Where Does Pavlova Come From?

Can we just say “from the English-speaking peoples living south of the equator” and leave it at that? Because lordy, this has been a point of contention between the Aussies and the Kiwis for about 40 years now. I hesitate to dip my toe into these shark infested waters, but what the hey. My tea is strong and my resolve is up.

What no one disputes is that pavlova is a sweet named for a ballerina, one Anna Pavlova, a principal dancer in the Imperial Russian Ballet in the last years of the 19th century. In 1905 she left the Imperial Ballet and formed her own company, with whom she toured the world until her death of pneumonia in 1931. During the twenties she toured Australia and New Zealand at least twice. Her skilled and sensational performances engendered honorifics of all kinds, many of them edible.

Some were little gelatin desserts. Others were tiny coffee-flavored meringue cookies dotted with nuts. Still others were large meringue cakes consisting of a single large layer of meringue covered with whipped cream and fruit. Of course the latter versions have come to be accepted as the definitive pavlovas. But where were they first created? In Australia or New Zealand? And by whom? That’s been the rub for decades, and as with so many long-standing arguments related to food, there’s still no absolutely final answer to the question.

The reason: because both the Aussies and the Kiwis were making and eating meringue cakes decades before they’d ever heard of Anna Pavlova. Some of them were large, some small. Some had two layers, some had only one. Some had cream on them, some had fruit, some had both. Indeed the antipodean regions were something of a brew pot of meringue desserts in those days, which only stands to reason since baked meringues had been popular in the English-speaking world as far back as the mid-1700’s.

However that didn’t stop an Australian chef by the name of Herbert Sachse from claiming he invented the particular meringue cake called the pavlova in the year 1935 while he was working at the Esplanade Hotel in Perth. That claim, made in 1973, would lead to an international tiff lasting decades. Cries of protest went up in New Zealand almost immediately. And indeed in fairly short order a recipe was produced for a single-layer meringue cake called a “pavlova” which originally appeared in a New Zealand cookbook, Daisy Basham’s Daisy Chain Cookery Book, published in 1934.

At first that seemed to settle the issue, but soon Australian diehards began to complain that true pavlovas contained ingredients (fruits, vinegar, cornstarch or whatever) that Basham’s pavlova didn’t have. While she may have put a thick meringue layer and the name “pavlova” together, too many essential components were missing to award Basham the prize of Official Inventor of Pavlova Proper.

Then in the 1990’s the smoking gun was finally found: a book called The Rangiora Mother’s Union Cookery Book of Tried and True Tested Recipes. In it were complete instructions — supplied by one Mrs. W.H. Stevens — for a full-on pavlova including a meringue layer, whipped cream and fruit on top. The place of publication, New Zealand. The year of publication, 1933. Which completely ended the debate.


It had no vinegar, it was baked in a form, etc., etc.. I’m not going to render judgement here, for it seems to me that it makes very little difference who first put the name “pavlova” on a type of cake that had been popular (in various forms) on both sides of the Tasman sea for decades before Anna Pavlova was even born. Clearly, the pavlova — like most of the world’s enduring foods — is a cultural invention that both nations can claim credit for. Or am I just being too wimpy-PC about this whole thing? Please, no extended comments as life is short.

15 thoughts on “Where Does Pavlova Come From?”

  1. Apparently egg whites weren’t the only thing whipped up back then. Thanks for taking on the thankless task of trying to resolve a question to which there is no definitive answer. Good blog.

  2. What wonderful research and fancy reading about The Rangiora Mother’s Cookbook” in a blog out of Kentucky :). Actually like lots of other Kiwis I don’t care – life is too short – we just like making and eating them.
    A few little tried and true tips I’ve been handed down over the years are
    * cook them on a piece of tinfoil ( think you call it aluminium) – I just grease it lightly and never have any trouble removing pav from it – but parchment is fine – I think the foil heats up and actually cooks the bottom crisp – but I have no scientific research to prove that!
    *Always have the eggs at room temperature – if you keep them in the fridge take them out hours before or the night before
    * Older eggs make the best pavlovas – definitely not fresh from the hen
    * My basic recipe is 6 egg whites beaten until soft peaks form, 2 cups (250ml) castor sugar added tablespoon by tablespoon – sugar adding process should take about 10 minutes, mixture should be glossy and thick – then beat in 1 teaspoon vanilla essence, 1 teaspoon malt vinegar and 2 teaspoons cornflour (cornstarch). Spoon out onto foil or parchment lined tray into a circle as described by Joe and pop into a preheated oven -low 110-120celsius – possibly 200F for approx 1 1/2 hours. Either leave in cooling oven with door ajar or cool on foil/parchment on a cooling rack.
    This recipe halves easily.:)

    1. Excellent, Heather!

      Thanks very much for all of this great information. I shall employ it!

      – Joe

  3. Joe, are you familiar with vacherin? I’ve never had pavlova and I only had vacherin once, when I tried (unsuccessfully) to make it myself. Vacherin seems to be higher, since it calls for a base and then four circles of meringue that get baked, stacked together on top of the base, sealed with raw meringue, and baked again. The whole thing then gets filled with whipped cream and fruit. My recipe is from a delightful work of historical and international cookery called the Horizon Cookbook (sometimes published as a single volume, sometimes as two, with the historical section in volume I and the recipes in volume II). Anyway, according to the Horizon Cookbook, was supposedly invented by Marie Antoinette herself when she was playing at being a peasant… so it’s much older than pavlova!

    1. Sorry, there’s a line missing out of my message: I meant to say I’ve never had pavlova and vacherin only the once, but the concept is very similar.

    2. Hey Jen!

      I am indeed familiar with vacherin. The main difference is that vacherin is made from stacked layers of crispy meringue. Pavlova is much softer. I should probably make that next to show the difference! But I’d be suspicious of stories like that…it sounds highly improbable. At least to me! 😉

      – Joe

  4. Happy Fathers’ Day, Joe.

    I hope the Pastries are baking up something terrific for the man in their life. I know they’ve got the DNA for it. ;>

    1. Ha!

      Thanks Rainey! We played it cool for the most part. The hand-made cards were spectacular!

      – Joe

  5. Wow, sounds complicated! I didn’t know the history behind it either which is kind of surprising. I might find myself up for the challenge someday…

  6. The recipe Jen calls “Vacherin” was known to my family as “Spanische Windtorte” and for many years my mother and I made this as our shared birthday cake. She made the meringue, constructed the shell, and whipped up the filling. My job was to candy the violets so that it could be decorated to look like the cover of the Time-Life book, “Cooking of Vienna’s Empire.” Then I learned to cook and my mother inexplicably wanted Dobos Torte – baked by me – for her birthday cake. If only our birthdays were a little bit further apart, then we could have had one of each every year. Maybe.

    1. Sounds like heaven, Letitia. As I mentioned, I may need to make this to show the difference. Candied violets are an especially nice touch!

      – Joe

    2. Wow, I just looked up Spanische Windtorte, and that’s a stunning cake! My sense is that it’s a big step above vacherin in terms of sophistication 🙂 Actually, it also seems that modern versions of vacherin have drifted a bit – virtually all the recipes I see online are for various ice cream cakes that feature meringue in some way or other.

      Yes, Joe, please do make both… although it may take me some time to work up the courage to risk ruining that many eggs 🙂

      1. Don’t think of it as ruining your eggs – think of it as a chance to treat yourself to some luscious creme brulee or custard ice cream. ;D

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