Sam’s Cake Pavlova, So Long Beacon Hill

Friday will be the last night I sleep in my studio—my home for the last four years.  I’ll soon be shipping off to Boston’s North End.  But as I type this, I’m currently in Beacon Hill penned in by boxes; stacks of old Gourmet magazines; and a dubious gang of bottles, each with about a thumb’s worth of liquor. 

There is leftover Hiram Walker creme de cacao from a chocolate martini phase,  when I had my first job as a café manager and took to drinking sweet drinks served in martini glasses. Perhaps a way to usher me into adulthood, gently.

And rosso vermouth from a make-your-own-Manhattan-at-home stage.  An attempt to survive a post-apocalyptic breakup.

Some Speyburn single malt from the time in my life when I tried to like scotch.

Dark rum courtesy of the summer I spent teaching myself to use a charcoal grill.  Fueled by enough Dark and Stormy cocktails to quell the fear that I’d set my city patio on fire and singlehandedly burn down Beacon Hill. 

Plus a long, thin-necked Galliano bottle that I took after raiding my grandmother’s cellar.  I quickly learned that I am, perhaps, the only person still alive who likes the canary yellow digestif.

The stories these bottles could tell.

But this is not space for that.  At least not today.  Today, today (!) I am going to tell you about the last—and epic—party that was held on my eighteen by six feet garden terrace, an outdoor space that I will miss very much.

A dear friend—someone who knew me well before the swift entrance into adulthood, neurotic grilling, and scotch—recently became affianced to lad who tolerates me calling him JamBug.  (Hi Theresa!  Hi JamBug!)  It was quickly decided we needed to party the shit out of my patio, one last time.

So we did.  On a Sunday night in early August.  We set the patio aglow with small glass votives; hung tea light-filled Ball jars from tree branches; and strung big bulbed lights all over the place.  The space flickered like it was filled with fireflies.

And then eighteen people were overserved.  And fed. With stuffed mushrooms, pickled shishito peppers, and Pimm’s No.1 cup cocktail cubes.  Sumac deviled eggs; pimento and cucumber tea sandwiches (crusts intact); and tomato, peach, burrata, basil salad. 

Fed a beautiful polenta artichoke tart, courtesy of a Maria Speck recipe.  Fed two porchetta plus herbed potatoes courtesy of Dave Schneller.  Essentially we stuffed ourselves.  With pig-stuffed pig, mushroom-stuffed mushrooms, egg-stuffed eggs … you get the idea.  Plus we had molasses and plum ice cream sandwiches.  And Sam’s Cake pavlova.

Allow me to explain Sam’s cake.  Theresa’s family has a restaurant.  This restaurant has a cake.  A cake named after her father, who used to make the dessert.  Famously made the dessert.  He passed away when Theresa and I were in high school.  So we honored him and his yellow-caked legacy, which also included a vanilla pudding-like component and berries.

To lighten it a smidgen I substituted pavlova.  Given all the eating we were to do.  A meringue with unsweetened whipped cream, plus pastry cream, and peaches, and berries followed.

Simple.  But a stunner.  Light as a feather.  Touched by Sam and graced by a ballet dancer, as the pavlova story goes.

A hell of a way to start a marriage. A hell of a way to end a party.

Sam’s Cake Pavlova


for the pavlova
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

2 tsp white vinegar
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp cornstarch
2 cups superfine (castor) sugar (see notes section)
8 egg whites (reserve 4 yolks for the pastry cream)
pinch of salt

for the pastry cream
Adapted from Tartine

2 cups whole milk
½ vanilla bean, split, seeds scraped and pod reserved
¼ tsp salt
3 to 4 tbsp cornstarch
½ cup + 1 tbsp sugar
4 egg yolks
4 tbsp unsalted butter

for the topping

1 pint heavy cream
1 tsp orange blossom water
2 small peaches
1 cup blueberries
1 cup raspberries


Start this at least a day before you plan to serve it to make assembly much easier. 

To make the pavlova:

Set the oven at 250 degrees and place a rack in the center.  Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and draw a 7-inch diameter circle on each one.

In a small bowl, mix the vinegar and vanilla extract.  In another small bowl, mix the cornstarch into the sugar.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, whip the whites and salt on low, increasing the speed to medium, until soft peaks form, and a trail from the whites becomes visible, and very tiny bubbles form that are uniform in size (about 2 to 4 minutes).

