Articles in Desserts
Holiday baking is a great way to get kids into the kitchen. If they don’t have a natural interest in cooking, they might have an unnatural interest in sprinkles, icing and silver dragées.
However, if you blithely attempt to make sugar cookies with a 3-year-old, thinking it will be a living tableau of family harmony, you may end up with something much less pleasing. The holidays are so loaded that it is really, really easy to NOT get those cozy memories you want to create.
Here are a few tips on making a baking session that might just fit the picture books.
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1. Lower your expectations.
Whatever they are, dial them down. If you think matching aprons and carols on the stereo, and a batch of gingerbread men rolled to perfect thickness, think again. Visualize molasses-coated jeans and wildly rippled dough. Picture worst-case scenarios — broken mixing bowls and 2 cups of salt instead of sugar — and be happy when the disasters are minor.
This is crucial. If you want everything to be just-so, you are going to interfere with the experience the child will have. And you want that experience to be pleasant, not scripted to fit an ideal.
Being tender with the impulse to explore tools and materials you are introducing is more important than working toward the most tender sugar cookies. You can make those at nap time, if you must.
2. Suit your crew.
Bear in mind abilities and ages.
Before you start to bake, observe the child — yours or a favorite nephew or pseudo-niece — at a meal. How do they handle forks and spoons? Could they manage pouring the vanilla? Maybe they would do best just opening the sticks of butter and turning on the mixer. Because many cookies require refrigeration, making the dough ahead of time can skirt a lot of trouble.
Don’t set the bar too high, but don’t set it too low, either. That 10-year-old could be incredibly well skilled and training for junior chef Olympics. If that is the kind of kid you will have in the kitchen, do a lot of talking before you get there.
3. Involve everyone as much as possible.
Inclusive planning can be scaled to fit. A 4-year-old should see you take the splattered index card from the inside flap of the “Betty Crocker Cookbook” and hear how you used to bake king-sized gingersnaps every single Christmas. The 5-year-old might want the story in more detail. A 6- or 7-year-old you’ve baked with before might want to plan which kind of cookie to bake at which session.
The fancy-pants chef-to-be is fully capable of planning everything with you, from recipes to shopping, and decorating storage containers. However, be aware that kitchen dreams can overshoot the limits of time and experience. Maybe don’t make sea foam candy together unless one of you is well versed in working with sugar.
Keep the afternoon manageable, especially if you are working with a group of kids. Leave room for tasting the products with a cup of cocoa. You don’t have to make fudge and gingerbread men the same day.
4. Invite another family.
The best way to conquer your own crazy expectations and/or buffer dynamics between you and your kids might be to make a crowd. This will call for you completely surrendering to the crowd, of course, and that is a good thing.
There is a lot of pressure to make holidays all about the nuclear family. Creating a nontraditional scenario might seem sacrosanct, but it could also be the trick you need to trick yourself out of wanting to stage a Tremendously Wonderful Time Baking, which is sure to end in tears.
5. Remember your own holiday times in the kitchen. (And maybe forget them.)
Each holiday recipe is probably linked to some moment in your life. I remember the year I discovered Edith’s Sugar Cookies in a cookbook I took from the library. The year, in my 20s, I learned how to make Viennese Crescents from my boyfriend’s mom.
Stepping into those memories is a beautiful trap. I think I can time travel, or that the cookies will carry me. Repetition seems to be the magic maker. However, if I really think about what I loved about those times, it was exploration, rather than repetition, that seared them into my brain and heart.
When I bake with my kids, I try to remember that exploration is a key wonder to cultivate. Good cookies are great, but curious cooks are in short order. Make me some more of those.
Top photo: Felix, 10, shows off his Christmas cookie. Credit: Amy Halloran
Even the most jaded of adults will stand outside the plate glass window of a chocolate shop and stare at the candies inside with the wide-eyed wonder of a child. On a recent trip researching a series of articles about Switzerland, I spent time with chocolatier Dan Durig who has two shops in Lausanne on Lake Geneva.
