A Valentine's pavlova

For this was on seynt Valentynes day/Whan every fowl cometh ther to chese his make ~ Chaucer

Just as I believe you shouldn't need Hallmark to tell you when you should be showering your beloved with affection, so I also believe you shouldn't need an occasion to make a spectacular pavlova. This is my contribution to the day of St Valentine. The man himself is someone we actually know almost nothing about. The first association between romance and the Saint came, in fact, from my favourite man of all time - Geoffrey Chaucer. In his poem, The Parliament of Fowls, he describes all the birds flocking to a parliament in order to choose their mates, because it happens to be the day of St Valentine. Perhaps a dish of bird in some shape or form would have been a more appropriate Valentine's day emblem, in this case. Newspapers and magazines nationwide for some reason decide that making a chocolate fondant for your loved one is the appropriate way to celebrate, along with the usual suspects - oysters, scallops, fillet steak. I reckon this rhubarb pavlova is a far more apt metaphor for romance: sweet and delicious, but with a tart, astringent edge. 

I used to be able to make perfect meringues, until for some reason one day I produced a long string of successive failures. I think perhaps I was becoming too conscious of the complicated alchemy that occurs when you mix egg whites, air and sugar. Terrified of overwhisking, I think I didn't allow enough time for the mixture to thicken, ending up with a runny white liquid that definitely didn't set into soft peaks. However, I am pleased that this sad time seems to be over. My pavlova was, even if I say so myself, excellent. The trick is to add a couple of drops of lemon juice to the egg whites before you start whisking, to make sure they are thick enough before you start adding the sugar (hold the bowl over your head - you should stay dry), to add the sugar in batches and whisk enough each time to end up with a mixture the consistency of shaving foam. This should result in a beautiful light, glossy meringue that will hold its shape when you form it on a baking sheet into whatever shape takes your fancy. There's something immensely rewarding about spreading the white foam onto a dark baking sheet, flattening it in the middle and raising it at the sides, sweeping across the structure with a spatula to create smooth contours of sugary perfection.

The traditional filling for a pavlova is, obviously, summer berries. But, obviously, it is not summer, and I can't afford the £3 or so Tesco charge for a tiny box of imported blueberries or raspberries. Better to use one of my favourite seasonal ingredients, and one that is so beautiful at this time of year that I cannot help but marvel over it. Champagne rhubarb is truly one of nature's gifts, and I genuinely find it hard to believe, every time I use it, how something that comes up from the muddy ground can be so shockingly pink. It doesn't seem natural, somehow. Very few foods are that pronouned in colour. The pink looks wonderful against the cream of the meringue, particularly with some mint leaves scattered over. As a bonus, you're left with lots of lovely poaching liquid from the rhubarb, which is delicious mixed with a sliced blood orange and drizzled over a bowl of muesli the next day. Certainly a breakfast to wake one up.

If I were making a berry pavlova, I'd probably use cream in the middle, or a mixture of whipped cream and mascarpone, flavoured with the seeds from a vanilla pod. However, I used yoghurt, mixed with icing sugar and orange zest. The orange notes bring out the flavour of the rhubarb perfectly, and there is a slight tartness from the yoghurt that stops the meringue being overly sweet. It's also slightly healthier (that is, if you ignore the vast amounts of sugar that you pour into the egg whites...)

A delicious combination of chalky, stiff meringue that turns gooey and fluffy in the middle; sweet, tart rhubarb, and orange-scented yoghurt. If Geoffrey Chaucer were still alive, I'd make this for him. 

Rhubarb pavlova (serves 6):

Preheat the oven to 160C.

Place four egg whites into a large mixing bowl. Make sure the bowl has no traces of damp or grease in it, or the whites won't whisk properly. Add a couple of drops of fresh lemon juice. With an electric beater, whisk the egg whites until thick - you should be able to turn the bowl upside down and for them to stay there, or to lift the beater from the mixture and end up with soft, stiff peaks. 

Measure out 225g of white or golden caster sugar (the latter gives a nice toffee colour to the meringue). Add a quarter to the whites, whisking all the time, until they have thickened some more. Keep adding the sugar in batches, whisking after each addition, until the mixture is the consistency of shaving foam. It should stand up when you remove the whisk.

Place a sheet of baking parchment on an oven tray. Using a spatula, place the meringue mixture onto the baking parchment in whatever shape you like - just make sure the middle of the shape is slightly flatter - you want to end up with a sort of bowl shape with raised sides, to hold the filling in. Sprinkle with flaked almonds if you like (it looks pretty).

Bake at 160C for five minutes, then turn the oven down to 140C and bake for an hour. When the time is up, turn the oven off, leave the door slightly ajar, and leave the meringue there until totally cold.

For the rhubarb, place four big sticks of rhubarb, sliced into chunks, in a baking dish. Squeeze over the juice of an orange and sprinkle over 3 tbsp sugar. Bake for about 20 minutes at 180C, or until the rhubarb is tender to the point of a knife.

Mix 250ml yoghurt (the stiff, Greek kind is best) with 4tsbp sifted icing sugar and the zest of an orange. Spread into the centre of the meringue. Spoon over the rhubarb (try not to spoon over too much juice, or the pavlova will be soggy and leak everywhere when you cut into it). Decorate with icing sugar and mint leaves, and serve.