Recipe Redux: Spring pavlova with earl grey whipped cream and rhubarb

Since my late high school years, I've had an unrelenting interest in nutrition and health. I come from a family of food-loving, health-conscious folks, and throughout my young life, I was fed well and learned to appreciate it. I won't pretend that I wasn't a candy fiend (I totally was), but I'd like to think I had more awareness of what "balance" meant than most other kids I knew. When I decided I wanted to be a dietitian, I thought I had the nutrition world figured out, but as I took nutrition classes in college and learned how to read research, my idea of what a "healthy" diet looked like evolved and changed. I've come to the realization that my view on health will continue to mature and change throughout my career.

My current philosophy has been hugely influenced by my latest job at an eating disorder treatment center. I've seen the damage that rigid food rules can do. I've eaten meals with patients while they cry onto the plate of pasta they're terrified to eat. I've comforted girls who feel overwhelming guilt after every bite. I've listened as patients tell me that they don't deserve to eat. Food is a great unifier - nobody should have to live with anxiety and rigid guidelines around their meals. Mental health is just as important as physical health, and constant stress and worry can place a huge burden on your body. A body under stress has more internal inflammation, a weaker immune system, and sometimes shows physical symptoms like stomach pain and high blood pressure. While it is important to be aware of what we eat and how it affects us, it is also important to enjoy and appreciate food without depravation and fear.

I believe in the benefits of including whole foods in the diet to satisfy the body's nutrient needs. But I also believe in eliminating the use of "good" and "bad" in labeling the foods we eat, practicing moderation, and never leaning on deprivation as a weight management tool. Food is a wonderful unifier that brings people together and encourages fun, not something we should punish or reward ourselves with. It's not to be feared. Thus, I offer you this dessert without apologies. There's some white sugar. There's some cream. And that's okay.
Today's recipe contains an unexpected ingredient: earl grey tea. This month's Recipe Redux theme is Cooking with Tea, and participants were challenged to use tea creatively in a recipe. This classic pavlova gets a facelift with earl grey-infused whipped cream, softened rhubarb, and crushed pistachios. I've used about half the quantity of lightly sweetened whipped cream than most pavolvas call for. You won't miss it - the star is the sweet/tart softened rhubarb.
Rhubarb is the perfect topping for pavlova - its subtle tartness offsets the sweet meringue beautifully. I found the first stalks of the season at my local farmer's market this weekend. Don't be afraid to buy rhubarb that's green. There are many varieties, but they all taste good.
Spring pavlova with earl grey whipped cream and rhubarb
Serves 8
Meringue adapted from Joy of Baking

For the meringue:
4 large eggs
1 cup + 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon white vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons corn starch
1/4 cup water
3 rhubarb stalks (about 1/2 pound), cut into 2-inch pieces
Earl grey whipped cream (recipe below)
2 tablespoons crushed pistachios
  1. Carefully separate the eggs, being sure not to get any yolk in the whites. Set the whites aside to come to room temperature, and save the yolks to use in a custard or ice cream. 
  2. Preheat oven to 250F. Cut a piece of parchment paper to fit a baking sheet and draw an 8-inch circle on the paper. Flip the parchment paper over so the circle is on the reverse side.
  3. Place 1 cup sugar in the bowl of a food processor. Process for 1 minute to create a superfine sugar. 
  4. [Note: It is extremely important that the mixing bowl be completely free of grease in order for the egg whites to beat up properly. Rub a drop of vinegar over the inside of the bowl to remove any trace fat.] Pour the egg whites into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Beat on medium speed until soft peaks form. Begin adding the superfine sugar 1 tablespoon at a time, beating well between additions to ensure all the sugar is well-incorporated and dissolved. Beat on high speed until the meringue is shiny and holds stiff peaks. Add the vanilla extract, vinegar, and corn starch, and gently fold in with a rubber spatula. 
  5. Pile the whipped egg whites on the parchment paper and gently spread to fit the 8-inch circle. Spread so that the edges are higher than the center, creating a shallow crater in the middle. Bake for 60 to 75 minutes or until the outside has formed a thin shell and the inside is soft and marshmallowy. Turn the oven off, crack the oven door, and allow the meringue to cool slowly and completely in the oven. Don't worry if it cracks - you'll cover up any imperfections with whipped cream later.
  6. In a medium saucepan, bring the water and remaining 2 tablespoons sugar to a boil. Add the rhubarb pieces and simmer for 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat and allow the rhubarb to soften in the hot liquid for 5 minutes, then remove the rhubarb pieces from the liquid with a slotted spoon and set on a parchment-lined pan to cool completely.
  7. Transfer the cooled meringue to a pretty platter and top with whipped cream (recipe below), the cooked rhubarb, and pistachios. Serve immediately - this dessert doesn't keep well for more than a few hours. 
For the earl grey whipped cream:
1/2 cup whipping cream (not ultra-pasteurized)
1 1/2 teaspoons loose earl grey tea
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
  1. Measure the whipping cream and the earl grey into a small bowl. Whisk to combine, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator and steep for 2 hours. Strain the tea leaves from the cream.
  2. Pour the cream into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Add the sugar and beat on high for 3-5 minutes until the cream holds soft peaks. 

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