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To celebrate the holidays and the New Year, Durig generously shared an easy-to-make chocolate ganache. He also patiently allowed me to videotape him preparing his signature vanilla-scented ganache-filled chocolates.
Born into a family of Swiss chocolate makers, Durig learned the craft from his dad, Jean Durig. Growing up near Manchester, England, and vacationing with his father’s family in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, Durig lived comfortably in England and Switzerland. So when he was ready for a life change, relocating to Switzerland was easy to do.
Having always worked for his dad or other chocolatiers, he wanted to start his own business in Lausanne. In a quiet neighborhood within sight of Lake Geneva, Durig converted a branch office of BCV bank into Durig Chocolatier.
Locals told Durig the transformation of a bank into a chocolate shop changed the neighborhood for the better. The change was good for Durig as well. Within three years, his business was well established, he won several prestigious awards, he married and had a son. Putting together a team to work in the kitchen and in the front of the shop is, according to Durig, easier in Switzerland than other places because of the country’s well-established apprenticeship program. The clerks who work in the shop go through a retail management program. The chocolatiers learn their craft in a multiyear pastry apprenticeship based on the French model, combining four days of work with one day of school.
Made mostly by hand with the help of a few machines, Durig happily demonstrated how he crafts his chocolates. As he worked, two tempering machines that work 24 hours a day can be heard in the background, keeping separate batches of milk and dark chocolate at precisely the correct temperature. When melted without controlling the temperature, chocolate will cool and harden without its characteristic bright sheen and crispness.
Durig knows his chocolates are only as good as the ingredients he uses. To make his ganache, he sources high quality Swiss organic cream from local dairies and vanilla beans from Madagascar. He buys his cocoa and cocoa butter from quality, fair trade producers in Peru, Sierra Leone and Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic.
For best results at home, follow Durig’s lead and buy the highest quality chocolate and cream available. Chocolate should be made only with cocoa butter. Cream should not have any chemical additives.
To make the ganache-filled chocolates demonstrated by chef Durig in the video, purchase a candy-making mold in a restaurant or cooking supply store or online. Learning to temper chocolate is not for the faint of heart. Understanding that, Durig’s ganache recipe does not require tempering.
Durig Chocolatier’s Chocolate Holiday Ganache Squares
Using quality ingredients is essential in cooking, especially when making chocolates. After making the ganache, the chocolates should be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container.
If served cold, the chocolates have a pleasing crispness. Allowed to warm to room temperature, they will have a melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness. I put the chocolates in individual paper cups for easy serving.
As a matter of taste, I added caramelized nuts to the ganache. A half cup of almond slivers tossed with 1 tablespoon of white sugar and toasted over a low flame added a pleasing crunch to the citrus and herbal notes.
Serves 24 to 36 (about 130 pieces, depending on the size of the squares)
For the mixed spice:
Durig buys his mixed spice ready made. Making your own is easy enough. Once prepared, keep in an airtight container. If ground clove and fennel are not available, grind your own.
1¼ teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground fennel
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground clove
For the chocolates:
500 grams (1 pint) cream
800 grams (28 ounces) organic dark chocolate (68% cocoa content), chopped into small pieces
10 grams (2 flat teaspoons) ground cinnamon
10 grams (2 flat teaspoons) mixed spice (see directions below)
100 grams (3 ounces) chopped organic candied orange peel
Organic cocoa powder for dusting
For the mixed spice:
1. Place all the ingredients into a small, electric grinder and pulverize into a fine powder.
For the chocolates:
1. Bring the cream to boil and remove from the heat.
2. Add the other ingredients to the cream and stir with a wire whisk until the chocolate is melted.
3. Pour into a 10-inch dish lined with baking paper.
4. Cool in the fridge for 4 hours.
5. Cut into ½- to ¾-inch squares and roll each square in the cocoa powder.
6. Set aside on a wire rack or sheets of waxed paper.
7. Keep refrigerated in an airtight container until ready to serve.
Top photo: Ganache-filled chocolates at Durig Chocolatier in Lausanne, Switzerland. Credit: David Latt
Sitting in the kitchen next to a bowl of gorgeously orange Fuyu persimmons is an elephant. I’m ignoring this uninvited guest as I dream up ways to use this flavorful fruit at holiday dinner parties, from a composed salad to a delectable port-infused pie. But before I extol the virtues, it’s probably best to address that elephant in the room. In marketing terms, Fuyu persimmons have an image problem in the United States.
