At the time of her visits and for the next decade, cooks and chefs in both countries sought to
honor her and the occasions of her visits with confections they created to capture her light and
airy spirit and appearance. These ranged from trifle-like, gelatin-based creations to cakes and
meringues in various forms. Not all of these confections were called pavlovas, although they
were created to honor her. At that time, there was no generally agreed basic rule nor a list of its
essential ingredients and a method for making a “pavlova”. In the decades that followed, the
lack of a singular recipe and definition of what-might-be-called a proper pavlova did not deter
those who wished to claim that one or another recipe was the “first and original recipe for a true
pavlova”. However, by the 1950s, the recipe for a “Traditional Pavlova” was generally agreed
and a basic rule could be synthesized from it. In a sense, the passage of time provided a unique
answer to the question: who made the first pavlova, what was in it, and how was it made?
In the history of food, the same kind of argument has occurred many times, in many countries and even in the regions of a single country. For example, can anyone cite the recipe for an “authentic” cassoulet that is universally accepted in France? Of course, the answer is no. In
France, there are probably as many cassoulet recipes as there are cooks, but there is a three-part,
basic rule to which everyone agrees: a good cassoulet is two-thirds beans, juice and aromatics,
one-third meat and, remember always, that it is a simmered dish. Three famous recipes meet this
basic rule, the Cassoulet de Castelnaudary, which is made with pork meat, the Cassoulet de
Toulouse, which is richer than the Castelnaudary recipe with the addition of lamb and sausages,
and the Cassoulet de Carcassonne which includes partridge. Like the search for a recipe for an“authentic” cassoulet, we can ask what is the universally accepted, traditional recipe for pavlova?
Glen Ralph, Margaret E. Walker, Michael Symons, N. A. Munro and a host of others have
researched the origins and meaning of the term pavlova, apparently, without agreeing that the
term has, or even that it should have, a singular definition. There appears to be only one simple
issue on which everyone agrees, namely, that, in Australia and New Zealand, cake-like,
meringue-based desserts called “pavlova” were introduced in the third and fourth decades of the
twentieth century to honor Anna Pavlova. In that time period, several confections were created,
developed, invented, what have you, whose only common characteristics appears to be that they
were sweet, airy and white — a verbalized image of Anna Pavlova. Let us begin by considering
the definition and associated citations given in the Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition,
published in 1989. The definition given in the OED2 is
“A dessert or cake, now usually one made with meringue, whipped cream, and fruit.”
In the context of researching the time-sensitive origin and meaning of the term “pavlova”,
perhaps, the most important word in the OED definition is now. By its presence in the definition
it implies that, at an unstated earlier time, a precursor of the pavlova defined in a dictionary
published in 1989, was not “... usually [a dessert or cake] made with meringue, whipped cream,
and fruit.” The record available to us appears to support this contention.
Before we discuss the citations associated with the definition in OED2, let us consider the
definitions of pavlova in other dictionaries: in THE SHORTER OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY, 3rd
ed., 1983; THE CONCISE OXFORD DICTIONARY, 8th ed., 1990; MERRIAM WEBSTER’S COLLEGIATE
DICTIONARY, Tenth Edition, 1993; THE COLLINS ENGLISH DICTIONARY, 2nd ed., 1986. There was
no definition of pavlova in THE SHORTER OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY . The definitions given
in the other dictionaries are
THE CONCISE OXFORD DICTIONARY: pavlova a meringue cake with cream and fruit.
MERRIAM WEBSTER’S COLLEGIATE DICTIONARY: pavlova a dessert of Australian and New
Zealand origin consisting of a meringue shell topped with whipped cream and, usually, fruit.
THE COLLINS ENGLISH DICTIONARY: pavlova a meringue cake topped with whipped cream and
fruit, popular in Australia and N.Z. Often shortened (Austral. and N.Z. informal) to pav.
Admittedly, the sampling is small but, the definitions in three standard dictionaries, with
publishing dates from 1986 to 1993, agree unanimously that the essential ingredients of a
pavlova are meringue (made of beaten egg whites, sugar, cornstarch and vinegar), whipped cream
Now, let us examine the citations and other information associated with the definition in OED2.
There are eleven, chronologically ordered citations given with the definition. They are
“1927, Davis Dainty Dishes (ed.6) (Davis Gelatine, N.Z., Ltd., 11 Pavlova, ‘Dissolve all
but a teaspoonful of Gelatine in the hot water, and all the sugar except a dessertspoonful
[etc.].’ 1929 K. McKay Pract. Home Cookery 155/1 Pavlova cakes. ‘Cook like
meringues.+ They are delightful and simple to make besides being a novelty.’ 1952 Weekly News (Auckland) 30 July 14/4 (heading) Soft-centred Pavlova Cake. Ibid. , R. J.
