I love having friends over for dinner and sharing my love for food with them. When people walk into my home for a dinner party of any kind, be it an intimate gathering of four or a Thanksgiving table of 15, it needs to be a special, hopefully perfectly timed evening where everyone feels comfortable and welcome.
These dinners always begin with a special cocktail that I create for each occasion, along with appetizers or nibbles. Then there’s usually soup or salad and then the entrée. At this point I’m very cool, confident and am patting myself on the back with how smooth everything is going. But now it’s time for dessert. Agh!
I start to panic a bit when I think of desserts because they aren’t necessarily my strong suit. I love eating dessert; I enjoy making dessert; I was brought up in a great dessert-making family. My sister Kathy is, seriously, the best with desserts, as were both my grandmothers, my mother, and my other three sisters. I’m thinking it was a gene that was inherited by the women in my family. I say this because my younger brother, who is studying to become a chef, and I didn’t inherit that gene. We’re definitely savory guys through and through.
But once you have a few tried and tested desserts up your sleeve, there’s no need to stress over the last course of your meal.
Here are some of the tastiest desserts I’ve created:
- Italian Zabaglione
I prepared this dessert to finish one of my favorite dinners for a small intimate party with good friends and neighbors. I made Seared Cod with a Dry Riesling Beurre Blanc Sauce. For dessert, I served an Italian Zabaglione, which is a rich, egg yolk-based custard, made with Marsala wine. By whisking together egg yolks, Marsala wine and sugar in a heavy bowl over a sauce pan with simmering water, you can create one of the richest and most delicious desserts. I layered the Zabaglione with an assortment of berries that were macerated with Amaretto Liqueur. For someone who shies away from sweets, I have to admit that this was a pretty spectacular dessert.
- White Peach Upside Down Cake with a Brown Sugar Amaretto Crust
Over the summer, I had a small brunch on the back deck of my apartment for friends. It was a great brunch with Peach Bellinis, several breakfast meats, egg dishes, and several veggie dishes as well. While shopping for the brunch, I saw some beautiful white peaches. I bought a few to make the nectar for the Peach Bellinis and then thought why not pick up some more and come up with a dessert using them as well. I got home, did a bit of research and came up with White Peach Upside Down Cake with a Brown Sugar Amaretto Crust. It turned out to be another one of my all-time favorite desserts.
- Mexican Chocolate Pot de Crème, topped with Grand Marnier Whipped Cream and Chopped Dark Chocolate Bark
The next dessert was inspired by my love of traveling! For the past 5 years or so, I’ve been traveling to an extremely beautiful colonial city located in the central highlands of Mexico called San Miguel de Allende. I go once a year and spend an entire month there. It’s a charming city with amazing restaurants, great chefs, friendly people and is very walkable. There is a restaurant there, Café San Agustín, which specializes in Mexican hot chocolate and churros. You go there any given night and the place is packed with people there to experience the cooked-to-order churros and the hot chocolate. So I wanted to pay tribute to not only San Miguel, but also Café San Agustín with a dessert inspired by their Mexican hot chocolate. I’ve made this dessert twice already.
The inspired dessert was a Mexican Chocolate-Pot de Crème, topped with Grand Marnier Whipped Cream and Chopped Dark Chocolate Bark. This is another one of those egg yolky, custardy, pudding-like desserts, except that it’s made with chopped Mexican chocolate which is found in most grocery stores in the Hispanic section. If you are not familiar with Mexican chocolate, it is sweetened with ‘piloncillo’, Mexican raw sugar, spiced with ‘canela’ (the Mexican variety of cinnamon), vanilla and almonds along with some incredible bittersweet chocolate. It ends up being a very rich and very decadent, a truly special dessert, made with lots of love for very special friends.
Along with dessert and coffee, I also served this amazing liqueur called Mandarin Napoleon. Produced in France, it’s a liqueur that is Cognac-based and infused with macerated mandarin oranges as well as a blend of aromatic spices. This is truly one of my favorite after-dinner drinks. Years ago, I worked as a wine bar manager at a popular Chicago French restaurant and this was one of the best selling items on the bar menu. That’s why I love it! Along with its great flavors, it brings back memories of this wonderful restaurant, its amazing cuisine and my fellow co-workers. It also has a very special place in my heart because it was the place that my stepdad proposed to my mom.
- Apple Crumb Pie with Walnuts and Raisins
The last dessert was actually a spur of the moment decision that involved an abundance of Honey Crisp apples I had on hand. It was an apple crumb pie with walnuts and raisins. I loved the simplicity of the topping for this pie. The recipe for the crumb topping was just ¼ cup of brown sugar, ¼ cup of all purpose flour, ½ a teaspoon of cinnamon and 4 tablespoons of chilled butter, cut up into small pieces, all blended together to resemble coarse corn meal. After tossing together ¼ cup of brown sugar, ¼ cup of granulated sugar, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon, 3 tablespoons of flour in a large bowl with 6 cups of sliced apples. I placed it all in a 9 inch, unbaked pie crust shell, top with the crumb topping, cover loosely with foil and bake in a preheated 375-degree oven for 25 minutes. Remove foil after the 25 minutes and continue cooking for 25-30 minutes until top is golden brown. If you prefer an apple that has a bit more tartness, I would recommend using Granny Smith apples.
The lesson I learned was that, even though I had not inherited the dessert-making gene from my grandmother, I was able to conquer my fear of making tasty desserts. And I encourage those dessert-challenged home cooks to conquer their fears as well!