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It may be the national fruit of Japan, with a flavor that is a mélange of apples, apricots, pears and vanilla; terribly photogenic; and a perfect partner for all sorts of other seasonal ingredients, but the Fuyu persimmon is often viewed in the U.S. as an oddly exotic curiosity. I blame much of this misunderstanding on its gooey, cloyingly sweet cousin, the American persimmon. But there are big differences between them.
While there are hundreds of varieties of persimmons (botanical genus: diospyros, meaning fruit of the gods), the species can be broken down into two basic types: astringent and non-astringent. The astringent type, familiar as either the American or Hachiya persimmon, is only edible when fully ripe, soft and practically dripping with syrupy pulp. It has been cultivated in Midwestern and Southern parts of the U.S. for centuries, most popular when baked into cakes, quick breads and classic persimmon pudding.
Distinguishing Fuyu persimmons
The non-astringent Fuyu persimmons have a glossy, smooth skin and a fine-grained flesh. They’re as crisp as the best fall apples — and with no hard core and often no seeds, they’re excellent for eating out of hand. Also unlike apples, they won’t turn brown and oxidize when cut, so they are perfect for infusing color into salads. While they are not always widely available across the country and are a bit pricey compared with a typical Granny Smith or Pink Lady, it’s still a wonder to me that they have never caught on during their height of ripeness — late November and the peak of the Thanksgiving season. After all, Fuyus adapt well to a vast range of holiday dishes and seasonal ingredients.
I started tracking fruits, vegetables, cheeses, nuts, spices, wines and spirits that go well with Fuyu persimmons, but finally gave up when the list outgrew my cupboards. In alphabetical order I’d recommend: apricots, arugula, bacon, balsamic vinegar, basil, blood oranges, brown sugar, cherries, cinnamon, citrus, cream, dates, fennel, feta cheese, figs, ginger, gorgonzola cheese, hazelnuts, honey, maple syrup, mascarpone cheese, mint, mozzarella, nut oils, nutmeg, olive oil, pecans, pistachios, pomegranates, prosciutto, red onion, vanilla, watercress.
So far, I’d put pomegranates and tart cherries at the top of the list because their pucker brings out the persimmon’s rich blend of sweetness; chile powders and peppers provide a fun, spicy contrast; and bacon proves that opposites attract with edgy saltiness. In short, you won’t need a recipe for a composed salad. Just open your pantry and refrigerator for inspiration and finish with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, date molasses and extra virgin olive oil.
But my hands-down favorite? The rich complexity of a well-aged port truly does magical justice to a baked persimmon tart.
Rustic Persimmon Port Tart
I tapped some extraordinary tawny portos to create this pie. Affordably, a Fonseca 10-year old aged tawny porto was used as the primary flavor infusion for the cherries, the persimmons and the sauce. But I went out on a really decadent limb and uncorked a 30-year old tawny porto from Taylor Fladgate for the table presentation. If you serve this porto with a Fuyu-infused dessert like the featured rustic tart, you will never outlive its reputation.
1 cup dried tart cherries
½ cup aged tawny port, plus 1 ounce
1½ pounds Fuyu persimmons
¼ cup sugar
⅛ teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of salt
1 sheet ready pie dough
All-purpose flour for dusting
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup chopped pecans, mixed with 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 egg yolk, beaten with 1 tablespoon water
2 tablespoons apricot jam
Whipped cream, unsweetened
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Place dried cherries and ½ cup of the tawny port in a glass dish and microwave for 1½ minutes on high. While prepping the persimmons, let the cherries rest, allowing them to plump and absorb some of the liquid.
