Sharing something sweet

"At a recent dessert potluck party for food writers at Melissa’s Produce in Los Angeles, we enjoyed an array of tempting, bite-size treats, each flavored with at least one produce item."

A table full of homemade desserts is guaranteed to bring happy smiles (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
A table full of homemade desserts is guaranteed to bring happy smiles
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
A table full of fresh homemade desserts is guaranteed to bring happy smiles from friends and family members. But you don’t have to make them all yourself.
Have guests who enjoy baking or dessert- making bring something sweet.
At a recent dessert potluck party for food writers at Melissa’s Produce in Los Angeles, we enjoyed an array of tempting, bite-size treats, each flavored with at least one produce item. It was also a chance to learn dessert tips and recipes from one another.
Some items on the dessert buffet were based on traditional American favorites. These included apple bread pudding bites with whiskey sauce (see recipe); cheesecake bars topped with fresh tangerines; and roasted sweet-spiced butternut squash pie served with honey yogurt.
There were also desserts inspired by other cuisines, like Italian chocolate panforte, a confection loaded with nuts and dried fruits; Brazilian gingerbread bonbons; tropical pineapple-topped coconut snowballs with chocolate bases; and tres leches, a Latin American cake moistened with condensed and evaporated milk and cream, garnished with persimmon dice and berries.
Most desserts had a surprise. Fresh rosemary flavored the cranberry pine-nut shortbread (see recipe); baklava came filled with chocolate, dates and walnuts; sugar cookies were topped with habanero-chili frosting; dark chocolate fudge was spiked with Hatch chilies; and we flavored our chocolate treats with figs, cherries, crystallized ginger and red wine (see recipe).
Vegan desserts such as apricot, date and hazelnut sticky pie (see recipe) and fruit tartlets with cashew filling and lime glaze were among the most popular, proving that a dessert doesn’t need butter or cream to be a winner.
Entertaining this way is easier than preparing a sit-down dinner, especially for a large group. Of course, even at a dessert party, it’s a good idea to have several savory items – perhaps a soup, a couple of salads and roasted vegetables.
At such a party, for a few hours you can forget about your diet and enjoy feeling like a kid in a cupcake shop. It’s a fun way to celebrate the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016.
Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning book Chocolate Sensations.
Jennifer Richmond, whose blog is Kitchy Cooking, uses halla in this pudding and bakes it in mini muffin cups to make serving easy. Instead of making a tricky custard sauce, she serves the pudding with a creamy, easy-to-make Irish whiskey sauce.
Makes about 36 bite-size portions
■ A 450-gr. (1-lb.) loaf of halla, chopped into 2.5-cm. (1-in.) cubes
■ 2 apples, peeled, cored and chopped
■¼ cup lemon juice
■ ½ cup brown sugar
■ 1 cup half-and-half, or ½ cup milk and ½ cup heavy cream
■ 3 eggs
■ 2 tsp. ground cinnamon
■ 1 tsp. ground nutmeg
■ 1 tsp. vanilla extract
■ 1 cup heavy cream
■ 1 tsp. cornstarch
■ ¼ cup sugar
■ ¼ cup Irish whiskey
Preheat oven to 175°C (350°F). Spray 2 mini muffin tins with nonstick cooking spray. Place cubed halla in a large bowl and set aside.
Toss together the apples, lemon juice and brown sugar in a separate bowl until coated. Pour over the halla. Whisk together eggs, half-and-half, cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla until well combined. Pour over the halla-and-apple mixture. Toss the mixture until coated.
Let sit for 15 minutes.
To make the sauce, bring the cream to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk together the cornstarch and 1 Tbsp. of cold water; slowly whisk the cornstarch mixture into the cream. Bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Reduce heat to low and continue whisking for another minute. Remove from heat; stir in the sugar and whiskey. Set aside and let cool completely.
Fill each muffin in the tin with a scoop of the bread mixture. Bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool for 10 minutes in the pan. Gently remove the bites with a sharp knife and serve with the whiskey sauce.
