NO matter how wonderful the array of savory dishes on the buffet, at an open house some folks can’t help but stop by the dessert table first. Who can blame them? For sweets lovers, a lavish display -- and the possibilities of multiple choices -- is an irresistible temptation.
But even for those goody two-shoes who eat their way through the feast in the “proper” order, the appeal of indulging in not one, but several different desserts is the fun at the heart of a dessert bar.
The offerings should be right for making up a sweet cocktail-party plate, one holding a medley of tastes and tidbits: a tiny piece of fruit tart, a nibble-sized chocolaty petit four, a few spiced nuts. Nothing that requires a fork or a bib, please. Nothing that stupefies your guests with sugar.
Although the fully laden dessert bar that allows partygoers to pick and choose their treats looks as if it took days of stove-hovering to devise, it’s really not that hard.
It’s all in the planning.
First, select two or three key desserts to feature: cakes, tarts or bar-type concoctions that are baked in a single pan and then cut into pieces. One should be chocolate, one fruit-based (citrus is the classic contrast) and a third might be light or nutty or meringuey or whatever appeals. This is not the place for iced cookies in the shape of dreidels, fussy hand-decorated mini cakes or crumbly two-crusted fruit pies.
So in addition to having wonderful flavors, the desserts should be eminently sliceable, lend themselves to small portions, and be lovely to look at not only when they’re first placed on the table, but when seen at the party’s midpoint.
Set up your dessert bar in a different room or part of the room than your main buffet; making it part of a coffee service area is nice. Bring out your pedestal cake plates and tiered serving dishes. Both are wonderful here because displaying desserts at several levels makes the table seem less crowded and spotlights your creations. Slice some of the desserts before setting them out, but make pieces half the size of a normal serving (this goes for brownies and bars too).
Baking for your dessert bar should be done the day before your open house, so select your recipes accordingly. It’s fine to go with old favorites, but there’s no reason not to try new recipes.
We selected one from cookbook author-baker Nick Malgieri’s book “A Baker’s Tour” for Rigo Jansci cake, a kind of chocolate petit four from Hungary. A rectangular chocolate cake is sliced into two layers, filled with a chocolate cream, glazed and then chilled. Sliced into smaller-than-usual squares, it’s a densely chocolate mouthful -- and no more.
For a cool, citrusy note, try a lime curd tart. Mexican limes are in season now and are great to use if you have a source, or use regular limes. Make your favorite tart-shell recipe (a sweet-almond pastry is nice) and bake it in a rectangular tart pan. Fill it with a batch of lime curd made by whisking three eggs and three egg yolks in a saucepan with three-fourths cup sugar, a generous half a cup of lime juice and some lime zest, then cut up 10 tablespoons of chilled butter.
Cook over medium heat, stirring and scraping the bottom with a rubber spatula until the mixture thickens, but do not boil. Cool the curd with a piece of plastic wrap pressed onto the surface so it doesn’t form a crust. Finally, spoon the curd into the shell.
Using a rectangular tart pan (available at cooking supply stores) allows guests to easily help themselves to bite-size servings, something that’s impossible to choreograph with a round tart.
Tall and impressive, the more so on a footed cake plate, an angel food cake is an unexpected but welcome note on the dessert buffet. Our espresso-flavored version, glazed with an espresso ganache and decorated with chocolate-covered espresso beans, is beautiful enough for a place on the pedestal.
Try to get your hands on Trablit, a coffee extract available at cooking supply stores, but you’ll also get good results using instant espresso powder.
With your star offerings in place on the dessert table, plan a few homemade or purchased supporting players: tiny, visually appealing tidbits to offer in small bowls. I like to make spiced nuts, candied grapefruit peel and nut brittle or toffee. For the nuts, toss two cups of pecan halves or blanched almonds with one tablespoon lightly beaten egg white, one tablespoon cinnamon, one-fourth teaspoon nutmeg and one-half teaspoon sea salt. Bake on an ungreased baking sheet at 300 degrees for about 35 minutes, until crisp.
Or, you might offer a selection of glace fruits, the “sugar plums” of our time, so beautiful they look like Christmas ornaments. And fill a bowl with citrus for eating out of hand -- tempting Satsuma tangerines or Clementines, perhaps.
For Southern Californians, the waves of fresh grapefruits, mandarins and oranges arriving in markets are as much a part of the holidays as Santa in sunglasses and patio parties in mid-winter.
And like the dessert bar, they’re a symbol of sweet hope for the future.