3. Peel the persimmons and and roughly cut into ½-inch pieces.
4. In medium mixing bowl, toss the persimmons with sugar, cinnamon, salt. Add the cherries and any remaining liquid. Macerate for 30 minutes.
5. Drain the persimmon mixture and reserve liquid.
6. On a lightly floured surface, roll out pie dough. Transfer to a pie pan, leaving a 2-inch overhanging edge.
7. Mound the persimmons and cherries into a pie pan and gently fold edges back over pie, leaving an open area in the center. Dot with butter and sprinkle with the pecan/sugar mixture.
8. Brush edge of the crust with egg wash.
9. Place in the oven and bake for 45 minutes.
10. While pie is baking, place reserved liquid from macerated fruit with apricot jam and 2 tablespoons of water over medium heat and reduce until thick and syrupy. Stir in 1 ounce of port and set aside.
11. Serve pie with dollop of whipped cream and drizzle with port sauce.
Top photo: Fuyu persimmon. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
I have never been a “decorate for the holiday” kind of gal. As I was looking for a pan to bake this pie, I found my mom’s pumpkin pie pan, which I had not seen in years. I was reminded of what a fantastic hostess she was.
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Every holiday meant some kind of décor change signifying the importance of said holiday. Acorn door hangings for Thanksgiving, Easter baskets with colorful eggs and Christmas joy everywhere! Christmas hand towels for the guests, Christmas wreaths, Christmas candies placed into crystal candy dishes. Crystal candy dishes shaped like Christmas trees, naturally.
If there is such a thing as an anti-hostess, that would be me. As a chef I can fill a table with amazing foods, but that’s as far as it goes. I put out plates, napkins and cutlery. Then I turn to my guests and say, “Bon Appetit and help yourself!” And I am often barefoot, because I like to be.
In my mother’s day, if someone stopped by, they were immediately asked whether they were hungry. Then she went in the kitchen and emerged a few moments later in a frilly apron with a fully loaded hors d’oeuvre tray and cocktails. How did she do that?
Being an anti-hostess, if you are a good friend, I will generally wave dismissively toward the kitchen and say, “You know where everything is.” My attire tends to run toward yoga pants and a T-shirt. And no shoes.
Finding the pumpkin pie pan, I knew it was time to turn over a new leaf, or new squash, if you must. I knew that this pan was the one to make my pumpkin pie in this year. It’s a baby step toward embracing the holidays and learning to be a good hostess, but it is still a step. I may even find that acorn door hanger and proudly display it on my front door. Maybe.
Spiced Pumpkin Pie With Coconut Milk
1¼ cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon cold butter
2 tablespoons cold shortening
4 to 5 tablespoons ice water
½ cup turbinado or raw sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
1 can (15 ounce) pumpkin
1 cup light coconut milk
1. Heat oven to 375 F.
2. Mix the flour and salt in medium bowl.
3. Using a pastry cutter or fork, cut butter and shortening into flour mixture, until mixture forms small crumbs.
4. Slowly add water 1 tablespoon at a time until dough forms.
5. Wrap dough in plastic wrap; refrigerate for 1 hour.
6. Roll chilled dough out large enough to fit a 9-inch pie pan. Line pan with dough, fold excess under and crimp edges.
7. Line crust with foil, then add enough dried beans or rice to act as a weight.
8. Bake for 10 minutes, remove from the oven and remove pie weights. Let the crust cool.
9. Turn oven temperature down to 350 F.
10. In a large bowl, combine the sugar, eggs, pumpkin pie spice, vanilla, ginger and allspice. Whisk together the mixture, until well incorporated.
