I’ve journeyed here and there and back again… -Smashing Pumpkins (“Thirty-three”)
For exactly one week and two days, I have been 33 years old. Despite being a palindrome, I’m not quite sure there’s anything all that special about this age, although a study released a few years ago tells me that “33 is the happiest age.” Only nine days in, I can’t really confirm this claim (nor, I should mention, do I find the article’s reference to Jesus being crucified at 33 proof that this age brings happy and hopeful things), but perhaps as the year progresses I will discover 33’s magic?
Thus far, I’ve got to admit that my thirty-third year has been a bit of a mixed bag. While it started off promising enough with ravioli, pavlova and a coffee break at this gorgeous place on our drive back to Delaware from Pennsylvania, the next few days proved somewhat trying. The Greek fell and is now on crutches; then, the following day, we had to go to Philadelphia to meet with immigration–a process that appears to be rife with bureaucratic horrors, not the least of which is the office’s sloth-like pace when the clock is ticking…As of tomorrow, I will not only be the only truly mobile member of our household, but also its only valid Delaware driver and, if we don’t get the paperwork before we head to Greece on the eighteenth for the wedding, I may be crossing the Atlantic alone come July. And let’s not kid ourselves: as exciting as birthdays can be, there is an undercurrent of sadness to them, especially as you get older and start to realize that everybody around you is turning a little more grey, becoming a little more hard of hearing or a little more set in his or her stubborn ways.
But–and it seems there is always a but–there is still hope. In my first week of being 33, I was called “mega efficient,” managed to talk my student loan company into giving me a 1% interest rate reduction (this was largely achieved by my asking for one, although the man on the phone first tried to tell me that I could only get a .25% reduction only if I signed up for one of the company’s additional services. When I questioned him about the offer he was making, he told me to hold and then reported that his manager said I could have the 1% discount. Don’t be fooled by corporate posturing. 💪🏻), finished planning our honeymoon to Portugal and held the first meeting of the cookbook and supper club that I just started on Meetup. So maybe it’s true that 33 does have its charms.
I will say that, even when confronted by moments of uncertainty in all shapes and sizes, life can’t help but feel rosy when there is a pavlova on the table. It is nothing if not majestic–whimsically and joyfully so, with its swirls and ridges waiting to be covered by whipped cream. Given my relative newcomer status to the pavlova fan club (I made my first one, flavored with chocolate, for Thanksgiving only a few years ago, and then promptly repeated it for Christmas), it’s funny that it has now become my birthday dessert of choice, but there is something endless satisfying about it, from the way the hard exterior gives way to marshmallowy softness to its sheer versatility. It can be topped with fruit or curd, made vegan with aquafaba, flavored with different powders. And it is always, always, as pretty as can be.
My pavlova of choice is one that combines two of the great loves of my culinary life: matcha (green tea) powder and kinako (roasted soybean) flour, both of which I discovered while living in Japan at age 22 (maybe it is palindrome years that make for one’s happiest ones?). During this time, though I sampled many different sweets, my absolute favorite was the freshly pounded green tea mochi (rice) you could buy off the street in Nara, which was filled with anko (sweet red, or adzuki, beans) and rolled in a thick layer of kinako. Whenever I would bite into this sweet, the smell and taste of the kinako would remind me of the nutty sweetness ( (and kinako is sweet) of peanut butter. Given this association in my mind, it’s no wonder this ingredient made a lasting impression on me and is now a staple in my pantry.
For my birthday pavlova (for now two years running!), I decided to stick with the flavors I had first come to love in Nara (that is, minus the adzuki beans, although a thin, mashed layer of them could easily go under the whipped cream if you are so inclined), flavoring the pavlova with matcha powder and sprinkling kinako all over the top. The flavor is exactly as I want it to be–sweet, nutty and a little grassy–but my one disappointment with this dessert is that, no matter what I do, I can’t manage to get the exterior to have that tell-tale shade of matcha green. This is perhaps because the matcha is folded into the already glossy and stiff egg whites, rather than whisked into a liquid (aquafaba might work better; when I experiment, I’ll report back). Though the outside doesn’t give the secret ingredient away, when you cut into it, the inside is a bright and dark matcha green. Also, as I strongly adhere to the saying “waste not, want not” in the kitchen, if pieces of my pavlova should splinter or crack as I am moving it to a serving dish or decorating it with whipped cream, I usually collect these pieces in a small bowl and then sprinkle them on top right before serving. Aside from not wasting a thing, I’m also of the mind that a little extra decoration never hurt, especially on a birthday.
