Simple Customizable Pavlova. Photo by Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post.
I've always been a pretty crummy magician. I seem to recall some feeble attempts at card tricks and other sleight of hand in my youth. No one was buying it.

Now the kitchen is where I can work some real magic. Take a heap of ingredients and then turn it into something that bears absolutely no resemblance to what you started with.

Take meringues, for example. Their main ingredient: egg whites, which, as much as I love them, I'd generously describe as one of the least appetising-looking foods out there. But add sugar and a few other stabilising ingredients, and you can produce mounds of meringue with a crisp exterior and a marshmallowy center, with only 15 minutes of hands-on time.

A long, low bake allows the inside to set and dry without turning the exterior too dark. Letting the baked pavlova rest overnight in a propped-open oven further dries the meringue. If your oven is anything like mine, you might need to get creative and MacGyver a way to get the lights to stay off while you leave the door open. In my case, it involved a handy kitchen tool - a wooden spoon or a ladle - wedged into place to press down on the latch sensor.

The overnight rest, in my opinion, is an advantage rather than a drawback, especially if you're entertaining. After it's dried, the meringue base can be stored in an airtight container for up to 2 days (you can leave it attached to the parchment paper). Then, right before serving, simply add your choice of toppings. We liked the combination of lightly sweetened whipped cream, lemon curd, berries and fresh lavender or other aromatic herbs. Chocolate or fruit sauces, finely chopped nuts, dulce de leche, ground freeze-dried fruit and sour cream are all good options as well. A dusting of confectioners' sugar makes a nice and elegant final touch - if not magic, at least a sprinkling of fairy dust.

Simple Customisable Pavlova

2 to 4 servings

If you want a fancy-looking dessert that takes very little effort, pavlova is the answer. With four ingredients, a bowl, a handheld mixer and about 15 minutes of hands-on time, you can produce mounds of meringue with a crisp exterior and a marshmallowy center.

The assembled dessert might get a bit messy and soggy the longer it sits, but leftovers are still delicious the next day.

You can make the meringue with a stand mixer, but a handheld model allows you to move the beaters around freely to better incorporate the sugar.

Make Ahead: The pavlova needs to dry in the oven overnight; store in an airtight container for up to 2 days. It can be stored with its parchment paper attached.

Where to Buy: Superfine sugar (also known as castor sugar) is available at most supermarkets, but you can make your own by grinding granulated sugar in the food processor. If you do grind your own, start by processing a few more tablespoons than this recipe calls for.

Recipe notes: To quickly take the chill off refrigerated eggs, place them (whole) in a bowl of warm tap water for 5 minutes.

Adapted from food writer David Hagedorn.

Ingredients

2 large egg whites, at room temperature

1/2 cup superfine sugar

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon distilled white vinegar

Method

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Use a pencil and a 5-inch template (such as a small saucepan lid) to trace a circle on the parchment; turn the paper over.

Place the egg whites in the bowl of a handheld mixer or stand mixer (fitted with a balloon-whisk attachment). Start on low speed and gradually increase to high, beating for about 1 minute, until the egg whites begin to get quite foamy.

With the mixer running, add the sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, to form a smooth and satiny meringue that holds a stiff peak. Move around the beaters of your hand mixer or scrape down the sides of your stand mixer bowl to fully incorporate the sugar. Make sure the sugar has almost completely dissolved by testing a little meringue between your fingers; if it feels overly grainy, beat until smooth. (Some granules are okay.) Remove the beaters.

Sift the cornstarch on top of the meringue in the bowl, then add the vinegar, gently folding in those two ingredients until completely incorporated.

Pile the meringue onto the parchment at the center of the traced circle, using a spatula to push from the center until the meringue fills the space. (This does not have to be precise; the pile should be about 2 1/2 inches high, with a slight peak.) Bake (middle rack) for 1 hour and 15 minutes; the pavlova will be puffed and slightly golden; a few cracks are okay.

Turn off the oven and use the handle of a long spoon to keep the oven door ajar. Let the pavlova dry in the oven overnight.

To serve, you can gently collapse the center of the pavlova to top it with fruit, whipped cream, curd, etc.

Nutrition (based on 4 servings) | Calories: 100; Saturated Fat: 0 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 25 mg; Carbohydrates: 25 g; Sugars: 24 g; Protein: 2 g.

Washington Post