Get your just dessertsBy Marialisa Calta
“If there be any poetry at all in meals, or the process of feeding, there is poetry in the dessert,” wrote Isabella Beeton, author of the famed “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management,” published in 1861. Mrs. Beeton is considered to be one of the most famous “cookery” writers in England, and what she said carried great weight. And what she said about dessert was that “the materials for (it) should be selected with taste.”
The word “dessert,” according to “The Oxford Dictionary of Food and Wine,” comes from the French “desservir,” which means “remove the dishes.” Dessert was, in fact, often served at a separate table, after the dining table was cleared. It was a course designed to impress. Mrs. Beeton lists numerous fruits, “choice and delicately flavoured (sic) cakes and biscuits,” and the “most costly and recherche wines” for the grand finale. “As late as the reigns of our two last Georges,” she wrote, “ fabulous sums were often expended upon fanciful desserts.” Fortunately, we don’t have to spend “fabulous sums,” but it is nice to make the effort. To quote “Mrs. B.” once more, “The dessert certainly repays, in its general effect, the expenditure upon it of much pains.”
Fortunately, we don’t have to expend “much pains, “ either. Enter Annie Bell, a British cookery writer and chef who penned “Gorgeous Desserts” in 2007, and recently brought it to the United States. Bell delivers what the title promises, with the bonus that most of her recipes are relatively easy to make.
Take, for example, the “molten” chocolate-pudding cake and creme brulee from her book. Bell’s method for the latter is supremely easy and doesn’t — as most do — require a blowtorch or other major firepower. The third recipe is one of my favorites, an extremely unusual fruit “salad” combining fresh and dried fruits, nuts and liqueurs, from “The Opera Lover’s Cookbook” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2006). All can be (indeed, the creme brulee must be) made ahead.
10-1/2 ounces dark chocolate (70 percent cocoa), broken into pieces
1/3 cup unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar, extra for dusting
5 medium eggs
1/3 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
1 tablespoon dark rum (optional)
vanilla ice cream or creme fraiche, for serving
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Butter 6 (2/3-cup) ramekins. Gently melt the chocolate in the top of a double boiler set over simmering water.
Place the butter, 1/3 cup sugar, eggs and flour in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until smooth, then add the melted chocolate and process again. Add the rum, if using, and pulse to mix. Divide the mixture between the prepared ramekins. Dust the top of each with a little more brown sugar put through a sifter, and place on a baking sheet. Bake for 9 minutes, until just starting to rise. There should be a thin rim of cooked cake on the outside and a sticky river of molten goo inside.
Serve immediately, with either ice cream or creme fraiche.
TO MAKE AHEAD: Make the batter, pour into the ramekins, cover, and chill for up to 6 hours. Add 2 to 3 minutes to the baking time.
For the custard:
6 medium egg yolks
3 heaped tablespoons superfine sugar
1 vanilla bean, chopped into 1-inch pieces
2-1/2 cups heavy cream
For the topping:
2/3 cup sugar
confectioners’ sugar, for dusting
Several hours before serving, preheat the oven to 325 F. Set a kettle of water on to heat (but not to boil).
Put the egg yolks, sugar, vanilla-bean pieces and cream in a blender and puree. Strain into a large bowl or quart measuring cup. Divide between 6 (2/3 cup) ramekins, and place in a roasting pan. Pour the hot but not boiling water into the roasting pan until it is two-thirds of the way up the sides of the custard cups. Bake for 1 to 1-1/4 hours, or until lightly golden on the surface. The custards should be set and may wobble gently if moved from side to side, but they should not appear to be still liquid. Remove the ramekins from the roasting pan, and allow them to cool to room temperature.
Gently heat the sugar for the caramel in a small saucepan until about half of it has liquefied and started to color, then gently stir. Watch carefully, stirring frequently, until it is a deep gold, then remove from heat.
Liberally dust the custards with the confectioners’ sugar through a small sifter. Drizzle a spoonful of caramel over each. It should set hard within minutes. Cover and chill a couple of hours.
Yield: 6 servings