S. (Nelson) writes:— Could you give me a recipe for making a pavlova with a soft
centre? Ibid. , Most good pavlova recipes are soft inside. 1952 B. Nilson Penguin
Cookery Bk. xviii. 396 Pavlova Cake (to use as a cake or cold sweet). 1957 Daily Mail, 7
Oct. 11/4 Pavlova. Ingredients: 3 egg whites, 6 oz. castor sugar, 1 teaspoonful vanilla, 1
teaspoonful vinegar, 1 teaspoonful cornflour, 1⁄2 pint double cream (whipped and
flavoured), 16 oz can Australian pineapple or apricots, cherries, angelica. 1958 N.Z.
News 2 Dec. 10/2 Supper included some renowned New Zealand dishes such as pavlova,whitebait, and oysters. 1960 I. Cross Backward Sex 85, ‘ I’ll give you some of Mum’s
pavlova cake for supper.’ 1964 Guardian 18 Apr. 5/4, ‘A Pavlova+is a meringue basket
so called because it spreads out like the skirts of a ballerina.’ 1968 N.Z. News 11 Dec.
11/5, ‘Pavlova cake—the New Zealand and Australian sweet — is believed to have been
created as a compliment to the famous dancer when she visited those countries.’ 1972 V.
C. Clinton-Baddeley, To study Long Silence v. 19, ‘A Pavlova — a New Zealand
specialty of choice fresh fruit and whipped cream wrapped in meringue-like base.’ 1975 Times 16 Dec. 12/4, ‘A Pavlova, an Australian dessert, a meringue with cream,
passionfruit, ice cream and strawberries.”
The 1927 citation is from a cookbook, entitled Davis Dainty Dishes (6th ed.), published by a
company in Christ Church, New Zealand, that, at that time, manufactured and sold edible , N.Z., Ltd., is currently a
Division of Gelita Group and the maker of “... New Zealand’s leading retail gelatin brand.”)
The interesting thing to us is that the pavlova referred to in the citation uses gelatin (Jello) as one
of its basic ingredients. Gelatin is surely not an ingredient one would expect to find in a
meringue. The Davis dessert named pavlova sounds more like a trifle, which is, according to the
OED2, “A light confection of sponge-cake or the like, especially, flavoured with wine or spirit,
and served with custard and whipped cream.” Further, a trifle is served cold, usually, in a special
glass bowl, a with layers of fruit, jelly, custard and whipped cream in various combinations. A
trifle is not a meringue-based confection, but the whipped cream called for in the recipe may give with Anna Pavlova.
In The Oxford Companion to Food (OUP, 1999, page 587, col. 1, ¶ 1), Helen Saberi tells us, in
her article on “pavlova”,
"-the name pavlova was being used in New Zealand as early as 1927, as the OED points
out, but that this use referred to a different dessert, whose connection to New Zealand is
anyway uncertain; ...” [The underline emphases are mine.]
Apparently, Davis Gelatine used the occasion of Anna Pavlova’s visit in 1926 to name a gelatin-
based dessert after her, but, as Saberi points out, it is a different dessert and, not by even the most
benign interpretation of its recipe, can it be considered a proper pavlova.
Concerning the other citations in the OED2: The next citation is
-“1929 K. McKay, Practical Home Cookery, Chats and Recipes, Pavlova cakes, page 155, ¶ 1.” Glen Ralph refers to this citation in his article, Whipping is Pavlovian, which can be found at inmamaskitchen.com. In the
article, Ralph states “... The New Zealand claim is dealt with by Michael Symons in One
Continuous Picnic: A history of eating in Australia (Duck Press, Adelaide, 1982)”. Symons tells
us that, “In A Taste of New Zealand in Food and Pictures, N. A. Munro stated, in 1977: ‘It is
often claimed, and perhaps justly, that the ‘Pav’ of affectionate parlance is New Zealand’s first and only contribution to international cuisine — that is, excluding foodstuffs native only to this
country.’ Munro credited the idea to a nameless ‘benefactress’ and fancied a date of ‘probably
1926, when the great ballerina toured this country, or shortly afterwards.’ To help check this for
me, librarians of the National Library of New Zealand kindly consulted their collection of
cookery books. In fact, they found a recipe for “Pavlova Cakes” in Mrs. McKay’s Practical
Home Cookery, Chats and Recipes, published in 1929 (end note 1). The ingredients were roughly those of a
pavlova, but it was not the pavlova as we know it, because the mixture was baked into three
dozen little meringues. But there is more to the New Zealand claim than this. Even earlier, in
Terrace Tested Recipes, collected by the ladies of Terrace Congregational Church, the second
edition published in Wellington in 1927, there was a recipe submitted by a Mrs. McRae for
Meringue Cake (end note 1) . This was three whipped egg-whites, eight ounces of sugar and a dessertspoon
of cornflour (the pavlova ingredients less vinegar), put into two well-greased sandwich tins ‘... in
a fairly hot oven on a low shelf and leave until the fire is almost out.’ The two halves were filled
with whipped cream and cherries or strawberries, or served as two cakes. From similar recipes
published in 1933 and 1934, I think it fair to say that the Meringue Cake was common in New
Zealand in the early 1930s. Its form varied, but it was to all intents and purposes what we know
as a ‘pavlova’ (end note 2) , sometimes even complete with passionfruit on top.” (page 150) [Again, the
underline emphases are mine.]