Matcha Pavlova with Kinako Whipped Cream Serves 8-10
Because a pavlova can seem intimidating (eggs, I think, can be fussy: frying, whipping, boiling, poaching, deviling), it’s best to keep a few simple things in mind: 1) It’s always a good idea to separate egg whites from the yolks while they are still cold, but since you want your eggs to be at room temperature when you begin whipping them, it’s best first to separate them and then to place the bowl of egg whites in a larger bowl filled with warm/lukewarm water; 2) If you get any yolk in your bowl of egg whites, either remove it carefully or start over; the contaminated whites could always be used in another baking project; 3) It is best to use caster (or superfine) sugar when making a pavlova, but, if you don’t have this, granulated will also do; if you want to use something like turbinado or natural cane sugar in your pavlova, please remember first that it has more of a flavor than white sugar and also that it will need to be processed in a food processor until it is finely ground; otherwise, your pavlova will weep and/or be too sticky. One more note on sugar: you should use 1/4 cup for every egg white and always add it slowly; 4) Before you begin beating the egg whites, make sure that your equipment–preferably a metal bowl– is dry; moisture will prevent the egg whites from aerating; 5) Because it is best to let a just baked pavlova sit in the oven with the door partially opened so that it can properly dry out, I recommend making your pavlova in the evening; this way, it can dry out overnight.
While these instructions may seem like a lot, they are really just tips! Making a pavlova is doable and well worth the minimal effort.
For the matcha pavlova: 4 large egg whites, at room temperature 1 cup granulated sugar 2 tablespoons good-quality matcha powder, sifted 1 teaspoon cornstarch 1 teaspoon rice (in keeping with the Japanese theme, I used rice vinegar) or distilled white vinegar
For the kinako whipped cream: 2 cups heavy whipping cream 2 teaspoons confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon kinako flour, plus more for sprinkling
Preheat oven to 350 F and line a rectangular baking sheet with parchment paper or a silpat mat.
Using the whisk attachment, beat egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer on medium speed, until they form stiff peaks (about 4-6 minutes). With the mixer still running, add the sugar to the egg whites in small increments (a few tablespoons at a time), until it is all incorporated. Then, beat the meringue for another 4-6 minutes, or until it is thick and glossy.
Remove the bowl from the mixer and add the sifted matcha powder and cornstarch on top. Then, add the rice vinegar and gently fold until the matcha powder is completely incorporated. There will be streaks of dark green in the meringue. Using a spatula, carefully scrape the meringue onto the parchment-covered baking sheet, spreading it into an 8- to 9-inch circle (you can draw the outline of a circle onto the back of your sheet of parchment beforehand; I usually just wing it, though). Smooth the top, creating furrows. You can also, run a knife around the edges to help ensure the pavlova won’t collapse.
Place in the oven and immediately lower the temperature to 300 F. Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes, then turn off the oven and, with the oven door cracked open, leave the meringue to cool completely (about 2-3 hours, or, preferably, overnight).
While the meringue is in the oven, whip the cream to soft peaks, then add the confectioners’ sugar and kinako whip until combined. Sprinkle some additional kinako on the whipped cream and refrigerate until ready to decorate the pavlova.
Just before serving, spread the whipped cream over the surface of the pavlova. Add a few shakes of kinako and, if you should have any bits of pavlova that have crumbled off, use them to decorate the top of your pavlova. Should you have any leftovers, make sure to refrigerate them; the pavlova won’t be as crisp on its second day, but it is still a delight to have around.