Just a nibble of something sweet; sometimes that's the only way to bring a meal to a satisfactory conclusion. Sweet is frequently the sign that says to the brain 'yes, we're done eating.' So it's not a complete fabrication to imagine that a bite of dessert can be a healthy way to limit food intake. It may not work for everyone, but at least dessert has symbolic power as the end of the meal. And no meal celebrating a special occasion is quite complete without dessert.
If dairy products were not the primary source of calcium for humans, foods like ice cream and cheesecake would have no nutrional raison d'etre. They would have to exist on taste alone - which would not be very difficult. While these are not the first foods one ought to turn to for these nutrients, the perfect handmade ice cream is among the world's simplest and most pleasing desserts. And a simple cheesecake with cherry topping is among the list of perfect desserts, however cliched.
Flans, brulees, and custards are frequently overlooked in the North America. Again, the perfect flan can possess a transcendent quality. Unfortunately, flans and brulees are tricky: they require skill and patience to perfect. And when they are less than perfect, one always wishes one had chosen the chocolate cake. The perfect flan is a thing to be treasured we hope flan culture will take off stateside.
Creamy desserts have the benefit of texture to carry the flavor across the tongue and throughout the mouth. It turns out that custards, melting ice creams, and pastry creams are just about the ideal texture for doing this.
Sensible cooks know that in the western world calories are easy to get, but nutrition is difficult. So when we construct desserts, it is necessary to consider how the concoction will fill holes in a diet. The good news is that many of the best foods for desserts are highly nourishing (flour, sugar, and butter excepted) and if we focus on delivering those, not only will our desserts make mouths water, they will also help keep waists trim.
Chocolate is not the most effective food for trimming waistlines. But we are born with a craving for it which only gradually wanes as we age. For many young peopl , chocolate is the food of choice for dessert. Not only does it taste good, but it contains the chemical theobromine which produces a feeling of well being. For many decades my own firm position was: "if it is not full of chocolate, it is not dessert." But age has tempered my own thinking.
As people grow older the need for sweets tends to subside. And with it, the need for chocolate. But this does not mean that desserts need to be neglected or avoided. There are thousands of healthy desserts that bring the nutritious qualities of fruits and vegetables to our diets.
Other desserts skate near the edge. It is hard to justify the existence of most cookies and cakes either from a nutritional standpoint of from a drammatic one. Furthermore, it is all too frequent that cookies and cakes are much less desirable in terms of taste than foods constructed from fruits and/or chocolate. When they are tastiest, they adhere pretty closely to the maxim "everything tastes better with a little more sugar and a little more butter." Cookies are, basically, a convenient packaging of these two ingredients.
The perfectly constructed chocolate chip cookie is constructed in this manner. And I think brownies are as well. The 'why waste your time with these?" oatmeal cookies are not. One can find cookies that are a little different from this scenario: good biscotti redolent of almond, for example. And sometimes the ginger snap is the ideal food, especially when crumbled into a good lemon custard.
The cake, if it is to be worthwhile needs some fruit and cream or custard. Icing is fine for children; but reach Harry Potter age, and you ought to be considering less cloying food components. Cakes that have been infused with fruit juices and/or brandy may prove to be worthy of serious consideration. Certainly the black forest cake made with dark chocolate - layers held together with jam - and richly studded with raspberries is a keeper. In other words, cake is a good starting point for a finishing dish, but it needs to be finished correctly else it's a non-starter.
Pastry is a confection made from flour that is used in a morning meal or a dessert. Danishes, croissants, eclairs, and tarts are among the more popular pastry fare of breakfast. Cakes and pies are among the more popular pastry fare of desserts.
The perfect, devlishly decadent chocolate cake is an object worthy of veneration. It matches perfectly with raspberry jam and other intense fruit flavors, hence the popularity of the Black Forest chocolate cake. At the other extreme there are angel food cakes that are light and airy and almost tasteless. These cakes are ideally suited to complement fresh fruit. They fell out of favor when baby boomers were young, but they are poised to make a comeback. Out in left field is the carrot cake. It has always been associated with the 'health food' crowd. But a perfectly constructed carrot cake with walnuts, and raisins, redolent of cinnamon, cardamom, clove and mace, and amply provided with a lemony cream cheese icing is both decadent and modestly nutritious.
Pies, once, were almost considered a necssary part of the American meal. They fell out of favor because they are considered to be inconsistent with good dietary practice. But nobody has shown that a piece of fruit pie at the end of a well balanced meal ever did anyone harm. Of course, not all pies are fruit pies, nor are all fruit pies very full of fruit. One can eat cream pie and consume little more than butterfat and sugar. And this is probably not consistent with the best nutritional practices. But a fine homemade blueberry, cherry, or apple pie is not necessarily packed with sugar. And a small slice can really put the finishing touches on a good meal.
Consider carrot cake, zuchini bread and banana muffins. It is possible to cook these quick breads with little or no added sugar, not much added fat, and only modest amounts of whole grain flour. And there are a large number of simple desserts based primarily on fresh or simply cooked fruits. Desserts such as these can provide significant amounts of vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber. They can play a strong supportive role in overall nutrition. Dessert can be a vital part of any meal.
Sometimes, however, desserts are exercises in whimsey or are little more than clever sculpture. A great meal deserves a bit of drama at the end; a flaming dessert, for instance. I am all for whimsey and drama so long as they do not supplant good flavor, but some of the major pastry-chef competitions of the world focus so much on the production of elaborate sugar sculptures, that it seems the idea is more about drama than flavor.
I recall a rare evening with my grandfather. It was mid- winter and the ground was covered with snow. The sun had long ago set and my family arrived an hour or two after dinner, having already eaten. After exchanging the usual pleasantries my grandfather descended into the root cellar and returned a few minutes later with a basket of apples. He got out his pocket knife, halved and cored the apples one at a time, and passed around wedges for each of us. "This is a Rome Beauty. This is a Winesap. And this is a MacIntosh." I was impressed with how fresh, juicy, and tasty these fruits were - especially considering that I have never considered myself an apple-fancier. In truth, I thought apples were only fit as raw material for other dishes. I still catch myself thinking this way.
Too frequently I forget that fresh fruit by itself is real food; that it can be dessert. And occasionally it works better than anything else. In my own opinion it is the perfectly ripe peach that is the ideal dessert fruit. But the perfectly ripe peach is so for just twelve hours. And the season is short. A perfect strawberry ranks second. But while an edible strawberry is more common than an edible peach, a perfect strawberry is even more rare than a perfect peach. Actually, once I had alpine strawberries, my standard for regular ones skyrocketed. The sour cherry cooked and served with cheesecake must be my favorite cooked fruit. I appreciate, too, a good blueberry pie.
On rare occasions it is dried fruit that wins the day. At the end of an exquisite middle eastern meal in Windsor Canada for twelve, the proprietor passed around nut-stuffed glaceed apricots. As stupendous as all the foods were in the meal had been, the only thing I remember of this meal twenty years on is the glaceed apricot. So simple. So compelling. So memorable.
Eat well and prosper.
Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.