Dorothy Reinhold, author of the Shockingly Delicious blog, likes making shortbread because “it’s easy, it takes only a few pantry staples, and everyone loves it.” These cookies gain a pleasant herbal touch from fresh rosemary.
Reinhold makes vanilla sugar (sugar flavored with vanilla beans) regularly and uses it as the sweetener in these cookies.
She toasts the pine nuts in a skillet before adding them to the cookie dough and shares this tip: When toasting pine nuts, “do not walk away and do not go check your email! They will burn!”
Makes 60 cookies
■ 225 gr. (8 oz. or 1 cup) unsalted butter at room temperature
■ 1 cup granulated sugar or vanilla sugar
■ Scant ½ tsp. salt (see Note 1 below)
■ 1 large egg
■ 2 cups all purpose flour
■ 170 gr. (6 oz. or about 1 cup) dried sweetened cranberries
■ 85 gr. (3 oz. or about ²⁄3 cup) pine nuts, toasted (see Note 2 below)
■ 1 Tbsp. finely minced fresh rosemary
■ ¼ cup sugar crystals (large crystals of sugar for sprinkling)
■ Fresh rosemary sprigs (for garnish)
Heat oven to 175°C (350°F). Line a 23- x 33-cm. (9- by 13-in.) baking pan with foil.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat butter, 1 cup sugar and salt on medium speed for about 1 minute, until smooth and fluffy. Beat in egg until blended. Add flour and mix on medium until combined. Fold in cranberries, pine nuts and rosemary by hand (if you use the electric mixer you’ll crush the nuts).
Press dough evenly into prepared pan – a small offset spatula is useful for this – and sprinkle top with sugar crystals. Bake for 30 minutes, until edges and top of bars are light brown. Remove from oven and let cool.
Grab foil to remove block of cookies from the pan, and peel foil down. Cut into about 60 small squares. Decorate platter with fresh sprigs of rosemary.
Note 1: If using salted butter, omit salt.
Note 2: To toast pine nuts, put nuts in a skillet and heat on medium-low, stirring frequently. When nuts are light golden brown, remove from heat and pour onto a clean dinner plate to cool off quickly. Store toasted nuts in refrigerator.
In these confections, we occasionally vary the flavors by using different fruits, nuts, cookies and flavorings. To make them for children, or if you’re avoiding alcohol, you can substitute orange juice for the wine. To make them vegan or parve, use margarine and make crumbs from cookies that contain no dairy or eggs.
Makes 36 to 48 small candies
■ ½ cup finely diced dried figs, any hard tips of stems removed (3 oz.)
■ ½ cup dried cherries (2½ oz.)
■ ¾ cup dry red wine, divided
■ 170 gr. (6 oz.) bittersweet or semi sweet chocolate, chopped
■ 3 Tbsp. unsweetened cocoa
■ 3 to 4 Tbsp. sugar, to taste, divided
■ 2 Tbsp. rum, brandy or fruit liqueur (optional)
■ 110 gr. (4 oz. or ½ cup) butter or margarine, at room temperature, cut in pieces
■ 170 gr. (6 oz.) plain, unfilled, unfrosted cookies
■ ½ cup pecans (about 55 gr. or 2 oz.)
■ ¼ cup finely diced crystallized ginger (about 30 gr. or 1 oz.)
■ ¾ cup flaked or ground coconut (about 85 gr. or 3 oz.)
Combine the figs, cherries and ½ cup of the wine in a jar and cover. Let stand for 1 hour.
Remove the fruit, reserving the fruit and wine separately.
Combine the chocolate, cocoa, 3 Tbsp. of the sugar, the wine from soaking the fruit, the remaining wine and the rum in a heavy, medium saucepan. Heat the mixture over very low heat, stirring often, until the chocolate melts, about 3 minutes.
Remove the pan from heat and add the butter. Stir the mixture until the butter melts and blends in completely.
Put the cookies in a food processor and pulse to fairly coarse crumbs. You will need ¾ to 1 cup crumbs. Stir the cookie crumbs into the chocolate mixture.
Add the pecans to the food processor and chop them finely, pulsing several times.
