At our house, we always have dessert. Dinner wouldn’t be dinner without it. Dearly beloved, who grew up in the pudding-deprived Britain of World War II and endured years of austerity afterwards, would be most put out if we didn’t have a sweet every night.
Fair enough, but at our house dessert is usually fruit in some form. I’m currently on one of my reducing diets, trying to lose five pounds by September first, so no rich puddings for me. That’s why, evening after evening, I rely on a fast, easy fruit dessert. After half a century in the kitchen, I’m not interested in spending a great deal of time and thought on elaborate dishes.
Those of you in the same situation—needing to shed a few pounds but lacking the energy or will to cook—may be interested in some of my solutions. Caveat: some of these ideas are not my own but have been culled from various cookbooks. Others are ideas of mine that have evolved over the years.
First of all, why do we have to do anything to fruit? Why not just do what my sister did when it was her turn to cook dinner when we were growing up? She put a bowl of apples and oranges on the table and that was that. And as a rule--the bowl just sat there untouched.
Here’s what’s wrong with that idea for most people: although people who know fruit is good for them will go out of their way to eat it, a great many people won’t. It’s too much work to peel an orange or sink one’s long, yellow teeth into a whole apple. That’s why you must consider three factors: (1) availability of fruit (with regard to cost and season), (2) presentation, and (3) type of entrée. If you’re serving a heavy dinner of rhinoceros stew with dumplings, for example, you don’t want to follow it with an equally heavy apple cobbler à la mode. You’ll want something light. And if you’re serving an Asian-type meal involving rice or noodles, you’ll want to serve a dessert that goes with Asian food. Strawberry shortcake would not be the best choice in that situation.
Fresh fruit, of course, is always the best if it’s available. One autumn my apple and pear trees bore so profusely that I vowed to buy no fruit until my home-grown produce was all used up. Believe me, I searched my store of apple and pear recipes every day and even called on Miss Google to help me.
However, there’s a place for canned fruit or fruit in jars (preferably the kind canned in juice rather than heavy sugar syrup). If you haven’t had time to get to the market and the freezer is bare, there may be help in the pantry cupboard.
Presentation is a factor I cannot emphasize too strongly. When you go to even the most minimal trouble to make a dessert attractive, it makes your family feel special. They begin to think they must be rather special themselves for you to go to so much trouble--a state of affairs greatly to be desired. I put it to you that if you arrange three watermelon balls in a saucer-shaped champagne glass (not a flute), pour pink champagne into it, place the glass on a small paper doily sitting on top of a small plate, and put a Pepperidge Farm Bordeaux biscuit at one side of the plate and a sprig of mint on the other, people will accept this as dessert. They will be impressed. They will feel special.
That’s exactly why I shop so hard to keep factories in the United States and Canada turning out doilies day and night. I buy them in several different sizes—three-inch, five-inch, six-inch, eight-inch, and 10-inch. I’ve bought them in dollar stores, grocery stores, and Michael’s. I also acquire interesting-looking dessert dishes at yard sales, thrift shops, and from Freecycle. A perfectly matched set of sherbet dishes may look very nice, but darlings--mismatched parfait and sherbet glasses look interesting, like a full-color display of desserts in one of those glamorous food magazines.
In my backyard I have lemon balm and mint growing profusely. Sprigs of these, picked just before dinner and kept fresh in a little jar of water, may be used to garnish the fruit desserts. The fridge contains aerosol whipped cream (yes, yes, I know, but do you really think I’m going to whip the cream myself on any but the most special occasions?), grated chocolate, sliced almonds, and shredded coconut. The pantry contains crystallized ginger and fudge sauce.
Now, type of entrée, which is something we’ve touched on before. The general rule is: heavy main meal, light dessert. Skimpy main meal, substantial dessert. That’s where your cobblers, crisps, and crumbles come in.
As it’s now summer, let’s talk about summer desserts. Blackberries from foreign countries are plentiful right now and such is my love for this fruit, I’ll buy lots of them when they’re on sale. Okay, what does one do with blackberries?
One layers them in a parfait glass with vanilla yogurt, finishing with a blackberry perched on top of the last layer of vanilla yogurt. Put a sprig of mint or lemon balm at one side of the top layer. Put the parfait glass on a three-inch white doily on a small plate, if you like, and bring it into the dining room with a flourish.
