How to make the perfect pav

23:31, Jan 06 2013

In the first of a series on the skills you need to be a real New Zealander, new Kiwi recruit Steve Kilgallon tries to bake a pavlova. 

It turns out Nick Honeyman, executive chef at The Commons, has never made a pavlova before, so he has spent the morning before my visit rehearsing, tweaking a recipe bequeathed to the Auckland restaurant's owner, Mark Keddell, by his grandmother.

"The boys will be eating a lot of pavlovas today," he says.

But Honeyman has made plenty of meringues - the base of New Zealand's national pudding (or is it Australia's?) - and describes it as an essential skill he demands his chefs master.

"It requires discipline, patience and perception. It is very volatile. If some aspects aren't right, it isn't going to work," he says.

"It's a discipline you have to pick up quickly, and it weeds the strong out from the weak. People get it wrong because they rush it."

This sounds an ominous way to embark on our five-week crash course of essential New Zealand skills, which begins with this dish of much-disputed origins - not just its nationality, but its conception (anywhere between 1920 and 1936) and inspiration (whether it was truly created for visiting ballerina Anna Pavlova).


We begin by whisking egg whites, then add vinegar for strength, then slowly tap in sugar, before adding vanilla seeds and then a cornstarch-water slurry for crunchiness. As we mix, Honeyman warns of the pitfalls - starting with a bowl that isn't bone dry, overwhisking, stirring the finished mixture, not folding it - all of which can kill the fragile pav.

"You have to know when to start again, or chuck it out," he says.

Patience is essential. Even the speed of sugar-adding is crucial and can, Honeyman says, beat male chefs. "A lot of boys in the kitchen can't do this."

This is the test of a good pastry chef, he says.

"It's seen as boring, but usually by lazy or impatient chefs.

"It's the one section where you can't save yourself. You can do a piece of meat, get it wrong, and do another. Get this wrong and you've wasted an hour and a half."

Our mixture leaps all hurdles and heads for a 160C oven, which Honeyman immediately reduces to 110C. It cooks for an hour, then cools in the oven for at least half an hour. Honeyman has done plenty of TV, so a bit of "here's one I made earlier" magic, and we're right on with making our topping.

He has chosen a natural yoghurt mousse - a mix of icing sugar, cream and yoghurt - with blackberries, strawberries and blueberries and lime zest to cut some acid flavours through the sweetness. Honeyman's piping is perfect. Mine is more free-form.

South African-born, Australian-raised, and French-trained, Honeyman has been here for three years, initially at the French Cafe and Sale St, before opening The Commons six months ago.

A pavlova will never feature on his menus - he makes only original "thought-provoking modern French" cuisine, typified by stark, cryptic menu descriptions designed to entice diners into taking risks. But, he muses, he could do a deconstructed pav: maybe a meringue icecream, berry sphere and a yoghurt powder.

By now, my pav looks somewhat deconstructed. Cake-decorating was never a core skill of journalism. But thanks to Honeyman's guidance, the pav tastes perfect.

Sunday Star Times