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Finding the sweet spot

Special to The Times

EVERYTHING seems to taste exponentially better when seasoned with fresh air and stars -- and smoke -- and maybe because it’s unexpected, this is especially true of dessert. So after the grilled burgers or lamb, the chicken or ribs, why not keep those coals glowing a little longer?

Grilling deliciously caramelizes spears of juicy pineapple that have been brushed with a sweet and creamy rum glaze. That glaze gets a flowery bite from freshly ground Balinese long pepper, and the aromatic pepper, combined with smoke from the grill, has a heady, exotic effect. Cinnamon toast is intriguingly transformed on the grill; the mixture of butter and sugar and cinnamon gets deep golden brown, almost slightly charred. It’s served with a mound of strawberries macerated in a lavender simple syrup. Pound cake -- slices of it with Nutella sandwiched in between -- undergoes a similar transformation from familiar to festive when you apply the magic of playing with fire.

Dessert on the grill is one of those many occasions when a slow burn trumps the flash and heat of leaping flames. If you’re not careful, food that contains sugars can burn quickly when grilling. If using a charcoal grill (or hardwood), the heat from coals still glowing after you’ve cooked your main course should be about right. You’ll also want to make sure there are no remnants of the main course on the grate; it should be impeccably clean and well-oiled. And if you’re using a gas grill, you’ll want to use your grill’s setting and spot for indirect heat. On many gas grills, this means preheating the grill using the high-heat setting, then reducing it to low once it’s hot and placing food to be grilled to one side, not directly over the burner.

Presumably, one never outgrows the pure pleasure of gooey marshmallows nestled in melting Hershey bars and crisp graham crackers. But for a more unexpected and elegant pleasure, start with a favorite fruit and cheese combination. Maybe firm ripe figs stuffed with Gorgonzola, halves of tangy nectarines with a nugget of chevre, or perfume-y white peaches with a chunk of Manchego. Any of these just needs a few minutes on an oiled grill, long enough for the fruit to soften and glisten with pretty grill marks, and for the cheese to begin melting.

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And though fruit on the grill might be an apparent choice, grilled pineapple smeared with a luxurious glaze gets an unexpected kick from the Balinese long pepper. It’s a wild, trailing pepper variety that grows in the Indonesian island’s jungle canopies, looks like tiny cattails and has a deep, complex flavor that’s more spicy and rich than round peppercorns.

For another easy dessert, bake a simple and perfect pound cake in the morning, even the day before. (You’ll have enough to test a slice with a glass of wine as you await the arrival of your guests -- guaranteed to make you a more relaxed and convivial host.) Sandwich Nutella and toasted pecans between the thin slices you grill until the chocolate-hazelnut spread oozes into a warm puddle. Top it all with a scoop of cool, creamy ice cream.

If pound cake and chocolate-hazelnut sandwiches are a voluptuous temptation -- the “Marilyn” of grilled desserts, if you will -- cinnamon toast with lavender-macerated strawberries is your “Audrey,” delicious and sweetly familiar, but undeniably alluring. It also has the added charm of a short ingredient list, and takes just seconds from the time you gently lay the toasts on the grate to standing the golden crunch of them in a bowl mounded with scented berries.

Apply a bit of imagination, and you’ll turn out sophisticated grilled desserts that will do a lot for your reputation as a civilized host. With or without guests.

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food@latimes.com

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Grilled Nutella and pecan pound cake sandwiches

Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes, plus cooling time

Servings: 8

Note: The pound cake recipe makes more cake than is needed for the sandwiches. The pound cake recipe comes from my grandmother, Elaine Smith. It’s delicious even without the embellishment of grilling and chocolate.

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Elaine Smith’s pound cake

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsweetened butter, at room temperature

3 3/4 cups (1 pound) powdered sugar

6 eggs

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2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

2 3/4 cups sifted cake flour

1. Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Generously butter a 10-inch tube or bundt pan. Dust with flour, tapping out all excess. Set aside.

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2. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or use a large bowl and hand-held electric mixer), beat the butter until creamy and pale. Sift the powdered sugar and gradually add it to the butter, beating continuously until the mixture is very light and fluffy.

3. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, making sure to blend well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla. In a separate bowl, mix the baking soda with the cake flour and beat it into the butter mixture, half a cup at a time, until the batter is smooth and velvety.

4. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake for 55 to 65 minutes, or until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes in the pan, then turn out onto a rack to cool completely before slicing.

Sandwich assembly

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1/3 cup finely chopped pecans

3/4 cup Nutella, divided

16 ( 1/3 -inch-thick) slices pound cake

1/2 pint premium ice cream or gelato (try vanilla or butter pecan)

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1/4 cup coarsely grated chocolate, divided

1. In a small skillet over medium-low heat, toast the chopped pecans, stirring or shaking the pan frequently, 1 or 2 minutes, until aromatic. Set aside.

2. Spread 1 1/2 tablespoons Nutella on each of eight slices of the cake, then top each slice with a heaped teaspoon of nuts. Top each prepared slice with a remaining slice of cake to form a sandwich.

