Clearly, eating a few bites of something sweet is the way to end a meal. It clears the head, aids digestion and leaves you in a good mood for whatever you do next. The trick is to keep it light on the tummy and made with real, unrefined ingredients.
When thinking about dessert I start with fruit. Keep a bowl of apples, oranges, grapes or other fruits on the table for people to reach for and there’s no need to cook anything, or even get out a clean plate.
Sometimes, though, a special dessert is in order. In fall and winter when the idea of heating up the kitchen is a pleasant one I might make a hearty fruit pie, tart, cobbler or crisp. Those make good use of stored fruit like apples, and berries that have been frozen or otherwise preserved.
But the summer-long parade of fresh fruit will soon begin. Strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries and grapes will all have their moment of glory. It’s hard to improve on a bowl of fresh-picked berries, a platter of sliced, aromatic melons or a perfect peach. Still, I’m always looking for new ways to enhance any fruit at its seasonal best.
Fruit ice cream is great. So is fruit on top of ice cream, either cut up or pureed. Every fall I make a syrup out of dark purple grapes. But I’m also drawn to various other small fruit desserts in which cream, egg or both are the foundation.
Does every country have a national custard? Spain has flan. France has crème caramel. England has trifle. Italy has its divine zabaglione, in which egg yolks are beaten over heat with sugar and Marsala wine. All can be topped with — or even cooked with — fresh fruit.
Basically, custard is milk or cream thickened with egg, or with agents such as cornstarch and rennet. Italian panna cotta is thickened with gelatin, and best made ahead so it will set. If it doesn’t set, call it a sauce, or an exquisite form of adult baby food.
My custard formula is the one Julia Child used for quiche: one egg to a half cup of cream. Sometimes I bake it in a Pyrex pie pan, with pears or plums. Other times I add a few tablespoons of flour to make a French clafoutis, just firm enough to be cut in wedges. The classic clafoutis is made with ripe cherries.
Custard is only a start. The planet is full of tasty little desserts. It would take a lifetime to try those made in India alone, with all its regions and cooking styles. Start with kheer, which is rice pudding cooked with milk, sugar and dried fruits such as mangoes or raisins.
Then try kulfi, an ice cream made with dried fruits, pistachio and spices such as nutmeg and saffron.
A fruit mousse, fluffed up with whipped cream, is not hard to make, but there’s an uncooked version I like even better. It’s a modern take on an English dessert called a fool, for which fruits (traditionally gooseberries) are pureed and folded into custard. Like many cooks I fold in whipped cream instead, topping the mixture with the fruit itself, and a little whipped cream on top of that.
My most recent dessert obsession is another English confection called a posset, originally a drink made by curdling milk with wine or beer. Far more appetizing is a lemon posset for which you reduce cream by half, thicken it with lemon juice and top it with seasonal berries.
Fruit brings a certain amount of sweetness to a dessert so that there’s less need to add sugar. White sugar is taboo in our house, so I make frequent use of honey, maple syrup and the least refined granulated sugars I can find.
One favorite dessert is simply fruit cut up and marinated in a sweet liqueur such as Cointreau or Kirsch, and fresh herbs such as lemon verbena and mint. How simple is that?
Another is bananas cut in half lengthwise and browned in butter over low heat, with a little honey stirred and a spot of rum.
Another is warm applesauce drizzled with maple syrup and a little swirl of heavy cream. Yes, heavy cream. Don’t gasp.
Recently my cousin Leo and I were reminiscing about a summer we spent 54 years ago with a family in Lima, Peru, and the wonderful meals we were served — four times a day. His first thought was a dish made with stewed Guinea pig. (Actually, he said “rodent.”) Mine was a dessert plate on which rested a single spoon holding a dollop of homemade tropical marmalade. It was all you needed.
With desserts, anything goes. Just keep it small.