At the link, www.nz.com Martin Richardson,
MRICHARDSON@ guvax.acc.georgetown.edu, answers a query with a short article entitled,“Where did Pavlovas come from?” In the article, he cites Michael Symons as saying:
“In 1934, Mrs Elizabeth Paxton succeeded her husband as licensee of the [Hotel] Esplanade and
under her invigorated guidance the afternoon teas became very desirable occasions. One day she
called in her manager and they approached their chef (Bert Sachse) to devise something special.
... Bert Sachse experimented for a month. According to Paxton family tradition, the pavlova was
named at a meeting at which Sachse presented the now familiar cake. The family say that either
the licensee or the manager (as Sachse also said) remarked, “It is as light as Pavlova”. (The
author [Symons] then explains how he proceeded to research the N.Z. claim.) “To help check for
me, librarians of the National Library of New Zealand kindly consulted their collection of
cookery books. In fact, they found a recipe for “Pavlova cakes”, publshed in 1929. The
ingredients were roughly those of a pavlova, but it was not the pavlova as we know it, because
the mixture was baked into three dozen little meringues. It seems a coincidence that the N.Z. cook was impressed by the ballerina’s lightness and whiteness.” [Again, the underline emphases
are mine.] ...
"Bert Sachse said in a magazine interview in 1973 that he sought to improve the Meringue Cake.
There was a prize-winning recipe for Meringue Cake in the ‘Women’s Mirror’ on April 2, 1935.
It contained vinegar, but no cornflour and was of two parts filled with whipped cream. The
recipe was contributed by “Rewa”, who happened to be of Rongotai, N.Z. If Sachse read the‘Women’s Mirror’ and other magazines for ideas, as his widow told me, he might have seen this
recipe. We can concede that New Zealanders discovered the secret delights of the largemeringue with the ‘marshmallow centre’, the heart of the pavlova. But it seems reasonable t assume that someone in Perth attached the name of the ballerina.”
When we consider the recipes put forward by Davis, McKay and others from the vantage point of
a twenty-first century perspective or even one in the 1950s, I find that I agree with Saberi, tivities in New Zealand
before 1935 did not produce what, about two decades later, was called the recipe for Traditional
Pavlova. This puts the OED2 definition on the mark and explains the insertion of “now” in its
definition. More importantly, this provides closure for those who have claimed precedence for
Chef Sachse’s recipe.
Inherent in Munro’s use of the phrase “... the pavlova ingredients less vinegar ...”, there lurks
the preconceived notion of the existence of a basic rule for a pavlova and its essential
ingredients that includes vinegar. Munro wrote this comment more than four decades after
Sachse published his recipe; thus, we can infer, he accepted the verity that a basic rule in it a set of ingredients which characterized a proper pavlova. Also, in the
same paragraph, note that 1 dessertspoon (a U.K. measure) equals 2 teaspoons.
Here, Munro appears to weaken the sense of his earlier comment. If he truly believed that a
traditional recipe for pavlova existed before that created by Sachse, then his characterization
of the meringue-based desserts developed in New Zealand before 1935, as being “... to all
intents and purposes what we know as a ‘pavlova’ ...”, would not be correct. They are
different. It is difficult to accept the Davis gelatin-based dessert and Mrs. McRae’s“meringue cakes”, both created in 1927, as a form of proper pavlova. After reviewing the
recipes of the meringue-based, cream-filled and fruit-decorated desserts created in the post-
Pavlova era, it is reasonable to conclude that, by 1957, Sachse’s recipe, created in 1935, was
recognized as being that for “Traditional Pavlova”.