Directions for taking the fruit route to dessert

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Here's the biggest problem with serving fruit for dessert: It's too darn boring.

When you're cooking for a special occasion, strawberry tarts and pears poached in red wine will only get you so far. For something more creative and daring, you need to bring out the heavy artillery: David Lebovitz.

Lebovitz, a San Francisco pastry chef and Chez Panisse veteran, has about 130 answers to the boring fruit dilemma in Ripe for Dessert (Harper Collins, 2003, $34.95), a cookbook dedicated to all manner of fruit desserts, from Cherry Sorbet to Papaya Cake With Coconut Glaze.

The flavor combinations are original but never stray into the bizarre. Some are relatively simple to prepare, like a Lemon-Ginger Creme Brulee or a Pomegranate Granita (made by simply freezing and scraping sweetened pomegranate juice).

The author's instructions are clear and unadorned. There are suggestions for picking fruit at the market and a good glossary of cooking terms, but personal anecdotes and musings are relatively brief.

Nor is the book bogged down by a lot of elaborate instructions (it is assumed you know how to check the doneness of brownies, for instance). Even suggestions for presentation are rare. Wine recommendations? Lebovitz leaves that up to you.

At its best, Ripe for Dessert is reminiscent of the typically California approach to dessert -- light, simple and elegant. But that doesn't mean it's always easy. (The three-page-long Mango Napoleon With Lime Custard and Coconut Flatties looks to be quite a chore.)

With blackberries now in season -- and a dearth of good blackberry recipes -- Lebovitz's Blackberry-and-Lemon Gratin is a winning notion. It's a kind of zesty warm custard loaded with blackberries and topped with a brown-sugar glaze.

It's relatively easy to make, and better yet, it can be prepared up to two days in advance. Just leave the topping until the last minute -- broiling the sugar-topped cold custard right before serving.

Blackberry-and-Lemon Gratin

Serves 4

2 cups half-and-half

6 tablespoons sugar

pinch of salt

grated zest of 2 lemons

two 6-ounce baskets of blackberries

1 tablespoon cornstarch

6 large egg yolks

1/4 cup firmly packed dark-brown sugar

In a nonreactive saucepan, warm half-and-half, sugar, salt and lemon zest. Remove from heat, cover and let steep for 1 hour. Distribute blackberries in a 9- to 10-inch glass pie plate or a shallow baking dish. In a small bowl, whisk cornstarch and egg yolks together until smooth.

Add a small amount of the warm lemon-infused cream mixture to the yolks, stirring constantly with a whisk. Pour the warmed egg yolks into the saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and just about comes to a boil. (You may need to whisk a bit if it becomes lumpy, which is normal.) Strain the mixture over the blackberries in the pie plate.

Position the oven rack in the uppermost position of the oven and turn on the broiler. Evenly sprinkle the brown sugar over the custard and slide the gratin under the broiler for about 4 minutes, until the sugar is melted and the custard is bubbling at the edges.

Tip: Instead of blackberries, use 3 cups of blueberries or 3 cups mixed berries such as raspberries, blueberries, blackberries and boysenberries.

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