Another way is to put some blackberries in that saucer-shaped champagne glass, scoop ¼ cup of chocolate ice cream (or two tablespoons if you’re dieting), and pour a teaspoon of Kahlua over it. Don’t forget the little doily under the glass and the small plate under that.
What if it’s a hot summer evening and the entrée is pasta? Let’s say you’re serving lemon pasta with asparagus, toasted pine nuts, and parmesan cheese. To balance the red of the roasted pepper and the green of the asparagus, you’d want to serve Canta-Berry for dessert. Slice a cantaloupe into rings about ½ or ¾ of an inch thick, trim the rind off the edge so the person can easily eat the slice with a fork or spoon, and fill the middle with blueberries or blackberries. It’s always a good idea to check as to how many different colors there are in the meals you serve: the more, the better.
Let’s suppose it’s an absolute scorcher of a summer evening. Okay, after the corn and the meat patties grilled outside by Dearly Beloved, and the fresh tomatoes garnished with basil that accompany them, what about Plums and Mums?
So easy: get a really pretty cut-glass bowl—or even a regular glass bowl. At the last minute before serving, fill the bowl with lots of ice cubes and pour ice water into it. Into this toss the heads of pretty, fresh chrysanthemums and fat, washed ripe plums. Put the bowl on the table, provide small plates and napkins, and let the guests twirl the mums and plums around, finally seizing one ice-cold sweet plum to bite into with gusto. You can choose the color of the chrysanthemums to match the color of the plums.
Or suppose that on Thursday evening, seized with a dieting fit, you decide to serve a colorful fruit salad following the meal of grilled rainbow trout, baked sweet potato, and green salad. You can use chunks or balls of cantaloupe, honeydew, and watermelon, as well as blackberries, dark or green grapes, blueberries, and pineapple. (Hint: it’s a good idea to keep the dark fruit separate from the light-colored fruit until the last minute.) What happens if you have half a bowl of fruit salad left over? Easy--the next night you make Granola Sundaes! Drag those parfait glasses out, fill them with the leftover fruit salad, put a dollop of plain yogurt mixed with honey on them, and sprinkle a tablespoon of granola on top. Again, if you want to put the parfait glasses on small doilies on small plates, that adds greatly to the effect.
Oranges make a delightful dessert after an Asian meal. For Chinese carry-out, I do nothing but quarter the oranges and serve them on individual plates. On other occasions, I’ve peeled and sliced the oranges, sprinkled them with half a teaspoon of fine sugar if they need it (usually they don’t), put them in champagne glasses, and topped the fruit with shredded coconut. For the finish to an Asian meal, you could top the oranges with a tablespoon of chopped crystallized ginger.
A meal featuring a lot of red or brown food can be complemented by green grapes. After you wash and dry the grapes, you can layer them in a parfait glass with sour cream, sprinkling half a teaspoon of brown sugar on each sour cream layer. To save calories, though, you could use plain yogurt for the layers and sprinkle it with maple sugar. It’s just as pretty and just as good.
Fresh pineapple, peeled, sliced, and served in chunks piled into a champagne glass and topped with a sprig of mint or a sprinkling of chopped, crystallized ginger, makes a perfect ending for heavy Italian or Asian meals. The more ambitious can paint fresh pineapple slices with a little melted butter, sprinkle them with brown sugar (not more than half a teaspoon because ripe pineapple is already sweet), and grill them carefully on the barbecue grill, along with the vegetable shishkebabs.
What about strawberry season, which is coming right up? Some people, too tired and overworked to think of anything fancy, will simply rinse and dry the berries and top them with vanilla ice cream or frozen yogurt. Here’s an idea my boys loved when they were growing up. Use one small plate (like a bread plate) for each person. Put a five-inch doily on it, then sift a tablespoon of confectioner’s sugar onto the middle of the doily. Arrange three or four huge clean strawberries around one edge (leave the green cap on each berry), and serve with a flourish. My sons thought it was neat to dip the berry in sugar, bite it off, and keep going.
Another dessert the boys loved was sliced bananas and whipped cream. If your parfait glasses are still in the dishwasher, use the champagne glasses. Slice half a banana or more into the glass, squirt whipped cream on top, and dust lightly with cinnamon and grated chocolate.
What about peach season? Much as I’d like to share the peach-and-blackberry crisp recipe here, it’s not fast. Ripe peaches are so great you need do nothing but provide plates to catch the juice, if serving them with the skin on. If you want to peel them, do it at the last minute so they won’t darken. (I keep the diners waiting when I served peeled peaches.) You can top them with sour cream and grated chocolate if you like, or simply whizz some fresh or frozen raspberries in the blender, add sugar to taste, and serve them over the peaches in the trusty old parfait or champagne glasses.
