- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2003

To say that Stephanie Alexander is the Julia Child of Australia is perhaps a slight disservice to each formidable woman, but Miss Alexander has excelled in so many different areas that it’s difficult to describe her in any other terms.

A native of Melbourne, she has been involved with several restaurants, most notably Stephanie’s, over whose stoves she presided for 21 years.

“Opening the restaurant, then moving it after four years to larger quarters, showed me that we had to make a transition from being a little place where a few passionate amateurs cooked their hearts out to being properly professional.”

During that time, Miss Alexander trained many of Australia’s now-leading chefs, including Greg Malouf, Robert Castellani and Cath Claringold. Like another American food icon, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., Miss Alexander has done much to foster local food producers and has featured their names prominently on her menus.

Since closing Stephanie’s in 1997, Miss Alexander and several partners opened the Richmond Hill Cafe and Larder, a combination fancy provision, wine and cheese store and restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Out of the frying pan and into the larder? Maybe, but Miss Alexander is up to many a challenge. Aside from her life as a restaurateur, she has found time to write nine books, run cooking classes in Italy and to be repeatedly decorated by the Australian government for pioneering culinary work.

Miss Alexander’s books chronicle her restaurant years and her love of Italian, Mediterranean and southwest French cooking. Most recently, “The Cook’s Companion,” an alphabetical dictionary of Australian food and drink, has run to dozens of printings and boasts sales in excess of a quarter million.

Like all good Australian food, the book looks back to British food traditions and classic French recipes and carries a strong dose of Asian influence from Australia’s South Pacific neighbors.

Havingmet Miss Alexander briefly once before, I arranged to see her again during a recent visit to Melbourne, where we would taste and talk about Pavlova, a delightful combination of baked meringue, whipped cream and fruit that is Australia’s national dessert.

“The glory of the Pavlova is what we call the marshmallow [the soft chewy center of the meringue]. If the meringue is crisp throughout, then it’s a good vacherin, but not a Pavlova,” Miss Alexander says, alluding to the French vacherin made of thin, crisp meringues filled with fruit and whipped or ice cream.

We tasted several versions of Richmond Hill’s Pavlova. The meringue base of the dessert is a large cake-shaped disk about 2 to 3 inches thick, topped with unsweetened whipped cream and usually sliced bananas and passion fruit pulp or passion fruit only.

Festive holiday versions may be topped with mixed berries, since it is summer at Christmas in Australia. A kiwi or two may sneak in occasionally.

Miss Alexander suggests that the best prepared of the versions we tasted was baked in a greased and floured springform pan, a departure from tradition. Usually, cooks scrape the meringue out onto a pan covered with foil or parchment and just use a metal spatula to shape it into a thick disk. The springform version looked neater and seemed to have a center that was more moist.

Here’s Miss Alexander’s recipe for a real Australian Pavlova, simply “Pav” to most Australians. If you live in an area where fresh passion fruit is available and not outrageously expensive, try the authentic version. If not, improvise with your own combination of fruit or berries. Remember, according to Miss Alexander, it’s the marshmallowlike center that makes a great Pav.

Pavlova

“Every Australian family has its Pavlova tradition. In mine, the crisp baked shell was always turned upside down to be spread with cream and passion fruit.

“In this way, the marshmallow middle melded with the cream and the sides and the base stayed crisp.”

Pavlova can be difficult to bake since the meringue needs a short period of high heat to set and crisp the exterior, and then a long period of lower heat to set but not dry out the marshmallowy interior.

Experiment with your own oven. If syrupy droplets form on the surface of the meringue, you have overbaked it; liquid oozing from the meringue is a sign of underbaking.

This recipe is from “The Cook’s Companion.”

4 large eggs whites, at room temperature

Pinch salt

1 cups superfine sugar

2 teaspoons cornstarch

1 teaspoon white wine vinegar, or distilled white vinegar

teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cups heavy whipping cream, whipped to a firm peak

Pulp of 10 passion fruits, or about 2 cups sliced fruit, berries or a combination

Whip egg whites and salt with a hand mixer or in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the whisk attachment at medium speed until satiny peaks form. Whip in sugar, about a third at a time, until meringue is stiff and shiny.

Sprinkle cornstarch, vinegar and vanilla over and fold in lightly.

Scrape meringue into a buttered and floured 9-inch springform pan and spread evenly with a metal spatula.Place on the middle level of a preheated 350-degree oven and immediately reduce heat to 300 degrees.

Bake for 1 hours.

Turn off oven and leave the meringue to cool completely.

Invert cooled meringue onto a platter and spread with cream and passion fruit.

Serve immediately.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.


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