What's for Dessert
"What's for dessert?"
It’s a nightly refrain in our house. Without fail, as soon as dinner is done and before the plates are cleared, I turn and ask my husband, Harris, this question with a mix of eagerness and excitement. When I’m deep in recipe-testing mode, there’s a certain tongue-in-cheekiness to the question, since we might already have a cake or pastry sitting on the countertop. But on other nights, the answer is open-ended. Dessert could be a piece of cookie dough pulled from the freezer and baked, or a spoonful of hot fudge or caramel sauce scooped from a jar in the fridge. Absent any of these options, we get creative. Harris might schmear a little chocolate-hazelnut spread over a graham cracker or whip up a glass of chocolate milk. Or, we simply dip out to our corner bodega for an ice cream bar. Whatever dessert is, I have to have it, and savoring it is a ritual Harris and I always look forward to sharing.
Asking “what’s for dessert?” is more than a nightly routine, it’s a personal exercise. It prompts me to imagine all the ways I can bestow myself and those around me with (edible) pleasures and comforts. Conceiving an answer and bringing it to life are acts of self-care and care for others. During the pandemic, when many of our normal sources of enjoyment disappeared, the question took on new import. I found myself at home thinking of new and creative ways I could add a little sweetness to daily life—literally.
Historically, dessert to me has always meant something baked, but this book expands that definition. Here I embrace a wide variety of desserts, from those cooked on the stovetop to those chilled in the freezer or refrigerator, as well as those served largeformat and individually, free-form and composed. Whether you’re into flambés, soufflés, or simple loaf cakes, there’s a happiness-inducing dessert here for everyone. In celebrating this vast and beautiful spectrum, this book offers over 100 different answers to that all-important question: What’s for dessert?
I hope that the breadth of recipes in this book inspires you to discover new ways of being a dessert person (or to become one, if you’re not already), but I know this won’t happen unless you actually want to prepare the recipes at home in your own kitchen. With that in mind, I take into account home bakers’ time, space, and budget limitations in an effort to make each recipe as approachable as possible. None requires a stand mixer and only about half require a hand mixer, meaning a great number are makeable entirely by hand.
Like many people, I experienced a degree of burnout in the kitchen after preparing so many meals at home in the early months of the pandemic. This diminished ambition became an asset while I was developing the recipes for this book. It drove me to employ store-bought ingredients both thoughtfully and strategically, and to focus on simple, make-ahead recipes with wide margins of error—what Harris calls “cook’s desserts.” Not only can every person find a dessert here to suit their tastes, they can find one to match the time and energy they want to invest as well (see Recipe Matrix on pages 8–9).
Though none of the recipes in this book rises to the occasion of a project, they range in difficulty level from 1 (Very Easy) to 3 (Moderate). The very easy ones, like my HoneyRoasted Apple Cake (page 138) and French 75 Jelly with Grapefruit (page 42), don’t require a lot of time, focus, or technique and could be made while also putting dinner on the table, doing laundry, or emptying the dishwasher (believe me, I’ve done all). The moderate ones, like the Souffléed Lemon Bread Pudding (page 325) and Walnut & Oat Slab Pie (page 273), are a bit more involved but provide learning and entertainment in the kitchen without being all-day affairs. No matter the difficulty level or time commitment, each recipe is streamlined so it comes together as efficiently as possible. (See About the Recipes, page 15, for more on this approach and a more detailed breakdown of the difficulty ratings.) If you’re a beginner, rest assured: No dessert in this book is out of your reach.
For inspiration and to broaden my dessert horizons, I turned to cookbooks by lauded pastry chefs and authors such as Claudia Fleming, Gale Gand, Gina DePalma, Emily Luchetti, Karen DeMasco, Dorie Greenspan, and Flo Braker. These works helped me get to know the canons of classic American and European desserts and planted the seeds that became many of the retro-leaning recipes here, like Banana-Sesame Cream Tart (page 245) and Marbled Sheet Cake (page 176). I also explored the charming and homespun world of community cookbooks, including ones my mom has had on her shelf for years, to learn more about the history of home desserts (these spiral-bound recipe collections, written and compiled by local organizations like church groups and rotary clubs, are gems—look for them in used bookstores and on eBay and Etsy). These sources inspired me to create recipes that feel at times humble and homey and at other times a little fancy, but always fun, joyful, and a touch whimsical.
