The holidays are the time of year when dessert finally takes on as much importance as the main course. Neighborhood gatherings, office parties and family get-togethers coax us into the spirit of the season with high-piled platters of sweet irresistibles.
Even for non-bakers, the primal urge to bake sets in. Ovens that haven’t been turned on in months heat and sizzle. The familiar scents of cloves and toasting nuts saturate our senses, conjuring up childhood memories and joyful moments with faraway relatives. The spirit of holidays past compels us to dig out old recipes and bake extravagant arrays of cookies, fancy fruit tarts and mounds of candies.
It’s easy to get carried away. An elaborately decorated bu^che de Noel might dazzle everyone, but who has the time for such a project?
This is definitely not the season to experiment. Complicated recipes and a sink full of batter-coated gadgets will only add to the pressure and turn you into a grumbling grinch. The last thing you need is a long list of ingredients stuffed in your bulging date book . . . behind all those other shopping lists.
So choose recipes that won’t overwhelm you. The following desserts, though plain-looking, are not too involved and will create a lasting impression. Once out of the oven, they ask for only a simple touch, such as a light dusting of powdered sugar or a quick-to-make toffee sauce.
They’re not shy when it comes to flavor. Nut Slices, for instance, spiked with cinnamon and filled with toasted nuts, bring warm and cozy memories of Grandma. My version of the English classic Sticky Toffee Pudding gets its deep dark color and sweet, intense flavor from dates.
If you’ve never tasted Panforte, you’re in for a surprise. This Italian confection, filled with fruits and toasted nuts, makes a satisfyingly chewy and spicy dessert.
A little goes a long way, so don’t slice the wedges too large. If you want to give it away to friends or loved ones, bake it in small discs, wrap them in brown butcher paper and tie with twine, the way they do in Siena. They will keep for months.
In fact, you can get a head start on your gift list by baking on the weekends. Make Cranberry Almond Tea Bread, for example, wrap it in cellophane and tie the ends with silk ribbon; its glistening almond topping will shine through.
The stars of these desserts are the ingredients, so be sure to choose the best. Don’t settle for that hard, mysterious clump of fruit stashed in your refrigerator last year.
Use dried fruit that is fresh, moist and plump. Check out the dried fruit vendors at your local farmers market. Unlike commercial dried fruit, their products are soft and supple because they’re from the latest crop. You’ll find unusual varieties there, such as broken heart plums, flame raisins, Bosc pears, white nectarines and a wide range of dates, such as Khadrawi, Halawi and Medjool.
The same goes for spices. Throw out those 5-year-old jars of ground spices in your pantry. Buy a spice grinder and grind small batches of whole spices. Perry Doty is my favorite spice merchant. His little shop on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles, All Spice, stocks premium spices and other ingredients used for baking. If you must buy your spices already ground, buy them as fresh as possible from a quality mail-order source.
When you get that urge to bake this year, give in. Just keep it sweet and simple. You just might find yourself baking these holiday desserts all year long.