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Making Pavlova with Sprinkles Cupcakes founder Candace Nelson

Making Pavlova with Sprinkles Cupcakes founder Candace Nelson
Candace Nelson, the co-founder of Sprinkles cupcakes, displays her Pavlova. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

“I remember a very, very old, dog-eared, stained copy of ‘The Joy of Cooking’ that we would turn to time and time again,” says pastry chef and television host Candace Nelson, remembering her mother’s primary source for recipes while living abroad in the pre-internet era. Nelson, who famously launched Sprinkles Cupcakes in 2005 and pizzeria Pizzana in Brentwood in 2017 (a second location is set to open on Robertson Boulevard in West Hollywood in early 2019), grew up mostly in Southeast Asia. It was there that she fell in love with dessert-making and discovered one of her favorite sweets, the meringue-based, whipped cream and fruit-topped Pavlova.

Born in Jakarta, Indonesia, Nelson spent her infancy there before moving to Hong Kong until the first grade. After spending a few years in Michigan and Wisconsin, her father’s job brought her family to Medan on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. It was then that Nelson longed for American desserts and as a fifth-grader began baking intensively.

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“We had this one little store called Toko Ben. ‘Toko’ is the word for store” in Indonesian, she explains, noting that the small neighborhood store was the only local importer of American products.

“So if you wanted Frosted Flakes cereal or if you wanted Nestle Toll House chocolate chips, you went to Toko Ben. And it was this tiny store and everything came over on a boat. So by the time the products were at Toko Ben, as delicious as they looked, those Frosted Flakes were so soft. The humidity had gotten to them and it was like you didn’t even care at that point because it was just a taste of home.”

It was this nostalgia for those familiar flavors that led Nelson to master dessert-making at a young age. “As a child I wanted to re-create these things I loved that reminded me of America.” But achieving this while living in Medan wasn’t easy. So Nelson started baking brownies, chocolate chip cookies and cupcakes with her mom.

Candace Nelson fell in love with Pavlova when she lived in Indonesia.
Candace Nelson fell in love with Pavlova when she lived in Indonesia. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

But it wasn’t just American desserts that Nelson loved. It was in Indonesia that she fell in love with the airy dessert, thought to be named after the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. Though it likely first originated in Germany and the U.S., it is said to have been created in honor of the dancer during her tour of Australia and New Zealand in the 1920s and is popular in those countries. And thanks to the large population of Australians in Indonesia, Pavlova was a popular dessert there. “Half of my friends growing up were Australian,” says Nelson.

“Although it is a little bit tricky to make in the tropics, once you had that meringue made, Pavlova is one of those desserts that feels lighter, although it’s not calorically lighter. There’s something about crisp meringue and then cream and fruit that lends itself really well to tropical fruit, which there was always an abundance of and definitely also lends itself well to the tropical heat.”

Now, Nelson, who is both an executive producer and permanent judge on the Netflix show “Sugar Rush,” makes the dessert frequently. “I rely on it constantly for dinner parties because it is such a cinch to whip up and it delights women, men and kids alike.” Nelson adds vinegar, which she says keeps the interior of the meringue “marshmallow-like.”

While Pavlova in the U.S. often includes cream and berries, Nelson prefers the toppings she grew up with in Indonesia. “Mango and kiwi were definitely key to a more traditional Pavlova, and passion fruit,” says Nelson. “I mean, listen, it’s all delicious. It doesn’t really matter how you slice it.”

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