Sweet Harvest

Fall's rich bounty can produce the most satisfying of fruit-filled desserts

October 20, 1999|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff

We think of summer as bounteous, and it is. But fall is the season of harvest -- a time when the earth gives up the plenty that will sustain us through the long, cold months ahead.

Not the least of which is dessert.

"I love winter desserts," says Alice Waters, restaurateur, cookbook author and maybe the country's most renowned advocate of seasonal tastes in season.

Crisps, tarts, sorbets, granitas and compotes are among her favorites. "Crisps are fantastic, because you can adapt them to any kind of fruit or combination."

Dessert is difficult to turn down at any time of the year -- as any chocoholic will attest -- but when the wind is howling outside and the temperature is dropping, the energy-lifting properties of sweets are doubly welcome. Fruit, which can be just as soothing to a sweet tooth, can be a lighter alternative.

In Italy, fresh seasonal fruit is dessert. In the United States, fruit is all too often relegated to breakfast (in juices) or snack time.

At Waters' Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., winter desserts include an array of crisps, including apple-pear ("It's so lovely to change the taste by the kind of fruit"); candied orange rinds to be dipped in chocolate; Meyer lemon eclairs; pomegranate granita on top of vanilla ice cream; and a variety of galettes.

A galette is a type of tart "that you pile the fruit on," Waters says. The restaurant uses pineapples, oranges, pears and apples with "accents" of raspberry, currant or huckleberry.

These days, you can buy berries -- and almost any other fruit -- all year long. It's always summer or fall somewhere, and a global economy allows purveyors to choose from the whole panoply of fruits. Bearing in mind that California basically has a yearlong growing season, one is eating "closer to the land" by buying things that are in season, Waters contends.

"It's important for me, buying fruit from local growers," Waters says, "not buying anything from the other hemisphere, resisting that temptation."

For Baltimore chef and restaurateur Michael Gettier, the major differences between summer-fruit desserts and winter-fruit desserts are that summer desserts emphasize color and usually aren't cooked. Winter-fruit desserts may not be as colorful, but they are usually cooked and somewhat richer, because they often use cream.

"We serve a lot more hot desserts in winter," says Gettier, whose most recent venue was M. Gettier's Orchard Inn in Towson. A perfect example, he said, is cobblers. He also makes a fig and Parmesan cheesecake.

The cheesecake comes from a family recipe. Gettier's wife, Claudia, also a chef, has an aunt who is Puerto Rican and makes a dessert called quesadilla -- not the flat, cheesy thing we think of, but a real "cheesecake." The first time he tasted it, Gettier says, "I thought it was interesting, but it had the consistency of a wet brick."

He worked on the recipe until he found something more to his liking.

Of course, not everybody likes figs, and they can be hard to find -- unless you know someone who has a tree. Figs, though their season is fleeting, are part of the category called tree fruit.

But when most people think of fruit on trees, they think of apples and pears, which thrive in the orchards of Maryland and Pennsylvania. Anyone who's ever traveled in Pennsylvania Dutch country knows how able those folks are with apples.

Friends who regularly frequent the Lancaster area are crazy about the Amish Barn, a homey restaurant on Route 340, just east of Bird-in-Hand. While the food is good, it is apple dumplings that the restaurant is famous for.

And what apple dumplings they are. Tender apples, nestled in flaky pastry, flavored with butter, cinnamon and sugar, baked in cinnamon-sugar syrup, and served hot with milk or ice cream.

It's definitely a customer favorite, says Mary Lou Jones, manager of the restaurant.

"The Amish will eat them for dinner," she says, "though they don't make 'em as sweet as we do. Your typical dumpling is dry, just apple and dough. We just kind of developed the syrup."

Tradition, however, gets thoroughly tweaked at Restaurant Nora in Washington, where chef-owner Nora Pouillon serves D.C.'s movers and shakers an entirely organic menu.

"Since I'm a certified organic restaurant," Pouillon says, "I can only use organic produce."

Like Waters, Pouillon stays close to home when procuring her ingredients, so her winter desserts feature lots of apples and pears. She also uses prunes and dates. "They have a very short season. I use some dried things, too."

She serves such goodies as roast pears with ginger ice cream, a date-cranberry shortcake with poached pear, and hazelnut-anise shortcake with fresh dates or figs and mascarpone (a soft Italian cheese).

However, she found her customers expect her to have apple pie, so she does. "They don't get it at home" these days, she surmises.

But just to stay clear of any notion of ordinariness, she says, "I make a pear-cranberry pie with Grand Marnier -- the orange flavor of the liqueur really sets off the fruit."

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