We were making a pavlova—that wonderfully messy dessert that looks like a dried cloud on your baking pan, fingertip crunchy on the outside, soft and marshmallowy on the inside. The pavlova was for friends who were coming for dinner that night, but as we made it—whipped the eggs whites in the thundering mixer for minutes on end—thoughts turned to cake in general, and then desserts on the whole, and we began to discuss the type of birthday party for which a pavlova would be the perfect cake. It looks likes a cloud…a rock…a mineral. And there we had it, our theme for the collective birthday party for the two older girls that summer.
The rocks and minerals theme went exactly as far as thus:
+ jello made with chilled hibiscus tea that shimmered with gemmy iridescence. We pompled this with rock candy bits that looked amazing; and promptly melted into puddles once outdoors. The kids didn’t notice but I wouldn’t recommended the additional step of pompling to you. I would recommend the tea jello—I added some sugar to the chilled tea, the kids loved the color and I could use what I had in my pantry tea cupboard.
+ a table strewn with our collection of rocks, and a rocks and minerals handbook, plus crayons and paper for those less inclined to fling themselves into ruckus group games, one of which seemed to be cheerfully shouting hello? hello! at each other for ten minutes.
The rest was very simple–play as you wish, run around outside, let the moms gather on a picnic blanket to chat in that sleepy afternoon way that they do, let the babies trip in the grass, let the older brothers look bored, munch on handfuls of white cheddar popcorn, spill pink lemonade, sing, sing twice because the three-year-old was on the couch with a fever and felt terribly left out.
Eat pavlova colored with sedimentary lines of food coloring and sharp pink raspberry sorbet, open presents. Go home.
Do you open presents at your birthday parties? When we were in Boston it had largely fallen out of favor. The gifts were typically huddled in the corner to be opened after the party, almost as if we were collectively embarrassed by their grandness. But I remember loving that part of parties as a kid. I loved seeing the different things my friends would receive. It was like wandering the aisles of the most personalized shop I could imagine. And I couldn’t wait till they opened my present and I could bask in the joy of believing I had given the perfect gift.
So, we do it now. The kids gathered into such a tight cluster, I could barely see what was happening, but I could see the smiles of pride on the giver’s faces as theirs was unveiled because they would look up and around for a moment, as if to catch the spotlight they were sure was searching for them.
For the meringue:
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
3 large eggs, separated
Pinch kosher salt
1 teaspoon lemon juice or white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
To make the meringue: Preheat the oven to 250 degrees and line a rimmed baking sheet with a silicone baking liner or parchment. In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar and cornstarch. Put the egg whites and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or in a large bowl with a handheld mixer). Mix on medium speed until the whites hold soft peaks, then add 3 tablespoons of cold water and continue beating until the whites again hold soft peaks. Increase the speed to medium-high and add the sugar and cornstarch mixture 1 tablespoon at a time. When all the sugar has been added, beat 1 minute more.
Add the lemon juice and vanilla, increase the speed to high, and continue to beat the egg whites until they hold stiff, glossy peaks, 5 minutes more. Transfer the meringue to the prepared baking sheet and, using an offset spatula or the back of a spoon, gently spread into a circle about 8 inches wide, slightly higher on the sides and with a slight depression in the center.
Bake the meringue until pale golden, about 45 minutes. The meringue will have a crust on the exterior but still be soft inside. Turn the oven off, crack the oven door slightly (stick a wooden spoon in the oven door to keep it propped open) and let the meringue sit in the oven for 1 hour. Remove from the oven and let cool completely. Once cool, run a spatula under the meringue to free it from the silicon baking mat or parchment and transfer to a large plate. The meringue is best made the same day you plan to eat it. If you prefer, you can make individual meringues; prepare two baking sheets, then spoon four equal-size mounds of meringue onto each of the baking sheets, for a total of 8 meringues. The baking time is the same.
I added a tiny bit of food coloring (the gel kind) to the mixer at the end, then swirled in more food coloring with a toothpick once the meringue was on the pan, just before baking. The cake pictured above was the recipe made three times. I portioned all the ingredients ahead of time and mixed and baked the layers one after another. It fed twelve kids and six adults.