When it comes to dessert, my husband Ted abides by writer Ernest Hemingway's adage that "a man who eats dessert is not drinking enough". This said, I have sometimes discovered Ted in the kitchen pantry, long after everyone has gone home, sneaking in a mouthful or two of leftover pudding.
I can't think of anyone else who turns their nose up at dessert. In fact, there are a great many people who consider a meal's sweet ending to be its highlight.
When you've got friends coming over, dessert isn't something you want to leave off the menu. It doesn't have to be a major production but whatever sweet treat you choose to make, have it organised well before the meal. I often keep a jar of crumble topping in the fridge (3 cups flour, 2 cups rolled oats, 1½ cups brown sugar,1 cup almonds, chopped or slivered, 2 tsp mixed spice mixed with 250g melted butter), ready to pack over a baking dish of stewed or canned apples — sometimes with a few berries or some chopped frozen rhubarb added. The trick with crumble is to press the topping down firmly and bake it not too hot — 170C for about 30-40 minutes until golden usually does the trick — as if the oven is too hot the crumble browns without becoming crunchy.
Sauces and toppings are a great way to elevate simple desserts like fruit salad or icecream. Praline sounds fancy but it's just caramel poured over nuts and ground to a crumb. Make the caramel by heating a cup of white sugar with a splash of water until it turns to golden toffee and then pour this over a cup of nuts such as almonds, pistachios or hazelnuts, spread out in a single layer on a baking tray lined with baking paper. Once the nutty toffee is cooled and set hard, break it into shards and then pulverise to a crumb — either in a bag with a rolling pin or in the food processor. Stored in a sealed jar, praline will keep for months. Use it as a sprinkle over a bowl of sliced oranges or make a jazzed-up apricot fool by mixing equal parts of pureed cooked apricots and whipped cream, spooned into a dish and sprinkled with that gorgeous praline.
Cool desserts always work well after a rich, rib-sticking winter meal. Here are some of my favourites. Each has a topping or syrup that can be enjoyed in multiple ways.
Chilled Lemon Rice with Orange Currant Drizzle
The orange currant drizzle elevates a simple chilled rice pudding to new heights and is also delicious served over sliced fresh oranges with icecream.
Ready in 40 minutes plus chilling
4 cups milk
¼ cup sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
Rind of 1½ lemons, finely grated
1 tsp cinnamon
Pinch of salt
½ cup sushi rice
300ml chilled cream
ORANGE CURRANT DRIZZLE
3 Tbsp rum or dry sherry
½ cup orange juice
Rind of ½ orange, zested
1 tsp honey
1 cup currants
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Place the milk in a pot with sugar, vanilla, lemon rind, cinnamon, salt and rice. Bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve sugar. Cover and cook over very low heat until rice is tender, about 20 minutes. Cover and chill for at least 1 hour (or up to 24 hours). The rice will thicken as it cools.
While rice cools, prepare garnish. Place rum or sherry, orange juice, zest and honey into a small pot and heat until honey has dissolved. Add currants and cook over a low heat for 10-15 minutes. If not using at once, store in the fridge and warm before serving.
To serve, whip cream to soft peaks and fold through chilled rice. Spoon into bowls and top with macerated currants and their juices. Garnish with a little grated orange rind if desired.
Red Wine-roasted Tamarilloes
Halved and baked in an aromatic wine syrup, tamarilloes make an elegant and delicious dessert. They are also wonderful raw. Prick them a few times with a sharp knife, cover with boiling water and leave for a few minutes and then peel. Slice them thinly, sprinkle with a good handful of sugar and leave them to macerate. After an hour or two, the sugar dissolves and you have this glorious bowl of syrupy tamarilloes, perfect breakfast fare.
Ready in 30 minutes plus chilling
½ cup sugar
½ cup red wine
1 vanilla pod, split
2 cinnamon quills
6 whole cloves
3 cardamom pods, lightly crushed
3 strips orange rind peeled with a vegetable peeler
8 tamarilloes, with stems attached
In a small saucepan, heat together wine, sugar, vanilla pod, cinnamon quills, cardamom pods and orange rind, stirring until sugar has fully dissolved. Boil hard for 3-4 minutes until lightly syrupy.
While syrup reduces, cut tamarilloes in half lengthwise. Arrange fruit in a single layer in a baking dish cut side up. Spoon syrup over and around fruit and scatter the spices and rinds.
Heat oven to 200C. Roast tamarilloes until tender, about 15 minutes. Remove from oven, brush tops with cooking syrup from the dish and leave to cool. Chill. Serve with syrup and accompany with Greek-style yoghurt.
Greek Lemon Cheesecake with Fig and Cranberry Syrup
This no-bake cheesecake is light and zingy. It will keep happily in the fridge for several days. The topping at least a day in advance for the fruit to soak up the syrup flavours.
Ready in 30 minutes plus chilling
½ cup pitted dates
250g packet digestive biscuits
1 cup walnuts
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground cloves
100g butter or coconut oil, melted
6 Tbsp boiling water
3 tsp gelatin
250g cream cheese
¾ cup icing sugar
1 cup yoghurt
3 tsp vanilla extract
Rind of 1 lemon, finely zested
¼ cup lemon juice
Place dates in a bowl, cover with boiling water and leave to stand for 5 minutes. Drain well. Blend biscuits and walnuts in a food processor to a very fine crumb. Add dates, cinnamon, cloves and butter (or coconut oil) and blend to combine evenly. Press a little of the mixture between your fingers to check it sticks together, if not add a little more butter or oil.
Line the base of a 28cm flan tin or spring form tin with plastic wrap. Press the crumb mixture firmly and evenly into the base of the prepared tin and chill while preparing filling.
Place boiling water in a small bowl, sprinkle over gelatin and stir to dissolve, ensuring there are no lumpy bits. Place cream cheese, icing sugar, yoghurt, ricotta, vanilla, lemon zest and juice in a food processor. Add dissolved gelatin and process until smooth. Pour on to prepared base and smooth the top. Chill in fridge for at least 3 hours, or up to 4 days, if covered.
Just before serving, drizzle over a little fig and cranberry syrup (below).
Fig and Cranberry Syrup
Ready in 20 minutes plus chilling
Makes 1½ cups
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
Rind of 1 lemon and 1 orange, finely zested
½ tsp finely chopped rosemary
4 dried figs thinly sliced
¼ cup dried cranberries
2 Tbsp dried currants, optional
¼ cup lemon juice
Heat sugar water and rinds together, stirring occasionally until sugar dissolves. Add dried fruit and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and mix in lemon juice.