When dessert rolls around, Americans want it all

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Americans may be eating low-fat yogurt instead of lunch and snacking on fat-free rice cakes, but when it comes to dessert, they want it all.

They want it sweet, indulgent and full of flavor -- especially when entertaining and dining out this summer.

Ninety-five percent of all restaurant diners order desserts. The top selections include ice cream, chocolate cake and cheesecake, according to a recent survey by the Alden Group in New York for Martini & Rossi, the maker of Asti Spumante sparkling wine.

Trendsetting restaurants across the country go one step further by putting all these options on one plate.

"The hottest thing is the composed dessert plate -- containing three or more elaborate miniature desserts," says Nancy Ross Ryan, food editor of Restaurants & Institutions magazine. "These compositions show off the skills of the pastry chef, and the restaurants, in turn, can charge more."

Also popular, says Ms. Ryan, are updated versions of home-style favorites. Shortcakes, cobblers, crumbles, crisps and brown bettys surface in restaurants with lighter touches, exotic fruits and flavor additions such as fresh ginger.

"Of course," adds Ms. Ryan, "chocolate is forever."

With a minimum of effort, restaurant and bakery dessert recipes can be translated for home entertaining.

The home cook can reap praise by employing a couple of simple pastry-chef presentation techniques, Ms. Ryan suggests. The easiest idea is to use a pastry bag for piping out whipped cream or thick sauces in pretty designs on the plate. Or, unmold a simple fruit mousse or pudding over a thin, crisp store-bought butter cookie and garnish the plate with fresh berries.

Here are a few summer dessert recipes perfect for entertaining.

This simple poundcake, topped with a fresh berry sauce and garnished with more berries, is from Judy Contino, owner of the Chicago bakery, Bittersweet.

Vanilla-sour cream pound cake

Yields 6 to 8 servings.

Preparation time: 45 minutes.

Cooking time: 50 to 60 minutes.

FRESH BERRY SAUCE:

1 pint each: raspberries, hulled strawberries

1/3 cup sugar, or to taste

1 to 2 pinches ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

CAKE:

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened

2/3 cup sugar

3 large eggs

1/2 cup sour cream

1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

seeds of 1 vanilla bean, see note

1 1/3 cups cake flour (5 1/4 ounces)

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

GARNISH:

fresh berries

whipped cream

mint sprigs

For sauce, puree raspberries and strawberries in food processor or blender. Add sugar, cinnamon and vanilla. Push sauce through a fine wire mesh into a bowl strainer to remove seeds. Refrigerate overnight.

For cake, heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour an 8-by-4-inch loaf pan. Line bottom and sides of pan with parchment paper. Beat butter in large bowl of electric mixer until light; beat in sugar until fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Beat in sour cream, vanilla extract and vanilla seeds. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Add to butter mixture; mix just until blended.

Spoon batter into prepared pan. Bake until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, 50 to 60 minutes. Cool on wire rack about 20 minutes; unmold; cool completely.

To serve, cut cake into 1/2 -inch-thick slices. Pour a puddle of sauce on a serving plate. Top with cake slice. Garnish with fresh berries, whipped cream and a mint sprig.

Note: To obtain seeds from vanilla bean, split bean lengthwise in half; use the tip of a paring knife to scrape the tiny seeds into the batter. The bean can be saved for making vanilla sugar and flavoring custards.

The following recipe for extra-crisp, twice-baked Italian-style cookies is from cookbook author Maida Heatter. She suggests serving them with ice cream or fresh fruit compotes for summer.

Chocolate biscotti

Yields about 3 1/2 dozen.

Preparation time: 45 minutes.

Freezing time: 30 minutes.

Cooking time: 1 hour and 45 minutes.

4 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped

2 cups sifted all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

L 1 1/4 teaspoons each: finely ground white pepper, ground ginger

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

2 tablespoons instant espresso powder

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 1/4 cups blanched, lightly toasted hazelnuts (7 ounces), see note

3 large eggs

1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon bitter almond extract or scant 1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Put chopped chocolate into food processor fitted with metal blade. Sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, pepper, ginger, cocoa, espresso and granulated sugar into a large bowl. Add about 1/2 cup of the mixture to the chocolate and process until the chocolate is powdery, about 1 minute.

