Choosing a dessert is really the battle of little voices. You know, the devil-you on one shoulder rhapsodizing over chocolate tortes and creme brulee while the angel-you murmurs about low fat, heart health and freedom from cellulite.
But no matter how the angel tugs at your conscience, sometimes you gotta have it: the richest, nastiest, most sinful dessert that ever wrapped itself around a thigh. A dessert where cream and butter, like price, are no object.
In these body-conscious times, people will give up cream sauces, bread and rich soups, "but they want to have a great dessert," says chef Emeril Lagasse, author of "Emeril's New New Orleans Cooking" (William Morrow and Co., $23).
His Bayou City restaurant, Emeril's, has a separate dessert menu with 16 items. At 1,272 calories and 77 grams of fat per slice, his banana cream pie with caramel drizzles is one of the most indulgent fruit desserts we could find.
Which was the object of half of this story -- to track down three mega-indulgent desserts: one made with chocolate, another with fresh fruit and another spiked with citrus.
But you can ignore the little health harpy only so long without consequences. Big, fat ripples of consequence. So we also scouted out three of the best lower-fat desserts in the same categories.
For there are occasions when rich desserts are cruel and unusual punishment, "where I know there's going to be a lot of activity, like at a picnic," says chef Jim Dodge, an executive at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont.
"I can be bad," he says. "I always think of indulgent desserts as a reward."
He adds he will often balance a menu with a more restrained dessert when the entree or appetizer is already slow death by extravagance.
Then he reconsiders the picnic thing. And a sly note creeps into his voice.
No rich desserts, like, if you're going to be playing, oh, maybe soccer. "Unless of course it's for the opposing team."
Talk about bad -- but what a way to go.
Mocha pots de creme
Makes 6 servings
1 cup whole milk
1 cup low-fat (1 percent) milk (divided use)
3 tablespoons ground coffee (not instant)
1/4 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 (8-ounce) container liquid egg substitute
2 teaspoons coffee liqueur or dark rum
pinch of salt
Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a small, heavy saucepan over moderate heat, bring whole milk, 1/2 cup of low-fat milk and coffee to a simmer; remove from heat, cover and steep 10 minutes. Strain through a coffee filter; reserve.
Blend the cocoa and remaining low-fat milk, then gently whisk in (so you don't create bubbles) the coffee mixture, granulated and brown sugars, egg substitute, coffee liqueur and salt. Pour into 6 (6-ounce) ramekins.
Place in a pan large enough to hold all the ramekins without crowding and cover each with foil. Set pan in lower third of oven and pour in enough hot water to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake about 45 minutes or until set like custard. Remove from oven and from water bath, cool to room temperature, then refrigerate, still covered. Serve cold.
Per serving: calories: 171; fat: 2 grams; cholesterol: 7 milligrams; sodium: 134 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 10 percent.
Source: "Sin-Free Desserts" by Jean Anderson (Doubleday, 1988).
Lemon-white chocolate cake
Makes 12 servings
1 box pudding-added lemon cake mix, plus ingredients for preparation
1/4 cup lemon juice
4 teaspoons grated lemon peel (divided use)
4 ounces white chocolate, softened
1/2 cup butter, softened
4 cups confectioners' sugar, or more as needed
1/2 cup heavy cream
Prepare cake according to package directions for a 2-layer cake, substituting 1/4 cup lemon juice for 1/4 cup of liquid and adding 2 teaspoons grated lemon peel to batter. Set aside to cool on a wire rack.
To prepare frosting, cream white chocolate and butter together. Add 2 teaspoons lemon peel. Beat in 2 cups confectioners' sugar. Add some cream to soften and lighten batter. Add remaining confectioners' sugar. Add more cream as needed to reach desired consistency. If weather is humid, you may need more sugar.
Set bottom cake layer on a serving plate. Spread with part of the icing. Add the top layer, pressing it gently into the icing. Frost cake with remaining icing. Refrigerate.