11. Add the pumpkin, whisk until incorporated then stir in the coconut milk.
12. Pour the pumpkin mixture into the cooled pie shell, then bake for 40 to 45 minutes until the filling is set and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
13. Cool the pie on a rack.
Top photo: Pumpkin pie in a family heirloom holiday dish. Credit: Cheryl Lee
Hazelnut farmer Barb Foulke watched in disbelief as the relentless storm lashed Oregon’s Willamette Valley in late September. Two weeks of rain punctuated by a 5-inch deluge over four days.
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A warm May meant the valley’s hazelnuts had matured early and were already lying on the ground when the rains started. Instead of “vacuuming” up the nuts in the typical whirl of dust, Foulke’s crop was sitting in the mud. “It’s painful,” she said.
Hazelnuts (filberts in England) have become a hot commodity in Oregon with acreage dedicated to the scrubby trees increasing 10% a year during the last decade. Three thousand more acres were planted this year with the region’s 2013 crop predicted to be close to 40,000 tons.
That’s slim pickings when compared to the flow of hazelnuts from Turkey, which produces 75% of the world’s crop by weight. Still, it’s enough to give the state runner-up status along with the countries of Italy, Georgia, Greece and Spain.
Foulke and other growers are working to distinguish Oregon hazelnuts in terms of quality by focusing on sustainable farming and modern harvesting technology. As the Portland culinary scene has exploded, the locally grown nuts have become a signature ingredient.
Discovering great hazelnut recipes
Visiting the Willamette Valley for the annual International Pinot Noir Celebration in August, I fell in love with the nut’s rich, creamy texture and sweet flavor. In the shell, they look like acorns. Lightly roasted, they lose their paper-thin skin and have a bite that is firmer than a cashew, softer than an almond.
A dinner in the sleek, new Sokol Blosser Winery tasting room, created by Jenn Louis, chef/owner of Lincoln in Portland, featured crushed, toasted nuts in a honey spread spiked with toasted rosemary, chili oil and sea salt. Louis’ slab of roasted porchetta was made from pigs fed on the meaty nuts.
The same holy trinity of toasted hazelnuts, honey and rosemary was the heart of a tapas prepared by Colin Stafford and Alex Yoder of Portland’s Olympic Provisions with paper-thin lardo enveloping whole hazelnuts.
When I returned home, I dog-eared half a dozen yummy hazelnut recipes in my cookbook collection. All called for toasting the nuts — 10 to 20 minutes at 350 F, single layer on a baking sheet, removing the skins by rubbing the toasted nuts between tea towels.
Beloved L.A. food guru Joseph Shuldiner features chopped hazelnuts in his dukkah and halvah. He grinds them into fig paste, folds them into his mushroom risotto and tosses them atop his wild mushroom polenta in “Pure Vegan” (Chronicle).
Taking my shopping list to the grocery store, I began looking for hazelnuts.
Getting nuts on the grocery shelves
“You don’t see hazelnuts that much in stores,” said Mike Klein, a spokesman for the Willamette Hazelnut Growers. While the exploding sales of Nutella — a sweetened hazelnut spread — are testament to the popularity of hazelnut’s flavor, the naked nuts are rarely on the shelf. Grocery chains don’t think cooks want to mess with toasting them, he said.
You rarely find them in cans of roasted mixed nuts because they are relatively rare. Only 40 million pounds of shelled hazelnuts are produced each year compared to 1.8 billion pounds of almonds, he said.
I found hazelnuts at Surfas in Culver City and there were a few containers of them at my neighborhood Whole Foods. But the local Ralphs grocery store doesn’t carry them.
The easiest way to buy hazelnuts, said Klein, is to go to the website of an Oregon grower and buy direct. Unfortunately, Oregon growers sold out months ago, and you’ll have to wait for the new harvest.
The line is forming at Barbara Foulke’s Freddy Guys Hazelnuts, the nuts many Portland foodies consider the gold standard. Her small-batch processing using a tricked-out little roaster she traveled to Italy to buy directly from the manufacturer provides the obsessive attention to detail that appeals to the local DIY ethos.