Put chocolate mixture into the remaining dry ingredients in the bowl. Stir to mix. Stir in the nuts.

Beat eggs with brown sugar, vanilla and almond extract until mixed. Add egg mixture to the dry ingredients. Use a large and strong wooden spatula and stir to mix. (You will think that there is not enough liquid, but keep stirring.) Dough is thick and sticky.

Put two 15- to 20-inch lengths of plastic wrap on a work surface. Spoon half of the dough down the length of each piece of plastic wrap to form a strip about 12 inches long.

Lift the two long sides of one piece of plastic wrap, bring them together on top of the dough. With your hands, press on the plastic wrap to smooth the dough and shape it into an even strip about 12 inches long, 3 inches wide and 3/4 inch thick. Shape both strips and place them on a cookie sheet. Freeze for at least 30 minutes, or longer if you wish.

To bake, adjust two racks to divide the oven into thirds and heat oven to 300 degrees. Line two cookie sheets with baking parchment.

Open the plastic wrap and flip the dough upside down onto a lined cookie sheet, placing it diagonally on the sheet. Slowly peel off the plastic wrap. Repeat with second strip of dough and second cookie sheet. Bake 1 hour, reversing the sheets top to bottom and front to back once during baking to ensure even baking.

After 1 hour of baking, reduce oven temperature to 275 degrees and remove the sheets from the oven. Immediately peel the parchment away from the back of one strip and place the strip on a large cutting board.

Cut the strips crosswise into 1/2 - to 3/4 -inch widths starting the slices with a serrated knife and finishing with a thin slicing knife. Do not let strips cool or slicing will be difficult.

Slice both strips and place cookies, with a little space between them, on the unlined cookie sheets. Bake at 275 degrees until crisp, 40 to 45 minutes. Cool and store airtight.

Note: Toast hazelnuts in a baking pan at 300 degrees until light gold. Whole, blanched hazelnuts are available from Nuts on Clark in Chicago, (312) 549-6622. Barnard Nut Co., 8737 S.W. 132 St., Miami, Fla., 33176, (305) 378-1111, also sells the blanched nuts toasted.

Rose Levy Beranbaum says the following light and refreshing dish "is probably the most perfect all-around dessert." It will be included in her forthcoming book "Rose's Celebrations." Omit the sauce for a wonderful low-calorie, no-cholesterol dessert.

Lemon snow with golden orange sauce

Yields 4 servings.

Preparation time: 30 minutes.

Chilling time: Several hours.

LEMON SNOW:

2 1/4 teaspoons unflavored gelatin

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1 1/4 cups boiling water

1 large egg white

2 teaspoons finely grated lemon rind (colored part only)

GOLDEN ORANGE SAUCE:

1/4 cup sugar

-- salt

3 large egg yolks

1 cup whipping cream

1/4 cup milk

2 to 4 tablespoons Grand Marnier (orange-flavored liqueur), to taste

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

fresh raspberries or candied violets for garnish

For lemon snow, mix gelatin and sugar in large bowl of an electric mixer. Add lemon juice and boiling water; stir until sugar and gelatin are completely dissolved. Refrigerate, stirring often, until the mixture mounds when dropped from a spoon, about 2 hours.

Add the egg white; beat on high speed with electric mixer until doubled in volume and the mixture mounds when dropped from a spoon, 5 to 10 minutes. Fold in the lemon rind and spoon the mixture into large wine goblets or dessert dishes. Refrigerate at least 3 hours to set. (Can be refrigerated up to 5 days.)

For golden orange sauce, stir together sugar and salt in a small, heavy saucepan. Add the egg yolks and stir to blend. Scald 1/2 cup of the cream with the milk and, whisking constantly and vigorously, gradually add it to the yolk mixture. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until just before the boiling point (170 to 180 degrees), about 7 to 8 minutes. At once, stir in the liqueur and vanilla and strain through a fine wire mesh strainer into a bowl. Refrigerate until cold. Shortly before serving, whip the remaining 1/2 cup cream and fold it into sauce.

Spoon 3 tablespoons sauce on top of each serving of lemon snow. Garnish with raspberries or candied violets.

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