Face facts: Nothing beats fresh fruit as a healthy dessert. It's ++ low in calories and sodium, high in fiber and vitamins, has no cholesterol and is naturally sweet.
A perfectly ripe fruit can taste as delicious -- well, almost as delicious -- as a rich chocolate-filled, butter-laden flaky pastry. The trouble is that fruit rarely seems special or festive. Yet no rule requires fresh fruit to be dull. A little imagination and ingenuity transform fruits to treats.
Simplest is sliced fresh fruit artfully arranged on a beautiful platter. But don't stop there. Drizzle with eye-catching and taste-tantalizing fresh-fruit puree or caramel sauce.
Halve a melon and fill it with berries, or arrange sliced peaches or nectarines, apples or pears on a plate alongside a mound of low-fat cottage cheese flavored with amaretto or frangelico.
String skewers of fresh fruit and roll them lightly in confectioners' sugar or grill them on the barbecue or under the broiler. A classic treat is halved grapefruit lightly sprinkled with sugar.
With a little more effort, you can prepare pleasing fresh fruit macedoines. Pile chunks of fruit into goblets or champagne flutes to give them the importance of fine wine. Perk up the combo by adding a little rum to a mixture of mangoes, papayas and pineapple or a little kirsch to a blueberry-strawberry duo. The topping? Yogurt sprinkled with brown sugar.
For practically effortless fruit magic, freeze seedless green or red grapes, oranges or litchis right in their skins. If you eat them still frozen, their flesh has the texture and taste of fancy sorbet. For the same effect, frozen berries can be crushed in the food processor before serving. For variety, slice the top off a frozen orange and spoon a bit of orange-flavored liqueur into it. Bananas, too, can be frozen right in their skins, peeled and eaten like a Popsicle.
Poached fruits are wonderful when the poaching liquid is sugar syrup with red or white wine flavored with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, vanilla bean, orange or lemon zest, orange flower water or rose water.
Fruit foams are another pleasing, no-cook, no-fat, no-sugar-added dessert. Simply puree a couple of diced apples, pears, peaches or nectarines with about 1/2 cup apple juice, stir in gelatin dissolved in a cup of boiling water, chill and then whip to airy foaminess.
The low-cal, no-fat and no-compromise alternative to ice cream is sorbet. The simplest technique is to puree, say, fresh raspberries and strawberries with a little fruit brandy and freeze them in an ice cream maker. Other sorbets may require the addition of a light sugar syrup.
RUM POACHED PLUMS
My friend Lisa Yockelson is one of the most creative bakers I know. In her latest book, "Fruit Desserts" (Harper Collins, 1991; $14.95), she includes this excellent dessert, which she says "glamorizes summer's juicy plums." She also suggests keeping on hand a jar of plums in the syrup.
16 small red plums
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup dark rum
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 cinnamon stick
6 whole allspice berries
1 small vanilla bean
Prick plums with the tip of a skewer. Place remaining ingredients in a non-reactive saucepan, cover and cook over low heat until sugar dissolves. Uncover, raise heat to high and bring to a boil; boil 2 minutes. Reduce heat to low, add plums and simmer, basting often, 3 minutes or until plums are just tender. With a slotted spoon, remove plums to a bowl to cool. Boil syrup until slightly reduced, 2 to 3 minutes. Cool completely. Discard allspice berries. Slip off skins of plums. Place plums in a jar or serving bowl and pour over syrup. Keeps, refrigerated, 1 month. Serves four.
I enjoyed this outstanding sorbet at a recent lunch at the Sheraton Carlton in Washington. It's perfect for times when no fresh fruit is on hand.
4 cups apple juice
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 cinnamon stick
6 whole cloves
1 cup applesauce
grated rind of 1/4 lemon
1/2 shot glass kirsch
1 egg white, whipped to a light froth
Place apple juice, sugar, lemon juice, cinnamon and cloves in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook, whisking frequently, until mixture has the density of syrup. Pour through a fine strainer. Cool completely. Stir in applesauce, lemon rind and kirsch. Add egg white. Freeze in an ice cream freezer. Serves six.