Per serving: calories: 579; fat: 15 grams; cholesterol: 115 milligrams; sodium: 420 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 38 percent.
Source: Christine M. Carbone, adapted from "Baking With Jim Dodge" by Jim Dodge (Simon and Schuster, 1991).
Banana cream pie with caramel drizzles
Makes 8 servings
1 banana pie crust (recipe follows)
3 cups heavy cream (divided use)
1 small vanilla bean
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3/4 cup cornstarch
2 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 large egg yolks
4 ripe bananas
3/4 cup caramel drizzle sauce (recipe follows)
1 cup heavy cream whipped with 1/2 teaspoons vanilla and 1 teaspoon sugar
Prepare banana pie crust; allow it to cool completely.
Heat 2 cups of the cream in a large saucepan over high heat. Cut open vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape seeds into cream; stir. Add butter and bring to a simmer.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine the remaining 1 cup cream with cornstarch and stir until thoroughly blended and smooth. When saucepan mixture begins to boil, slowly pour in the cream-cornstarch mixture, whisking constantly until thoroughly incorporated. (Note: Because this is a pastry cream, not a pie filling, it must be fully cooked to set up properly.) Remove from the heat.
In a bowl, combine the sugar and salt. Whisk dry ingredients vigorously into saucepan until cream is thick and dry ingredients are thoroughly incorporated. Over low heat, whisk in egg yolks 1 at a time. Remove from heat and whisk pastry cream until smooth and creamy.
Peel bananas; cut into 1/4 -inch slices. Spread about 1/3 of the pastry cream in crust; arrange 1/2 of banana slices over the cream. Spread on another 1/3 of pastry cream and arrange the remaining banana slices over that. Cover with the remaining pastry cream and smooth out the top. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours or until firm.
About 20 minutes before serving, prepare caramel drizzle sauce. Serve slices drizzled with warm caramel drizzle sauce. Top with whipped cream and shaved chocolate.
BANANA PIE CRUST: Heat oven to 375 degrees. In a bowl, cream together 2 cups graham cracker crumbs, 1/4 cup light brown sugar, 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter (at room temperature) and 1 very ripe banana, mashed. Press the mixture into a 9-inch pie pan and bake until brown, about 15 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely before filling.
CARAMEL DRIZZLE SAUCE: In a saucepan, combine 1 cup sugar and 1/4 cup water; bring to boil, stirring often. Cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture is a deep nutty-brown color and the consistency of thin syrup, about 10 to 15 minutes. Turn off heat. Stir in 1 cup heavy cream, turn heat back on high, and boil the sauce for 2 minutes. Use immediately. Makes 3/4 cup.
Per serving: calories: 1,272; fat: 77 grams; cholesterol: 409 milligrams; sodium: 385 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 52 percent.
Source: "Emeril's New New Orleans Cooking."
Chocolate espresso cheesecake
Makes 12 servings
1 cup chocolate cookie crumbs
2 tablespoons melted butter
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar (divided use)
14 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped (divided use)
2 pounds cream cheese
1 cup sour cream
2 large eggs plus 2 egg yolks
1/4 cup freshly brewed espresso or very strong coffee
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon fine, freshly ground coffee
1 cup whipping cream
1 tablespoon instant espresso dissolved in 2 tablespoons water
Heat oven to 350 degrees. To make crust, mix together cookie crumbs, melted butter and 1 tablespoon sugar in a bowl. Press into the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan. Refrigerate crust.
To make filling, melt 8 ounces chocolate in the top of a double boiler; set aside to cool.
With an electric mixer, cream the cream cheese and remaining sugar till light and fluffy. Add sour cream and mix. Scrape down sides of bowl. Add eggs and egg yolks till well mixed. Scrape sides. Add espresso, vanilla and ground coffee. Add melted chocolate till blended. Scrape down sides and blend mixture for a minute till well mixed.
Pour mixture into crust. Place springform pan in a water bath. Bake for 45 minutes. Turn off oven; let cheesecake cook in oven for 1 hour before removing.