And Foulke will have plenty of nuts. The rains stopped the second week of October. The sun came out and ushered in an Indian summer as odd as the earlier deluge. The warm days dried the ground, allowing the crew to “vacuum” up the nuts with Foulke’s harvesters before mold or mildew could gain a foothold.
The 2013 harvest is expected to set records.
Top photo: Cracker thin toast with fresh ricotta, stewed kumquats and other fall citrus, shaved fennel and toasted hazelnuts from Sycamore Kitchen in Los Angeles. Credit: Corie Brown
This past summer, I was overcome by the latest trend to turn just about anything into a frozen edible. From Bloody Mary popsicles at brunch to Saffron Courvoisier granita for a dinner finale, sassy sorbets were all intriguingly laced with herbs, spices or hip new libations. But when the bloom falls off the rose-flavored sherbet, I am left with a classic flavor that almost never disappoints: chocolate.
I’ll admit that a plain cone of old-fashioned chocolate ice cream somehow doesn’t measure up anymore. In order to make me swoon, it has to be ridiculously rich and creamy. It has to be dark and intensely flavored. And it has to scream chocolate. In short, it has to be that Italian-style frozen dessert called gelato.
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What makes gelato better than ice cream
There are three big differences between ice cream and gelato. First, commercial ice cream frequently uses whole eggs and additives to stabilize the mixture. Gelato just employs yolks. Second, ice cream requires a greater percentage of cream than milk — this is partly because milk produced in the U.S. is not nearly as rich as that from Italy. Third, the amount of air that is whipped into ice cream while turning it into a frozen state is almost four times that of gelato. The industry calls it “overrun.” I call it buying a box of air. Ever wonder why a carton of ice cream feels like it doesn’t weigh much? Typical off-the-shelf cartons in the U.S. hold up to 80% overrun. A true gelato won’t exceed 20%.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that this particular recipe rests on the shoulders of many chefs and cookbook authors whose exhaustive work with frozen desserts guided my explorations. But during the course of 17 tests with varying degrees of success, I discovered there is nothing exceptionally difficult about making great gelato. Luckily, I also discovered three ingredients that help this recipe deliver on the silky-smooth and deep dark promise: extra virgin olive oil, double-dutch dark chocolate powder and 72% chocolate pieces.
Every recipe’s success is based on using quality ingredients. So I rounded up the best mild-flavored Arbequina extra virgin olive oil I could find, some double-dutch dark chocolate powder (I’m partial to King Arthur Flour’s blend of dutch and extra-dark black cocoa) and lots of Valrhona Araguani 72% chocolate fèves, or small bean-shaped disks. You can use any high-quality bittersweet chocolate bar, but the higher the percentage of cocoa butter, the better.
With these ingredients in hand, I knew my own version of chocolate heaven was within reach. Once again, I broke out my ice cream partner-in-crime, my Vitamix. The blender makes almost instant work of preparing the custard that any tabletop ice cream maker can turn into gelato in less than 30 minutes. And when it comes to chocolate gelato, I am all about instant gratification.
Intensely Rich Dark Chocolate Olive Oil Gelato
Makes 6 servings
2½ cups whole milk
1½ cups heavy cream
5 egg yolks
¾ cup sugar
½ cup double-dutch dark cocoa powder
4 ounces 72% chocolate bits or broken bars
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon instant espresso powder
Pinch kosher salt
3 ounces mild-flavored extra virgin olive oil, preferably Arbequina
1. Place all ingredients but the olive oil in a high-speed blender (must be capable of generating frictional heat of about 160 F
2. Turn blender on to its highest setting and process for 6 minutes.
3. While continuing to run on high speed, pour in the olive oil and process for 2 minutes. The mixture should reach a temperature of 185-195 F.
4. Pour mixture into bowl and refrigerate for at least 4 hours until well chilled. At this point, the custard can rest as long as overnight before processing.
