My mom was an amazing cook and she was an even better baker. My sister, brother and I were spoiled rotten with fancy homemade pastries and cakes growing up. There was always dessert in the fridge for after dinner and always a sweet treat to snack on after school. All our friends loved coming over because none of their moms even came close to making the kind of cakes our mom would make! Toffee crunch cake, ice box cake, blueberry cheesecake, triple chocolate cake, French apple pie, tiramisu, sans rival, and the list goes on. Soon people were ordering cakes from her and paying the same prices for cakes sold at the Island Shangrila cake shop (in Hong Kong). It was worth it because my mom was a perfectionist and I remember her using only the best ingredients. Even her butter had to be a brand imported from Australia and France. If the cake did not come out exactly how she wanted it she would repeat it over and over again until it was perfect. As for us, we were happy guinea pigs waiting to eat any scraps not deemed worthy or just lick the spoons and bowls like we often did.
My mom passed away from breast cancer and even as she went through chemo after chemo treatments she still continued to do what she loved in the kitchen. I remember her up all night at times redoing a cake that didn’t come out right. That kitchen aid mixer of ours would be zipping through the night and I would wake up to a beautiful cake sitting atop a pretty cake stand in the fridge or on the kitchen island.
While I definitely inherited her sweet tooth, I never quite got into baking as I did with cooking. I never bothered to try because I found it too complicated, too precise, and, therefore, very unforgiving. However, after my mom passed away I found myself recalling all the food and cakes she made for us growing up. Not only did I miss eating them but I yearned for the connection to my mom the food memories brought me. My brother, thankfully, inherited my mom’s gift for cooking and baking and he can whip up her glorious cakes at the drop of a hat! We look forward to family get togethers because we make him bake our childhood favourites and we remember her with so much clarity as if she was still here with us.
My brother moved to New York to open a restaurant called Vien. It’s not often that I get to see him now so I decided to start baking more to both satisfy my sweet cravings and to keep my mom closer to me. The first attempt was to make a cheesecake for Father’s Day. The second attempt was recently for his birthday when my sister and I made a pavlova birthday cake for him. Something my mom also made for us and a recipe easy enough for a baking novice like myself. It also happens to be one of my favourite cakes of all time.
We used Ina Garten’s pavlova recipe but I think the oven time was slightly short (although that might have been because of my oven). The cake came out perfectly smooth with no cracks on the surface, and pillowy soft like marshmallow on the inside. I say the oven time was slightly short because of the syrupy ooze underneath the cake that remained unhardened when done. I also found that we could probably have used a little less vinegar. Unfortunately, when we moved the cake to a serving platter we cracked the cake’s surface! Fill the top liberally with berries and, voila, no one will ever see any of the imperfections! And even if there are cracks visible on the sides (look at ours) I think it will still look beautiful anyway. This is a very forgiving cake that’s absolutely delicious. I raised the heat instead of lengthening the baking time. I also adjusted the vinegar quantity to Ina’s recipe.
Dad loved the cake and everyone who enjoyed it with us (none of them bake) admired how pretty it looked (if they were bakers they would have known how easy it is to make a pavlova, but we basked in the glory anyway). We served it with bowls of more berries on the side for people to help themselves to. Feel free to use any seasonal berries or fruits you have on hand to top your cake with.
Last night, Dad was writing a card to my Aunt who’s husband just recently passed away and he shared the only advice he could give her during the worst of times. “You can’t bring them back. All you can do is remember the good memories and share them with your loved ones.” Dad sent me this text about the cake the day after his birthday, “Top class, reminds me of Mom! Please keep up the good work!” His advice to my Aunt was right. I’m going to keep up her passion for cooking and baking because celebrating her helps to keep her alive, and that’s all we really can do.
Mixed Berry Pavlova
Adapted from Ina Garten
What you’ll need:
4 extra-large egg whites, at room temperature
Pinch kosher salt
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
3/4 teaspoon white wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Sweetened Whipped Cream, recipe follows
1/2 pint fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced
1/2 pint fresh blueberries
1/2 pint fresh raspberries
1 cup cold heavy cream
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees F.
Place a sheet of parchment paper on a sheet pan. Draw a 9-inch circle on the paper, using a 9-inch plate as a guide, then turn the paper over so the circle is on the reverse side. (This way you won’t get a pencil mark on the meringue.)
Place the egg whites and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Beat the egg whites on high speed until firm, about 1 minute. With the mixer still on high, slowly add the sugar and beat until it makes firm, shiny peaks, about 2 minutes.
Remove the bowl from the mixer, sift the cornstarch onto the beaten egg whites, add the vinegar and vanilla, and fold in lightly with a rubber spatula. Pile the meringue into the middle of the circle on the parchment paper and smooth it within the circle, making a rough disk. Bake for 2 hours. Turn off the oven, keep the door closed, and allow the meringue to cool completely in the oven, about 1 hour. It will be crisp on the outside and soft on the inside.
Invert the meringue disk onto a plate and spread the top completely with sweetened whipped cream. Combine the strawberries, blueberries and raspberries in a bowl and toss with 1/4 cup sugar. Spoon the berries carefully into the middle of the Pavlova, leaving a border of cream and meringue.
Sweetened Whipped Cream:
Whip the cream in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment (you can also use a hand mixer). When it starts to thicken, add the sugar and vanilla and continue to beat until firm. Don’t overbeat!
Yield: 1 cup