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When simple desserts are made fancy with a few flourishes, old standards look and taste elegant

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When simple desserts are made fancy with a few flourishes, old standards look and taste elegant

Unexpected guests, that overused topic of food and home writers, rarely present a problem for me. Either this is a sign that I don't have enough friends, or it shows that my friends know me all too well: I am not fond of surprise knocks at the door.

Nor am I fond of surprise occasions that require me to bring food, but these, owing to my sieve-like memory, pop up far too often.

So I find myself, with two hours to go, flipping through recipes and cabinets, wondering just what I can throw together that will still impress people. (This is when I wish no one knew what I do for a living; couldn't I sneak out of Harris Teeter with a tube of cookie dough and not run into anyone I know, just this once? Not in this small town.)

This usually leads me into trouble. Either I pick something that I love to make but is really too complicated for that moment and go for it anyway, or I decide a few shortcuts won't hurt. After this many years, I do, deep down, know better, but this is where the realistic part of my self-described "realistic optimism" escapes me.

So I've brought more mediocre desserts to special events than I care to remember, such as a Bavarian torte that sounded like it would hit the spot. Never mind that these take at least several hours for the gelatin base to set up enough to slice; surely I could speed the process along? Uh, no, judging by the somewhat soupy purple wiggle I set on the banquet table.

At least I learn from my mistakes (the better to move on to new ones, but that's another story). Now, I have a few rules to last-minute bake by.

First, I need a pantry worth baking from. That includes the obvious choices (flour, sugar, cocoa), but I actually rely less on my pantry than on my freezer and refrigerator.

As long as my iceboxes are stocked with cream, eggs, butter, frozen puff pastry, and frozen fruit (especially blueberries, cherries, raspberries and blackberries), I know I'm covered for any emergency. Add a package or two of chocolate chips in the cabinet, and I'm truly blessed.

Just from that short list, I can whip up fancy fruit tarts or turnovers, fruit "purses" with a chocolate sauce (squares of puff pastry folded up around fruit and a few chocolate chips and pinched at the top to form a ruffle), truffle rounds, panna cotta, chocolate cherry clafoutis, individual cobblers, sugar tartlets (in which the filling for puff pastry shells is just sugar, cream, eggs and flour), and fruit shortcakes.

If I add a package of phyllo to the freezer, I can also effortlessly make phyllo nests for fruit or chocolate fillings, avoiding the usual fussiness that phyllo demands. These nests gained popularity in the early years of the low-fat fad, but unlike so many desserts from that time, they actually taste great.

Then, I think shape: Even a basic dessert can go uptown if you give it a makeover. Take a simple brownie recipe and cook it in a tart pan; topped with an espresso cream, you have an addictive dessert that is definitely more than the sum of its parts. And instead of making one large fruit tart, I prefer the purses or phyllo nests, which take just the slightest bit longer but make people feel you went to great effort.

Even at their simplest, these desserts will have your friends assuming heavy lifting, because so few people bake from scratch anymore to understand just how easy it can be. And the final rule--cream, cream, cream--will reinforce that notion. Softly whipped cream draped over the edge of a dessert--real cream, not from a can or plastic tub--takes almost no work, but people practically lick it off their plates. And with a little doctoring, they'll nearly be eating out of your hands. Flavor that cream just before it's finished whipping with some confectioner's sugar and one of the following: a little espresso powder; a few tablespoons of liqueur; minced candied ginger; orange or mint extract; a tablespoon or two of cocoa and a pinch of cinnamon; maple syrup (omit the sugar); a few tablespoons of jam or preserves whisked smooth; even with just a teaspoon of vanilla. Just that, and your unexpected friends will suffer sweet delusions of grandeur.

Cook's notes: If you're serving the brownie tart later and need to chill it, it's easiest to store it in a plastic cake carrier with a lid. Lacking that, stick a few toothpicks in the tart and drape a piece of plastic wrap over them, to keep from marring the entire top. If you don't have instant espresso powder on hand, leave it out; consider adding a few drops of mint extract instead (don't be heavy-handed here). You may also leave out the cream cheese in the topping, although it adds body and tang. For the phyllo nests, you could substitute ice cream for the whipped cream. To gild the lily, heat a little cream and whisk in some chocolate chips until melted; drizzle this around the nests. For the truffle rounds, from my book Desserts From an Herb Garden, feel free to leave out the basil (not exactly a pantry ingredient); they're good straight, or substitute a little espresso powder or almond or mint extract. Or serve them with softly whipped cream beaten with a spoonful of whisked raspberry jam.

