond-flecked meringue, layered with rose water-scented whipped cream and tart red currants.
The possibilities are nearly endless, say Jackson and Gardner, whose new book also includes blueberry and lemon curd Pavlovas and a dessert that can only be described as what would happen if a banana cream pie and a Pavlova mated.
There's a reason the classic is a classic, says Gardner, a self-described Pavlova freak: "It's like eating a cloud."