A taste of something sweet seems obligatory to cap a festive dinner or even a family meal. Going without dessert may be righteous, but it isn't very satisfying.
But what's a cook to do when so many guests look askance at a confection called Death by Chocolate, and the alternative fat-free cheesecake recipes are so drab?
One culinary sleight of hand is to offer dessert in miniature -- small cookies or cupcakes or small frosted cakes. Although the ingredients are rich, the diminutive size will hold down calories.
We tend to think of cookies and cupcakes as children's treats or tea accompaniments, but a biscotti studded with milk chocolate and almonds or a square of toffee-topped shortbread can be elegant and just as satisfying to an adult as an Oreo is to a child.
To persuade the diner that less is more, though, presentation is everything. So arrange the biscotti or cookies on fancy dessert plates and bring out the heirloom tea or coffee cups. And if more substance, as well as drama, is required, the sweets can be paired with ice cream or frozen yogurt or fresh fruit.
A variation on the traditional biscotti is wonderful with espresso or tea. The recipe contains butter, which makes it easier to work with than the classic, hard-textured biscotti doughs; it does, however, mean more calories and smaller portions.
Caramel tastes have regained popularity lately, and some restaurant chefs drizzle caramel over almost any dessert or even create elaborate hardened cages of spun caramel. Toffee is a form of caramel, with nuts added.
When a toffee topping is baked onto a shortbread crust and glazed with chocolate, it creates a fanciful dessert -- still much more feasible than spun caramel.
Venetian cornmeal diamonds
Makes 2 1/2 to 3 dozen.
This recipe, from Nick Malgieri's "Great Italian Desserts" (Little, Brown, 1990), is called zaleti in Italian. These are crumbly and not too sweet, and perfect after a hearty Italian meal.
1 1/2 cups yellow cornmeal
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold
3/4 cup currants or dark raisins
2 large eggs
grated zest of 1 small lemon
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Rub in the butter finely, leaving the mixture cool and powdery. Stir in the currants or raisins.
Or pulse the dry ingredients in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Add the butter, cut into 8 pieces and pulse again 6 or 8 times until finely mixed. Pour into a bowl and stir in the currants or raisins.
Beat the eggs with the lemon zest and vanilla. Stir into the flour mixture with a fork.
Flour the dough lightly and divide it into 4 pieces. Roll them into cylinders about 1 inch in diameter. Flatten the cylinders slightly and cut them diagonally at 1 1/2 -inch intervals, making diamond shapes.
Arrange the zaleti on paper-lined cookie sheets and bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes, until they are light golden in color. Cool on racks and dust with confectioners' sugar.
Makes about 4 dozen.
This is from a little book titled, simply, "Biscotti," by Lou Seibert (Pappas, Chronicle Books, 1992). They are delectable morsels, much moister than more traditional biscotti, although, like drier biscotti, they are baked twice.
1 1/2 cups almonds, slivered
1/2 cup butter
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
3 eggs, separated
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
zest of 1 orange
3 cups unbleached flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups coarsely chopped milk chocolate
Place nuts in a shallow pan and bake in a 350-degree oven for 8 to 10 minutes, until golden brown. Let cool. In a mixing bowl, cream butter and 1/2 cup sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in egg yolks, vanilla and orange zest. In a bowl combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Add to the creamed mixture, mixing until just crumbly. In a separate bowl beat the egg whites until soft peaks form and beat in remaining sugar, beating until stiff but not dry. Fold meringue into crumbly dough, mixing until it clings together. Cut nuts into halves or thirds and fold in along with chocolate. Divide dough in half. Form into two logs on a
greased and floured baking sheet, making them about 1/2 inch thick, 1 1/2 inches wide and 16 inches long, spacing them at least 2 inches apart. Bake in the middle of a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes or until set and golden brown. Transfer from the baking sheet to a rack. Let cool 5 minutes. With a serrated knife, slice diagonally at a 45-degree angle about 1/2 inch thick. Place the slices upright on a baking sheet and return to the oven at 300 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes to dry slightly. Let cool on a rack. Store in a tightly covered container.
Makes about 24.
These are very rich and should be cut small. But the toffee is irresistible, so the dessert eaters might be back for more. Vanilla frozen yogurt or a tart fruit sorbet -- grapefruit or lemon -- would be a good partner.
1 cup unsalted butter