While this book features many different kinds of desserts, there's a timeless quality to how a great number of them look and taste. In many cases, I don’t mess with beloved classics that need no updating, so I provide faithful versions of Crème Brûlée (page 291) and Eton Mess (page 319). In other cases, I tweak the flavor, format, or scale of an old favorite, as I do in Old-Fashioned Cherries Jubilee (page 105) and Tiramisu-y Icebox Cake (page 63). And sometimes I incorporate familiar elements into more original creations, like Roasted Lemon Tart (page 253) and Phyllo Cardamom Pinwheels (page 186). No matter the specific recipe, you’ll find the clear imprint of my style throughout: lots of fruit, no fussy decoration, clear flavors, and multiple textures.
This collection of desserts feels classic to me. That sense is a reflection of my family history, my childhood growing up in the Midwest, my culinary education in Paris, and my time living in New York City. Though what constitutes a “classic” differs for everyone according to age, geography, and life experience, I think you’ll find desserts in these chapters that give you a taste of the comforting and familiar, too.
I’ve organized the recipes into chapters according to where and how they come together: inside the oven, on the stovetop, or in the refrigerator and freezer. The idea is to provide a certain user-friendliness. If, say, you’re a college student living in a dorm, you can make no-oven-needed Persimmon Panna Cotta (page 51) from the Chilled & Frozen Desserts chapter, or Malted & Salted Caramel Pudding (page 119) from the Stovetop Desserts chapter. Or, if it’s cold outside and you’re in the mood to bake, select something cozy-sounding from one of the oven-focused chapters, like the Cranberry Anadama Cake (page 153) in Easy Cakes.
Thinking about dessert along these lines revealed fascinating patterns. About half of the recipes in the book—the ones that fall into the chapters titled Easy Cakes; Bars, Cookies & Candied Things; and Pies, Tarts, Cobblers & Crisps—get their structure from flour. The other half—the ones falling into Chilled & Frozen Desserts, Stovetop Desserts, and More Desserts from the Oven—get their structure from eggs. The wide variety of custards, puddings, and other egg-based desserts in the book means that gluten-free options abound. You’ll also find a couple of vegan recipes.
While the categories indicate something essential about the recipes, they’re also somewhat subjective. Fried Sour Cherry Pies (page 271) could be classified in both the Stovetop Desserts chapter and the Pies, Tarts, Cobblers & Crisps chapter, but, because I think of them as pies first and foremost, I decided to put them in the latter. Blood Orange Pudding Cake (page 297), though cakelike, is made much like a custard or soufflé, so I filed it in the More Desserts from the Oven chapter. This fluidity between categories demonstrates that, really, all desserts are related!
I’ve been practicing the baking and pastry arts long enough to know instinctively when to stop whipping cream for soft peaks or when curd is about to thicken. At the same time, I remember the uncertainty I felt toward these and other techniques as I was learning in the kitchen. That’s why the final chapter, Essential Recipes & Techniques, focuses on the preparations and processes—both major and minor—that form the foundations of dessert, from All-Purpose Meringue (page 344) to Cutting Citrus (page 357). You’ll find step-by-step photos and detailed instructions to guide and reassure you at every turn.
This book is my love letter to dessert. Writing it taught me more than I imagined possible about the fascinating and delicious realm of sweet flavors and deepened my appreciation and admiration for the process of creating them. Though I originally embarked on writing this cookbook to expand my own horizons and become a more well-rounded dessert person, it quickly became a vehicle for providing my fellow dessert people with a wide variety of approachable recipes. As dessert people, we share the recognition that food is about pleasure rather than guilt, sociability rather than snobbery, and inclusivity rather than exclusivity. Whether you're a fruit dessert person or a chocolate dessert person, a frozen dessert person or a baked dessert person, this book answers your burning question: What's for dessert?