To make topping, bring cream to a boil on stove top. Pour remaining chopped chocolate over and let stand 1 minute. Stir to dissolve. Stir espresso into chocolate mixture. Let cool to room temperature. Pour onto top of cooled cheesecake. Refrigerate to let set up.
Per serving: calories: 670; fat: 55 grams; cholesterol: 195 milligrams; sodium: 356 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 70 percent.
Source: "The 50 Best Cheesecakes in the World" by Larry and Honey Zisman (St. Martin's Press, $7.95).
Nectarines with caramel
Makes 4 servings
caramel sauce (recipe follows)
1/2 cup ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons honey
Make caramel sauce; set aside.
Cut nectarines in half. Remove pits. Cut a small portion from the base of each nectarine half so that the fruit will sit flat; reserve small pieces. Blend ricotta and honey with spatula or wooden spoon.
Fill each nectarine half with 2 tablespoons of the ricotta mixture. Drizzle with caramel sauce. Garnish with reserved nectarine pieces and peppermint sprigs.
CARAMEL SAUCE: In a medium-size, heavy saucepan over medium-high heat, bring 3 tablespoons cream and 3 tablespoons water to a simmer. Set aside.
In another medium saucepan over high heat, combine 3/4 cup sugar and 2 1/2 tablespoons light corn syrup. Heat, stirring constantly, until sugar melts and mixture turns a rich golden brown, about 5 minutes. Immediately remove from heat.
Working carefully with a long-handled wooden spoon, stir hot cream mixture into sugar mixture. Continue stirring until splattering subsides, hot cream is incorporated and mixture turns a rich, tawny caramel color. As soon as it does, stir in 2 1/2 tablespoons cold water to stop the cooking. Set aside and cool to warm, about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, in saucepan used to heat cream, heat 1/3 cup skim milk and pinch of salt over medium heat until milk just comes to a simmer. Remove from heat and stir in 1 teaspoon vanilla extract. When caramel mixture is cooled to warm, gradually stir it into milk mixture. Strain sauce through a fine sieve. Serve warm or chilled over nectarines.
Per serving: calories: 209; fat: 6 grams; cholesterol: 22 milligrams; sodium: 49 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 26 percent.
Sources: "Fruit" by Amy Nathan (Chronicle, $19.88) and "Dream Desserts" by Nancy Baggett (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1993).
Lemon snow pudding
Makes 6 servings
1 envelope unflavored gelatin
1/4 cup cold water
3/4 cup boiling water
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice, strained
grated peel of 1 lemon
1/3 cup sugar, or to taste
3 large egg whites, at room temperature
pinch of salt or cream of tartar
raspberry sauce (recipe follows)
In a small saucepan, soften gelatin in the cold water. Pour in boiling water and stir until gelatin is dissolved. Add lemon juice, peel and sugar, and stir until sugar is dissolved. Cover and chill the mixture until it gets thick and globby but isn't quite set, about 3 hours.
Chill a 5- or 6-cup bowl or mold.
In a large bowl, beat the egg whites with the salt or cream of tartar until they make soft peaks. Gradually beat the lemon jelly into them to make a froth. Pour into chilled mold, cover and refrigerate for several hours until set. (This can be done a day or two ahead.)
To serve, briefly dip the bowl into hot water; put a serving plate on top. Invert pudding onto the plate. Surround the pudding with raspberry sauce.
RASPBERRY SAUCE: Puree 2 cups fresh or frozen and thawed raspberries in a food processor or simply crush them in a bowl. Pass the puree through a fine sieve to remove seeds, pressing solids with back of spoon to force through as much of the fruit as possible. Stir in 1/4 cup sugar, or to taste. Add 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice and 1 to 2 tablespoons orange-flavored liqueur, kirsch or other liqueur (optional). Makes 1 generous cup.
Per serving: calories: 109; no fat; no cholesterol; sodium: 50 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 2 percent.
Source: "A Feast of Fruits" by Elizabeth Riely (Macmillan, $25).