Friday, March 15, 2013

The Best Dessert

I have given this blog a provocative title. Who in the world has the time to make a three-course dinner on a weeknight? Much depends on what one means by a three-course dinner. One of the ways I've found of making such a thing not just imaginable, but feasible, is to take another look at the dessert course.

When one goes out for dinner in an American restaurant, one is usually offered, after a heavy appetizer course and a main course in which the portions are much too large, a dessert menu full of choices that are tempting but also served in portions that are much too large. If fruit is offered, it is often with cookies or ice cream. This is both a mirror to and an influence on how Americans eat dessert at home, stashing cookies in the cupboard and ice cream in the freezer. I've come to the conclusion that this way of doing things is not only unhealthy and expensive, but also terribly misguided.

Fruit is the best dessert. It is our household's "default setting" for the third course. We have a somewhat fancier dessert, often in individual portions, at Sunday dinner and when we have guests, but eat raw fruit the rest of the time. Sometimes I may make a fruit salad and sprinkle a little Grand Marnier on the adults' servings; generally speaking, though, the fruit has to be good enough to stand on its own. To make this work, I've had to learn how to shop for and prepare it with the respect it deserves.

It's worth learning what's in season. Tropical fruits and citrus are our mainstay from about November, when local apples are waning, until early spring, when strawberries from California and the South become available. As warmth comes north, so does the fruit harvest. The peak experience, of course, is pick-your-own from a local orchard or berry patch; my own favorites here in Connecticut are Silverman's and Lyman Orchards. However, I've never met the raspberries that could match those from my mother's garden in central Illinois.

It's also worth spending the time on presentation. This is a chance to indulge one's fantasies of being on the Food Network. Whether it's careful cutting, a garnish of fresh herb, an attractive plate, or some combination of the above, presentation is, I've learned, half the battle. I like to serve fruit already cut up on a platter or on individual plates, and this satisfies the Diners' and my need for dessert. It's also true, of course, that no knife skills can disguise mealy apples, dry oranges, or plums without any flavor. Most fruit tastes better at room temperature, and if you're going to cut it up, this needs to be done as close to mealtime as possible to avoid drying out or browning. I either do this right before we sit down for dinner or postpone it until after the main course, though one problem with the latter approach is that the temptation to jettison the whole idea can then become irresistible. The Diners and I both tend to ignore fruit that is not cut up.

If you have kids who won't eat fruit, try arranging it in funny shapes (a face, an animal) or put out a platter and allow them to spear their choices with a fork.

Copyright (c) 2016 Anna Bendiksen


  1. And the best fruit dessert is _______. My favorite is truly fresh and ripe strawberries. When I lived in a co-operative house during college, we'd have a late spring lunch of strawberry shortcake.

    1. Thanks for your comment! :-) If I had to pick a favorite fruit dessert, it would probably be the raspberry roll cake in Rose Levy Berenbaum's _The Cake Bible_.