Brownie tart with espresso cream
One 9-inch tart, serving 8 to 12

Base:
1 cup sugar
1/ 2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/ 2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
2 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup all-purpose flour

Topping:
1 1/4 cup heavy (or whipping) cream
1 tablespoon espresso powder
1/4 cup confectioner's sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 ounces cream cheese (or, if you have an 8-ounce block, just cut it in half), softened
Garnish: Unsweetened cocoa powder (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Generously grease a 9-inch, removable-bottom tart pan.

Make base: In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, cocoa and butter. Whisk in the eggs one at a time just until blended; whisk in vanilla. With a spatula, fold in flour just until blended.

Spread batter in tart pan, and bake on the center rack of the oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until center is just firm to the touch. Cool on a wire rack.

Make topping: In a medium bowl, beat cream and espresso powder on medium-high speed until cream holds soft peaks when beaters are lifted; beat in confectioner's sugar and vanilla until stiff peaks form. In a small bowl, using the same (uncleaned) beaters, beat the cream cheese until smooth, then beat 1 minute more. Scoop out a little whipped cream with a spatula and mix it into the cream cheese to lighten it, then gently fold this mixture in the remaining whipped cream until blended. Spread over cooled brownie base. If desired, place about 1 teaspoon cocoa powder in a small sieve and sprinkle lightly over tart. Serve immediately or chill.

Fruit-filled phyllo nests
6 or 8 servings

8 ounces phyllo (frozen or thawed)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Filling:
1 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons confectioner's sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups frozen berries (one kind or a mixture)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Remove wrapping from phyllo but leave rolled up, or re-roll if necessary after removing interior wrapper. (If using a 1-pound log of phyllo, cut it in half crosswise and save the remaining phyllo for another time, wrapped airtight.)

Cut phyllo crosswise into 1/4-inch thick slices. Unroll slices and gently separate the strands somewhat. Brush lightly with melted butter. Pile and casually coil strands into 6 or 8 nests (depending on the size you desire--3 to 4 inches in diameter is good), on a parchment paper-lined or greased baking sheet. Stir together sugar and cinnamon; sprinkle over nests.

Bake nests until golden and crisp, 10 to 15 minutes. Cool on pan on a wire rack for at least 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, make filling: In a medium bowl, beat cream on medium-high speed until cream holds soft peaks when beaters are lifted; beat in confectioner's sugar and vanilla until stiff peaks form. In a medium saucepan, stir together berries and sugar over medium-low heat; bring just to a boil. Stir in lemon juice; let cool. Taste fruit compote and adjust seasoning (a touch more sugar or lemon juice), if needed.

To serve, place nests on dessert plates (one per plate). Divide whipped cream among nests, and top with fruit compote. Serve immediately.

Chocolate-basil truffle rounds
8 servings

6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons minced basil leaves (see cook's notes, above)
12 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped, or 2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
3 large eggs, separated
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Garnish: Lightly sweetened whipped cream (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter or grease eight 4-inch, removable-bottom tartlet tins. Set tins on a baking sheet.

Melt butter with basil leaves in the top of a double boiler set over (not touching) barely simmering water, or in a microwave. Add chocolate and stir until melted. Set aside to cool slightly; mixture will be very thick.

In a medium bowl, beat egg whites until they form soft peaks; add sugar and beat until stiff peaks form. In a small bowl, whisk egg yolks until bubbly; whisk into chocolate mixture. Fold in about 1/4 cup beaten whites to lighten the chocolate mixture, then gently but thoroughly fold in remaining whites.

Divide batter among tins. Bake 15 minutes, until tops have just set (mixture will still be soft in the middle). Let cool on a wire rack (the puffed tops will fall), then serve or chill, covered.

To serve, remove tin sides. With a thin-bladed metal spatula, lift rounds from the bases and transfer to dessert plates. Serve cold or at room temperature, with a dollop of whipped cream.

  • When simple desserts are made fancy with a few flourishes, old standards look and taste elegant

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