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updated: 5/1/2013 2:30 PM

Pavlova a light, airy dessert

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  • The Pavlova, a well-traveled dessert, was created in New Zealand or Australia and named after a Russian ballet dancer.

      The Pavlova, a well-traveled dessert, was created in New Zealand or Australia and named after a Russian ballet dancer.
    Newspaper Enterprise Association/Petrina Tinslay f

By Marialisa Calta
Newspaper Enterprise Association

The Pavlova -- a baked meringue confection typically filled with whipped cream and berries -- is not a Russian dessert, as its name suggests, but a concoction born in Australia or New Zealand and named after a Russian ballerina.

The name honors Anna Pavlova (1881-1931), who is still considered one of the finest classical dancers in history. Pavlova was known for her ethereal style, and while touring New Zealand and Australia in the 1920s, a New Zealand newspaper described her as "a snowflake scintillating in a world of moonlight, so swift and light and sparkling that the eye was dazzled at the sight."

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Her lightness inspired bakers Down Under to work on the airy, marshmallow-y meringue that bears her name. Both countries have claimed the dessert as their own in a decadeslong tussle known as the "Pavlova wars," which likely will remain unsettled forever. To their credit, however, the New Zealanders have produced the world's largest Pavlova, a 210-foot-wide creation nicknamed "PavKong" to distinguish it from a slightly smaller "PavZilla" baked in 1999.

Like Anna Pavlova -- the first dancer to make a worldwide ballet tour -- the dessert that bears her name has traveled, and it should be no surprise to find it in "Nigellissima" (Clarkson Potter, 2013), a new Italian cookbook by British food sensation Nigella Lawson.

Lawson, British born and bred, writes, "It was when I was 16 or 17 that I decided to be Italian." What followed was a crash course in the Italian language and a "gap year" before university spent living, eating and cooking in Florence.

In her book, she channels her "Nigellissima-ness" into a collection of "Italian-inspired" or "Britalian" dishes. These include banana bread flavored with espresso, French toast made with panettone, a meatball mixture with a tomato and mozzarella topping fashioned to look like a pizza and known as a Meatzza, and a plate of battered and fried shrimp she calls "Italian tempura." There's cooked semolina served like mashed potatoes, "risotto" made of barley and a very British-seeming shortbread flavored with anise.

Her Pavlova, with its espresso flavor and dusting of cocoa, was hardly a stretch. She calls it, somewhat tongue in cheek, a "meringa al caffe con panna montata" (coffee meringue with a mound of cream) or, more familiarly, a "cappuccino Pavlova" or a "Cap Pav."

"Not that I feel the need: I declare its inspiration, not its identity, to be authentically Italian," she writes.

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