Of course a Chilled Melon Ball Combo with cantaloupe, honeydew, and watermelon, piled into pretty parfait glasses and garnished with a sprig of lemon balm or mint, is always pretty and delicious.You could serve this after Summer Spaghetti, which has attractive flecks of red onion and green zucchini squash. This is a meal that would be a hit with vegetarians or vegans, as no meat or animal products of any kind are involved.
While we’re on the subject of summer pasta dishes, Cold Chinese Noodles (involving peanut butter and chopped green onions among other things) would be excellent with this bone-simple fruit dessert: wedges of honeydew melon, accompanied by a tiny dish of ground ginger mixed with sugar to sprinkle on top, if the diner so desires.
What about winter? You may groan at the thought, fretting about those cobblers, crisps, and crumbles—delicious, to be sure, but hardly conducive to losing weight if that’s your aim. Nor are they quick to produce.
It’s easy! Think about Pears, Port, and Walnuts. Wash ripe pears and pat them dry. Put them on small plates and pass them around the table. Serve the port (I use nonalcoholic apple or pear cider instead of port), in small glasses, and make sure everyone has a nutcracker and pick for the dish of walnuts you’ve placed on the table. The contrast between the juicy ripe pear and the rich walnuts is most enjoyable.
When I have the time, I peel the pears, halve and core them, put a dab of blue cheese in each hollow, pour a tablespoon of dry sherry over them, and bake them in the oven at 350 F. for half an hour.You could use pear halves canned in their own juice, too, but cook them for less time, just until the cheese starts to melt.
If you like Stilton or Roquefort, apples are the ticket! Slice them and arrange half an apple on each plate, with thin slices of the blue cheese in the middle. People can spread the cheese on the apples before eating, or eat the apples and cheese separately.
Of course Cheese Board is always popular as a winter dessert when visitors are present. Simply arrange a selection of cheeses on a wooden board along with a small basket of various crackers, a small dish of soft butter, and apples, pears, and red or black grapes in a dish. This is one time when people don’t mind doing the work of slicing the fruit themselves—if everyone else is doing it too, everyone’s going to finish eating at the same time.
But on family nights, sliced fresh red or green apples arranged on pretty glass plates, with small individual ramekins of Nutella or vanilla yogurt placed in the middle of the plates, would also be an option.
In the winter I make an individual apple crumble or apple pie for my husband, whose only problem is gaining weight, but for myself I either eat a fresh apple or a baked apple. I admit that a baked apple is not fast, but it is easy.
A homely dessert—not the kind you’d want to show off with—involves chopped apple with the skin still on, plain nonfat yogurt, and a liberal sprinkling of cinnamon. This is extremely tasty, just not pretty. You could eat it for breakfast, too.
Finally—for those nights when you have no fresh fruit and no time to run to the store, there’s always the pantry. Of course, canned or jarred fruit is not going to be as nutritious, but a Finish is a Finish, right? Take a fork and fish two or three of those figs out of the jar of syrup and put them in a champagne glass. Top with a little sour cream. Put the glass on a doily and plate, then stick a couple of amaretti or biscotti on one side. This would go well with an Italian dinner of spaghetti and green salad.
Or take the pears canned in their own juice, drain most of the juice away, and put them in a dish in the oven to heat. When they’re hot (this won’t take long because they’re already cooked), take them out, put them in small, pretty glass bowls, and drizzle hot chocolate sauce over them. You could add a tiny rosette of whipped cream if you like.
Finally, let’s talk about that old standby, Hot Peaches with Toppings. Take peach halves canned in juice, drain most of the juice, and put peaches and remaining juice in an ovenproof dish. People have been known to mix a tablespoon of brandy with the juice, but I’m usually in too much of a hurry to do that. Heat the peaches until hot—again, this won’t take long as they’re already cooked—in a 350 F. oven. When the fruit is hot, divide the peaches into individual serving dishes and accompany by a big plate filled with small dishes of whipped cream, grated chocolate, shredded coconut, and sliced almonds, all resting on a 10-inch white paper doily. You can use anything, really, even crystallized ginger or biscotti or amaretti crumbs—whatever you have around the kitchen. People enjoy using the small spoons to help themselves to different toppings.
And that concludes this very long diary. Bon appétit, mes amis!