5. Turn mixture into an ice cream or gelato maker and process according to manufacturer’s directions.
For more flavor, many additives like chopped nuts can be incorporated during the ice cream making process. I included chopped hazelnut chocolate bars added in the last 10 minutes of processing and sprinkled more of the same on top for a garnish.
Preparation alternative: You can make the custard using traditional methods with a double boiler set over medium heat to melt the chocolate, cream and milk. Separately, beat the eggs and sugar into a ribbony texture and slowly, laboriously, stir the mixture, along with the other ingredients, into a creamy consistency. But I vote for simplicity and speed and will use my Vitamix for a flawless finish every time.
Top photo: Chocolate olive oil gelato. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
For any number of reasons, you might find yourself without a dessert for your dinner party. Maybe you were too tired or maybe you thought no one would have a sweet tooth.
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I’ve found myself in this situation and that’s why I always keep some elemental building blocks of quick desserts in the refrigerator and pantry. This particular sweet can be assembled in about five minutes — two minutes if you don’t take pictures of it. And not only will it please guests it will impress them too. You can make as many as you wish depending on the number of guests or the amount of the ingredients you have.
It starts with ladyfingers, those finger-like cookies also called savoiardi. Ladyfingers are so-called because of their thin narrow shape like delicate lady’s fingers. I usually keep a package in my pantry just for this purpose. One great thing about this dessert is the cookies can be prepared ahead of time and kept in the refrigerator. I find it’s best to plan on two cookies per guest.
The other great thing about this dessert is that it is adaptable to many items you probably have in your pantry and refrigerator. If you don’t happen to have one of these ingredients then you will need to improvise, sticking with the basic concept of assembly.
The mascarpone cheese can be replaced with sour cream, thick yogurt or whipped cream. The strawberries can be replaced with raspberries, other berries, fresh figs, prune slices or raisins. The honey can be replaced with maple syrup, apricot preserves or raspberry preserves. The idea is that these should have three complementary tastes and should be eaten with one’s fingers.
This method can be repeated in any number of ways. You can slap together a wide variety of delicious little sweet bites in just minutes.
If you want a richer dessert (consider making just one per person with this recipe), try using pistachio preserves. These preserves last awhile in the refrigerator to become the building block of future quick sweets.
You can use all kinds of combinations, limited only by your imagination. Keep in mind the taste you’re seeking as well as color and final presentation: They should look irresistible.
Ladyfingers With Strawberries and Mascarpone Cheese
¼ cup mascarpone cheese
1 tablespoon sugar
4 strawberries, sliced
4 teaspoons orange-blossom honey
8 tiny bouquets of fresh mint
1. Spread the mascarpone cheese on each ladyfinger. Set the ladyfingers on individual plates or a platter.
2. Sprinkle the sugar over the cookies.
3. Lay the sliced strawberries, overlapping slightly, on each ladyfinger. On the side, drizzle the honey and then garnish with the tiny bouquets of mint. Refrigerate until served.
Ladyfingers With Pistachio Preserves and Nutella
For the pistachio preserves:
¼ pound shelled unsalted pistachios, with as much of the purple skin scraped off as possible
½ cup sugar
2 tablespoons water
For the ladyfingers and assembly:
¼ cup Nutella spread
3 tablespoons apricot preserves, chopped fine if needed
1. Prepare the pistachio preserves. Grind pistachios very finely in a food processor. Meanwhile, in a saucepan, melt the sugar and water together over low heat until the sugar dissolves. Stir in the ground pistachios and cook until thick, about 3 minutes. Let cool. Slice 8 thin slices of the set pistachio preserves for this preparation and store the remainder in the refrigerator.
2. Spread the Nutella on each ladyfinger. Set the ladyfingers on individual plates or a platter.
3. Lay the sliced pistachio preserves on top of each ladyfinger. Carefully spoon some apricot preserves on top of each section of pistachio preserves and then spoon drop some more attractively on the plate around the ladyfinger. They can get refrigerated until serving, but serve at room temperature.
