Pavlova was a leaf, a rainbow, a flake, an iridescent foam, her bones of music made.

-- "Diana Cooper, Autobiography," Michael Russell Publications Ltd., Salisbury, England

As a bravura finale to a summer dinner, the Pavlova is a classic. It was created when ballerina Anna Pavlova danced in New Zealand during the early '20s and inspired a local baker to create a dessert that would be as light and airy as the dancer herself.

This puff of creamy egg white and sugar rises like a snowdrift in a very slow oven. When removed, it slowly and gracefully sinks in the center, creating a stage to be filled with whipped cream and fresh fruit.

Pavlova, the dessert, sinks almost as gracefully as Pavlova, the dancer. Her "Dying Swan" solo in Chopin's "Les Sylphides" was a creative breakthrough for choreographer Michel Fokine of the Ballet Russes. He created the solo expressly for Pavlova in a matter of minutes. Her arms and hands fluttering like fragile wings and the swanlike movement of her neck became her trademark and a symbol of ballet beauty.

Washingtonians have enjoyed a feast of ballet beauty this year. Performances of their own Washington Ballet have been followed by companies from China, Houston, Texas, Russia and Germany, and this week (Tuesday through Sunday at the Kennedy Center), Rudolf Nureyev and the Paris Opera Ballet bring to town his interpretation of "Swan Lake."

With all this going on, it's time to put on the Tchaikovsky tapes, get out the egg beater and whip up a Pavlova in honor of the "white ballets" -- the classic "tutu" ballets.

The Pavlova begins with a meringue, but it is not the usual meringue, which is dry and crisp. The center of the Pavlova remains soft and creamy, a gossamer whisper of sweetness.

There is a secret to the success of a Pavlova. Maggie Stephenson of Falls Church had tried everything she knew to make a perfect Pavlova, but knew something was missing. Finally, when she was living in Turkey, she was served a Pavlova made by an Australian. It was perfect. The secret, she discovered, is malt vinegar, cornstarch, very slow addition of the sugar and no peeking while it's baking.

For others who have tried the Pavlova and been disappointed, the problem may have been the use of cream of tartar and the wrong vinegar.

"Both give a wrong flavor to a Pavlova. You must use malt vinegar," she said, waving a bottle of vinegar under a visitor's nose for a whiff. This vinegar with its 5 percent acidity, aged in wood, does not burn the nose; it has a cool refreshing aroma.

In the "down under" countries of Australia and New Zealand, where the Pavlova is still a favorite dessert, the traditional fruits used are passion fruit, kiwis and strawberries. But Washingtonians may want to try peaches after the strawberry season. Some cooks like to mix strawberries and kiwis, the pale green of the kiwi providing a cooling contrast with the bright red strawberries.

Stephenson's recipe has several changes from the Pavlova recipes usually encountered. Most recipes suggest springform pans or cake pans. "Ridiculous. Either one, you have to tear up the darn thing to get it out of the pan." Instead, Stephenson recommends a glass pie plate that can be taken to the table for serving.

This is a dessert that does not keep. The merinque will toughen and get gummy if refrigerated. But not to worry. There will be no leftovers. This dessert looks as if it would serve eight, but four have been known to beg for the final slice.

MAGGIE STEPHENSON'S PAVLOVA (6 servings)

There can be absolutely no peeking into the oven on this one. The door must remain closed until the meringue has baked. Another must is the slow addition of the sugar. It must be thoroughly dissolved.

Dieters could cut calories by just adding the fruit without the whipped cream. "But you would be out of your mind," says Stephenson.

Butter for pie plate

Whites of 6 very large eggs, room temperature

1 cup plus 1 teaspoon sugar, sifted to remove lumps

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

1 teaspoon malt vinegar*

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 cup whipping cream

1 pint strawberries, washed, halved and thoroughly drained or fresh peaches, peeled, sliced, and drained

Butter the bottom and sides of a 10-inch glass pie plate. Dust lightly with sugar.

In a large mixing bowl, beat egg whites with an electric mixer to soft peaks, about 1 minute. Gradually beat in sugar. Sprinkle sugar in a 1/2 teaspoon or less at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition, particularly during the addition of the first 1/2 cup of sugar. The sugar will be "cooking" the egg whites. The second 1/2 cup sugar can be added slighly faster, a teaspoon at a time. The batter will get thick and heavy. When ready, it will be almost like a cake batter. Addition of the sugar will take a full 10 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon vanilla and vinegar. Mix. Then sprinkle cornstarch over all and beat until thoroughly mixed. With a spatula, scoop the egg white mixture into the pie plate, heaping it high in the center. Spread to the edge of the pan. It will be rough and look almost like a bowl of feathers. Bake 1 1/2 hours at 250 degree. (Do not open door during baking.) It will puff slightly, but not a great deal. Remove to a rack and cool at room temperature. The meringue should be the pale beige color of old ivory but an iridescent white foam inside. It will take about 1 1/3 hours for it to fall to about 1 1/2 inches in depth in the center. Do not refrigerate.

Before dinner, whip cream with electric mixer until very stiff peaks form. Add 1 teaspoon sugar and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, whipping thoroughly to dissolve sugar. Cover and refrigerate.

When ready to serve, mix fruit with whipped cream, reserving a few berries for garnish. Spoon onto the meringue "stage." Present at the table and slice into wedges.

* Malt vinegar is not always available at area supermarkets. It was found recently at a Safeway, and Giant stocks it at most of its stores.