3. Using a flat, thin, long-handled metal spatula, gently place each of the sandwiches on a clean, well-oiled grill over medium heat. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes on each side until lightly golden, rotating each sandwich 90 degrees halfway through, to get good grill marks. Flip each sandwich; repeat on the other side.

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4. To serve, place a grilled sandwich on each of eight plates with a small scoop ( 1/8 cup) of ice cream. Garnish evenly with any remaining nuts, and sprinkle 1 1/2 teaspoons of chocolate over each serving. Serve immediately.

Each serving: 724 calories; 8 grams protein; 83 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 40 grams fat; 20 grams saturated fat; 182 mg. cholesterol; 112 mg. sodium.

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Grilled pineapple with rum and long pepper glaze

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Total time: 30 minutes

Servings: 4 to 8

Note: Dried long peppers are available at Surfas in Culver City, Nicole’s in Pasadena and Cube in Los Angeles, as well as select Indian and Asian markets. Also online at salttraders.com and le-sanctuaire.com. If any glaze is unused, it will keep for a week, refrigerated, and makes a great topping for ice cream; rewarm before using.

1 large ripe pineapple

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1 or 2 dried long peppers (to yield 1/2 to 1 teaspoon ground pepper)

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 cup dark rum

1/2 cup brown sugar (packed)

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4 tablespoons sweetened condensed milk

1. Peel and core the pineapple, then cut it into 16 lengthwise spears. Using a spice or clean coffee grinder, grind the long pepper to a medium fine powder. In a small, dry skillet, stir the ground pepper and cinnamon and toast over low heat until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Set aside.

2. In a small saucepan over high heat, combine the rum, brown sugar and sweetened condensed milk, stirring constantly until the sugar is completely dissolved and the mixture has come to a boil. Remove the glaze from the heat and stir in the toasted spices.

3. Brush the pineapple spears lightly with the glaze, allowing any excess to drip off. Using long-handled metal tongs, place the pineapple spears on a clean, oiled grill over medium heat. Cook for 1 to 3 minutes per side, carefully basting the spears with additional glaze as they cook. (The rum in the glaze can create flare-ups if it drips into hot coals, so use a long-handled brush to apply the glaze and stand back.) The pineapple is done when it is slightly softened and golden brown, with grill marks. Drizzle with more glaze before serving, if desired.

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Each serving: 87 calories; 1 gram protein; 17 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 1 gram fat; 0 saturated fat; 2 mg. cholesterol; 13 mg. sodium.

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Cinnamon toast with lavender strawberries

Total time: 25 minutes, plus steeping and macerating time

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Servings: 4

Note: This recipe makes more lavender syrup than is needed; you can use it as a sweetener in iced tea, lemonade and cocktails. You also can buy lavender syrup at Surfas in Culver City and Monsieur Marcel in the Original Farmer’s Market. Fresh, organic lavender is generally available at farmers markets and select nurseries. Dried lavender is also available at farmers markets, as well as Surfas in Culver City and Nicole’s Gourmet in Pasadena.

Lavender simple syrup

1/2 cup sugar

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1 tablespoon fresh, organic or dried culinary lavender

In a small saucepan, heat one-half cup of water with the sugar over medium-high heat until the sugar is completely dissolved. Remove from the heat. Stir the lavender and allow the mixture to steep for at least 1 hour and up to 8 hours. Strain it into a clean jar and refrigerate. This makes about three-fourths cup syrup; it will keep, refrigerated, for several weeks.

Lavender strawberries, grilled toast and assembly

2 pints strawberries

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1/4 cup lavender simple syrup

1 tablespoon fresh organic or dried culinary lavender

3 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

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3 tablespoons butter, softened

4 slices rustic bread, such as ciabatta, sliced 1/2 -inch-thick

1/3 cup creme fraiche (optional)

1 tablespoon lavender syrup (optional)

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1. Hull and slice the strawberries lengthwise into one-eighth-inch slices, and place in a medium bowl. Stir in the lavender syrup and lavender. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let sit for at least 1 hour at room temperature. (If you are preparing the strawberries in advance, refrigerate the covered bowl, then bring to room temperature before serving.)

2. Line a tray or baking sheet with parchment or waxed paper. In small bowl, combine the sugar and cinnamon, then cut in the butter with a fork and mix until thoroughly combined.

3. Spread one side of each slice of bread fully and evenly with a light coat of the prepared butter. Flip the bread over and repeat with the other side.

4. Using long-handled metal tongs, place the bread slices on an oiled grill over medium heat. Grill 30 to 45 seconds to establish grill marks and allow the seasoned butter mixture to start to melt, then rotate a quarter turn and grill an additional 30 to 45 seconds for another set of grill marks. Flip the bread over and repeat with the other side. Remove and reserve.

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5. Divide the strawberries evenly into four dessert bowls. Stand one slice of toast in each bowl. If desired, garnish with a spoonful of creme fraiche and drizzle with lavender syrup.

Each serving: 268 calories; 4 grams protein; 43 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 10 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 23 mg. cholesterol; 168 mg. sodium.


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