Summer in Israel is just like the one I had in upstate New York except more concentrated. The sun is more intense, the sky bluer and it’s as humid as a tropical island. Instead of flying off to another cold and foggy destination, we’re staying for the long haul. How will I survive? Gelato! Israel has imported the Italian ice cream culture entirely and even added its own Middle Eastern twist. Where else can you find orange-mint, raspberry-lychee rosewater, or tehina and date syrup flavored gelato?
I also take comfort in the fact that the hotter months bring on an extraordinary array of fruit. Loquats, cherries, apricots and berries arrive in rapid succession, each a brief and novel addition at the green grocer. The season matures with figs and mangoes while plums, grapes and melon linger until late autumn. As the nights lengthen Chinese dates, also known as jujube or nabaq, can be found both commercially or picked from the wild.
Species from around the world have been introduced and have acclimatized to the Middle East through extensive breeding programs. Pineapple and pitaya, a cactus fruit, are indigenous to South America and are now grown in the Negev Desert while blueberries, native to North America, are cultivated in the cooler northern region. Tropical and subtropical crops such as lychee, avocado and custard apples have adopted well to Israel’s warm climate and are now widely available.
Strangely, Israel imports pineapples from the Dominican Republic and apples from Washington State. This seems to me a ridiculous length to travel for any item, let alone a perishable. For the most part, however, the time from field to table is minimal. Produce does not need to be harvested before ripening or held in cold storage for extended intervals.
About two weeks ago I bought more than a kilo of fresh cherries, realizing I’d have to wait another year if I missed the harvest window. I placed them in a large glass bowl and announced, “There are cherries if you want” to whoever could hear. We gathered around, our fingertips stained crimson and seeds scattered in lazy piles on the table. And between greedy bites came the stories of their day….
I can’t say don’t I miss tubing down the Esopus River or the smell of balsam fir. I’ve never liked the sauna Israel becomes or that pot holders are needed to grasp the steering wheel of my car but if I can ignore that-with AC it’s not hard- there are sweet moments to be enjoyed. With gelato, of course, and summer fruit. But now with the longer days, casual visits from my neighbors have returned, visits the colder months have always squelched. I’d forgotten how much I’d miss these simple moments.
Pavlova is my son’s signature dish and he helped me make this. Cherries oxidize quickly and lose their intense color and the reason I opted for a cooked syrup in this recipe.
4 egg whites
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon corn starch, sifted
1 cup heavy cream (at least 38% fat)
1 tablespoon sugar (or to taste)
2 cups cherries
1 tablespoon sugar (or to taste)
1 tablespoon of fresh lemon thyme, leaves separated from the stem
Heat the oven to 180⁰C (370⁰F). On parchment paper draw a circle of 18 cm (7 inches) diameter. Rub a bit of oil or butter on the parchment paper and dust with corn starch so that the meringue releases easily.
Whip the egg whites, first on low speed then on high speed until they are stable and hold soft peaks. Add the sugar tablespoon by tablespoon and continue whipping at high speed for another 10 minutes or until the meringue is stiff and shiny and the sugar is dissolved.
Add the vanilla, vinegar and corn starch and fold into the meringue using a wide spatula until incorporated.
Using a spatula or piping bag, create a circular meringue on the parchment paper, slightly higher on the outside so there is room for the whipped cream. Alternatively create smaller individual meringues.
Put the meringue in the oven, and reduce the heat to 125⁰C (250⁰ F) and bake for 1 hour (if individual shells are made they need less time). The outside should be hard and cream colored and the inside, soft, like a marshmallow but not liquid. Turn off the heat and open the oven door to allow it to cool completely.
Release the meringue from the parchment paper and place on a large serving plate.
Discard the stems and any bruised or blemished fruit. I was lazy and didn’t bother pitting the fruit but this step is recommended if you don’t have a fine metal sieve. Place the cherries (pitted or not) in a small pot with the sugar and heat over low flame. The fruit will begin to soften and turn into a thick pulp. Mix occasionally. Continue to simmer until the syrup sticks to the back of a metal spoon. Remove from heat and strain through a fine metal sieve. Using a spoon push the pulp against the sieve to extract the maximum amount of syrup. Discard the pulp.
Before serving, whip the cream and sugar until stable and pipe or spoon into the middle of the meringue. Drizzle with cherry syrup and top with lemon thyme. Serve immediately.