Top photo: Ladyfingers with strawberries and mascarpone. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Back in the day, I remember attending dinner parties and finding the hostess exhausted from having pulled off one of the more complicated recipes from Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” I know a woman who worked so hard cooking all day for a party that by the time her guests arrived, she had to suppress the impulse to seat them all at the table, bring out the food, and then promptly excuse herself and flee upstairs to bed.
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By the 1980s, meals that were less of a production were often prepared from “The Silver Palate Cookbook.” One could almost predict that chicken mirabella would be making an appearance when you were invited out to dinner. But today, there is no need to wear out one’s self or serve up something boringly fashionable.
To be sure, meeting friends in restaurants avoids the effort of cooking altogether and can be fun, but to me, nothing beats entertaining at home. For one thing, the chairs are usually more comfortable. But, more to the point, we can nowadays find so many ways to cut corners on effort without reducing the quality of what we serve, and in so doing greet our guests with energy and sincere good cheer.
A go-to repertoire of recipes
Dinner party meals that are delicious and not time-consuming are possible to turn out, what with the availability of high quality prepared foods that can be adapted to recipes of your choice, or maybe even to something you’ve invented. For instance, in the warmer months I put together a chicken salad that guests seem to love. The original recipe calls for cooking whole chickens, which I seldom do.
Instead I go to a local place that makes wonderfully juicy rotisserie chickens and cut them up when I get home into good-sized chunks instead of the tiny pieces or shreds one comes across in typical chicken salads. Mixed with grapes, mandarin orange segments and sliced water chestnuts, the salad has a toothsome texture that comes through boldly because I don’t smother the ingredients with too much mayonnaise. Another trick is to keep everything separate until just before serving so that the dish doesn’t get soggy.
I have also learned to serve the same dishes more than once to friends who have enjoyed them, convincing myself that I don’t have to be novel every time I give a party. “Come on over,” I say. “I’m making that chicken salad you like.” And so a noble dining tradition is born.
Don’t sweat dessert
It is also possible to serve a store-bought dessert and still hold your head up high. (The French do this all the time.) I have something planned for this weekend that is bound to be successful, maybe even exciting, to my guests, friends who all remember an extinct Brooklyn bakery that used to make a Blackout cake.
It is a treat from the past that people still rhapsodize about. As it happens, a newly arrived bakery not far from me sells a wonderful cupcake version of this cake that I will serve with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.
For this same gathering, I plan to accompany pre-dinner drinks with an old standby, cheese cookies, made with just three ingredients — a stick of butter, 8 ounces of soft cheddar and a cup of flour. I whip up the butter and cheese in a stand mixer, add the flour, roll the mixture into 1-inch balls and bake at 350 F until the edges are brown. They are best served warm, and the great thing about them is that they can be made ahead and refrigerated unbaked, or made way, way ahead and frozen.
Keep it simple
Anyone who has been cooking for a while has a good sense of what people really enjoy, and can pull off a simple but great meal as long as the ingredients are fresh and of good quality. When I am invited by friends who are less experienced cooks, I sometimes find that they go all out to prepare a meal with trendy dishes usually found in upscale restaurants. They think that just because I am perceived as a foodie I will expect complicated dishes with loads of ingredients and flavors when in fact I would be happier with something like a rich and tasty soup, a great salad and bread from a first-rate bakery. This is good, honest fare. It makes me sad to picture my friend working hard all day on some celebrity chef’s recipe without the help of kitchen crews found in restaurants.
What sometimes gets lost in the act of home entertaining is that the point of the gathering is to bring people together to enjoy one another’s company and to have fun. Good food and drink matter, of course, but dishes needn’t be complicated or pretentious, just good. And if you stick with home cooking and offer tried-and-true recipes, you are more likely to enjoy your own parties, instead of wishing everyone would just go home so that you can go to bed.
Top photo: Dinner party chicken salad with grapes, mandarin orange segments and sliced water chestnuts. Credit: Barbara Haber