Add the pecans, reserved fruit and crystallized ginger to the chocolate mixture and mix well. Taste the mixture, and add 1 Tbsp. sugar if you like, depending on the sweetness of the chocolate and the cookies.
Refrigerate the mixture if necessary, until it is just firm enough to shape in balls, about 30 minutes or longer.
Spread the coconut in a shallow bowl or tray. To shape the candies, take about 1 heaping teaspoon of the chocolate mixture and roll it quickly in your palms into a smooth ball. Set the ball in the coconut and roll it until it is completely coated. Set the coated ball on a plate. Continue with the remaining chocolate mixture.
Before serving, refrigerate the candies until they are firm, about 1 hour.
Serve them cold or at room temperature, in candy papers.
Zel Allen, author of the Vegetarians in Paradise blog, makes this vegan pie from dried fruits combined with crunchy roasted nuts, cinnamon and citrus zest. She sweetens the filling with a sauce of brown rice syrup and maple syrup and notes that combining the thick, sticky mixture with the fruit and nuts “will likely take the place of your daily workout.” She then bakes the mixture in an oatmeal crust. Allen recommends making the pie a day or two ahead, covering it and refrigerating it. It is best served at room temperature.
Makes a 23-cm. (9-in.) pie, about 8 servings
■ 1 recipe Oatmeal Crumb Crust (see Note 1 below)
■ 1½ cups peeled hazelnuts (see Note 2 below)
■ ¾ cup toasted pecans
■ 1 cup golden raisins
■ ¾ cup diced dates
■²⁄3 cup diced dried apricots
■ ½ cup sweetened dried cranberries
■ 1¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
■ ½ tsp. minced orange or lemon zest
■ ¹⁄8 tsp. salt
■ 1 cup brown rice syrup
■ ¼ cup organic sugar
■ ¼ cup maple syrup
■ ¹⁄3 cup tapioca flour
■ 1 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lime juice
■ ½ tsp. maple extract, or substitute vanilla extract
Prepare the Oatmeal Crumb Crust and set aside.
To make the filling, pour the peeled hazelnuts into a heavy-duty zipper-lock bag, place bag on a cutting board and use a hammer to gently break the nuts into coarse pieces. Transfer hazelnuts to a large bowl. Break pecans into pieces and add them to hazelnuts.
Add raisins, dates, apricots, cranberries, cinnamon, orange zest and salt to nuts and toss well to distribute the ingredients evenly.
Preheat oven to 175°C (350°F). Combine brown rice syrup, sugar and maple syrup in a 2-liter (2-quart) saucepan. Add tapioca flour and stir well with a wooden spoon until flour is completely incorporated. Set aside for 5 minutes to allow tapioca flour to absorb some of the moisture.
Bring syrup mixture to a boil over medium heat. Boil for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat, stir lime juice and maple extract into the syrup mixture and mix well. Pour syrup into the fruit-nut mixture and stir and mix thoroughly to coat all the ingredients.
Spoon filling into the prepared crust and bake for 30 to 35 minutes. Let cool for 4 to 6 hours to set completely. To store, cover pie with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Bring pie to room temperature at least 3 hours before serving.
Note 1: Oatmeal-Walnut Crumb Crust: Pour 3 cups rolled oats into a food processor and pulse 15 to 20 times. Add ¾ cup walnuts, 4½ Tbsp. oil, 3 Tbsp. sugar, 3 Tbsp. syrup, 1½ Tbsp. lemon juice and ¾ tsp. salt. Process until mixture becomes a fine, crumbly meal and holds together when pinched. Scrape down the work bowl as needed. If needed, add 1 Tbsp. of water to help the mixture hold together. Spoon the mixture into a 23- or 25-cm. (9- or 10-in.) pie pan and press it firmly and evenly into the bottom and up the sides of the pan with your fingers. Press on the edges to firm.
Note 2: Allen’s instructions for peeling hazelnuts: Roast the nuts on a tray in the oven at 175°C (350°F) for 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer them to a zipper-lock plastic bag, close it tightly and let nuts sweat for about 5 minutes. Pour nuts from the bag onto a terry-cloth towel, enclose them, and rub like the dickens. The skins should come off easily.