Increase the speed to medium high and slowly sprinkle in the sugar mixture.  After about a minute, add in the vinegar mixture.  Increase the speed and whip until glossy, stiff peaks form (about 5 minutes).

Spread half the meringue to fit inside one of your circles on one of the prepared baking sheets, smoothing it out and making sure the edges are higher than the middle.  (You’ll need a well an inch or two deep in the center to create a space for the pastry cream and fruit to go.)  Repeat with the remaining meringue on the other sheet.

Bake both meringues for 1 hour plus 15 to 30 minutes, or until the shells are dry and cream-colored.  (Look at the shells around 60 to 70 minutes; you don’t want them to take on too much color, if they are rotate the pans and drop the oven temperature about 25 degrees.)

When the outside meringues are as described above and feel firm to the touch, turn the oven off and leave the door ajar, leaving the meringues inside.  (I used a fork to keep the oven propped open.)  Let the meringues cool completely in the oven.

Peel the cooled meringues off the parchment paper and store in an airtight container, or wrap tightly with plastic wrap, until ready to use.

To make the pastry cream:

Place a fine mesh sieve over a large bowl.

In a medium saucepan, place the milk, scraped vanilla bean seeds and pod, and salt, and place over medium-high heat; stir occasionally, to prevent scorching, and bring to just under a boil.  Remove the pod.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the cornstarch and sugar. (3 tbsp will yield a slightly runnier cream, while 4 tbsp will yield a firmer cream; I used 3 tbsp and thought it was a perfect counterpoint for the meringue.)  Whisk in the yolks.

When the milk is ready, slowly pour about 1/3 of the hot milk into the egg mixture, whisking constantly.  Pour a little more of the hot milk into the egg mixture and whisk again.  Repeat once or twice more, and then pour the egg mixture into the remaining hot milk mixture and cook over medium heat, constantly whisking, until the custard becomes as thick as lightly whipped cream, about 2 minutes (you’ll want to see a few slow bubbles to ensure the cornstarch cooks, but do not allow the cream to fully boil or it may curdle.)

Remove the cream from the heat and quickly pour it through your sieve into the bowl.  Let cool for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent a skin from forming.  When the cream is about 140 degrees, whisk in the butter in 1 tbsp pieces.  (Whisk until the cream is smooth before adding the next piece.)

Cover the cream with plastic wrap, pressing the wrap directly onto the top of the cream (to prevent a skin forming).  Refrigerate until ready to use.

To make the whipped cream:

In the bowl of a stand mixer, whip the heavy cream until it becomes stiff and cloud-like; whip in the orange blossom water for another few seconds. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

To serve:

Slice the peaches.  Place each meringue onto a serving dish. 

Spoon pastry cream into the center of each meringue until you deem fit (I spooned until it started to gently run down the sides of the meringue).  Scatter the peach slices and blueberries equally between the two meringues.  Divide the whipped cream evenly between the two and then toss the raspberries on top.  Serve immediately.

(Alternatively—if you are feeling brave—you could try stacking the two meringues, alternating the pastry cream, fruit, and whipped cream.)

Serves 12 to 16 people

 -The pastry cream can be made up to 5 days ahead of time.  The meringue and the whipped cream can be made 1 day ahead of time.

-You could probably cut the pastry cream in half; you’ll have a little extra if you don’t, but I’ve never heard anyone complaining about leftover pastry cream.  You can use it as a simple sauce with fresh fruit, or to add to cakes and trifles.

-If you can’t find superfine sugar, whirl granulated sugar in a food processor until it becomes finely textured.

-You probably won’t be able to serve 16 people if you stack the pavlova.  Each pavlova on its own will conservatively yield 6 generous portions and 8 smaller ones.


  1. Ah--the bottles! That reminds me when I moved from Canada. I didn't really want to have to declare my eclectic collection at the border, so I tried to give it away, but pretty well everyone I knew was also moving that summer, so I think I just ended up abandoning it! Such a shame!

    And the food! Sounds like it was incredible! Did you do most of the cooking yourself? I don't know if I'd be up to the task! (Definitely going to have to check out that polenta tart...)

    I have never been crazy about the meringue that I've had, possibly because it was given to me (you know, those little rings of meringue that some bakeries sell just on their own?), and I just didn't know what to do with it. They just seemed really chalky and unfortunate. I assume that here the pastry cream, fruit, and whipped cream transform it into something else?

    P.S. Good luck with your move!

  2. Good luck with the big move! I haven't had a pavlova in a while but remember loving it. This looks beautiful and delicious!