Pavlovas with Roasted Rhubarb and Rosé Syrup
Sometime in the ’80s my mom brought our first microwave home and set it up on a large table at the back of our gold-wallpapered kitchen. My brothers and I crowded before it on our knees, as if around an altar, to properly worship it. The first thing my mom cooked was a teacup full of water—it simmered; she was sold. For our part, we kids quickly moved on to blowing things up. Hot dogs burst open impressively, their fissures spitting lava-hot juice into the air.Marshmallows were positively cinematic: At 10 seconds a jumbo marshmallow doubled, then quickly tripled, and then quadrupled its original volume. It stayed there at the overblown-bubble stage for a few suspenseful moments before suddenly exploding into a pale wrinkly pancake that progressed from the color of sand to coffee to burnt toast right before our very eyes. It was the lifespan of a marshmallow, birth to death, in one minute—and we were transfixed.I guess the wonder never left me, because when I make a pavlova, I feel the same thrill as I did when I was blowing up marshmallows. A pavlova is just an egg white meringue, solidified with a little cornstarch, and spiked with a tempering shot of vinegar, baked into a soft bed of sugar. Being a grown-up, I approach it in a much more controlled and scientific way, and stop sensibly at the point where the foam stabilizes just enough to hold, well before the white cloud can get sunburnt. My platonic-ideal pavlova is the size of a Barbie hot tub, still gooey at the center, and filled with tart cooked fruit, preferably rhubarb. I lay out the rhubarb in long bias-cut spears and bake them uncovered in a reduced wine syrup, ever so gently, until the rhubarb constricts in its own sugary juices—softening but never losing its shape or its spine-tingling tartness.To be nostalgically accurate, the only wine I knew around the time the microwave arrived came from the box that sat directly next to it, which was called Franzia White Zinfandel. It shot into my mom’s glass in a froth of pink bubbles as innocently as soda pop. For this syrup I rely on rosé—more classy and current, it reduces perfectly with the rhubarb juices into a lurid, floral pink syrup. The color of teen girl power trapped inside a Miami Vice sunset, its flavor is tame but latent.When I feel down, or dulled, or even when things feel just a little too matchy-matchy, I heed the old call to worship at the altar of white sugar. I go and whip up a pavlova just to prove to myself that the joy of that first overblown marshmallow, the seed of what I knew then, is still there.