Holiday treats: Getting poached, going nuts

Now that most of our friends are older—and even with our adult children—we often ask, when invited to dinner, if we can contribute the dessert course.

Le Duc, who never met a cake he could not coax into a ganache-filled cloud, and who rolls pâte sablé with unflappable elan, usually found fruit-based desserts unpromising. But as we age, he has retreated from those super-rich treats. Also, he realizes that, if free to choose, I will cook it.

This winter, I am bringing David Lebovitz' recipe for poached pears, a magical dessert, light but flavourful, pleasing to just-a-taste as well as "I'm saving myself for dessert" types, and adaptable to calorie-reduced diets (sort of.)

I faithfully follow Lebovitz' recipe for poaching, including his variation of the addition of a good handful of dried sour cherries; the resulting syrup is redolent of spices you can't quite pin down. To add that "sinful quality" I pass a bowl of mascarpone, another of toasted almonds, and offer a plate of sliced paneforte, but spice cake or cookies would be delicious, too.

A guest can choose the relatively austere pears (even with no syrup, you can taste the flavour in the fruit) or ramp it up to the full mascarpone Monty. Lebovitz' readers have offered many variations in the comments section.

A gift tradition

As I do each holiday season, I'm reposting a candied nuts recipe. They're festively irresistible, and can be made last-minute, only 10 minutes to prep and 30 to bake. 

The recipe is perfect to make with a young cook; children instinctively enjoy the pleasure of making something special to give.

Sugar and Spice Candied Nuts

1/3 cup dark-brown sugar
2/3 cup white granulated sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
Generous pinch cayenne pepper
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 lb. walnut or pecan halves, or whole peeled hazelnuts
1 egg white, room temperature
1 Tbsp water

1. Preheat oven to 300F
2. Mix sugars, salt, cayenne and cinnamon, making sure there are no lumps; set aside.
3. Beat egg white and water until frothy but not stiff. Add nuts, stir to coat evenly. Sprinkle nuts with sugar mixture, toss until evenly coated.
4. Spread nuts in a single layer on a parchment-covered baking pan. Bake 30 min., stirring occasionally.
5. Remove from oven and separate nuts as they cool. Transfer to bowl and break apart any nuts that stick together.

To give as a gift, package in a mason jar, tin or paper cone.

What are your favourite "I'll bring dessert" choices?


Susan said…
One of the easiest and most satisfying desserts I offer to bring is the Texas Sheet Cake. It's an easy cake made from ingredients most people have in their pantry. It's made with cocoa and buttermilk. The yummy icing includes chopped pecans. It's truly the best cake around for the least effort. It bakes in a rectangular pan and is cut into squares. One recipe can serve at least twelve.
Susan said…
I found a link to the Texas Sheet Cake recipe:
Duchesse said…
Susan: I found a recipe here- and realized it's a chocolate cake. I'm gonna try it!
Susan B said…
Le monsieur makes the most amazing chocolate chip cookies. Seriously. People tell him he's should sell them. I used to make butterscotch blondies that were always a hit. Neither of us are particularly accomplished cooks, so we tend to stick to the simple stuff. ;-) But those poached pears sound absolutely scrumptious (and they're in season right now) so may have to try that one for our New Year's Eve bash.
Duchesse said…
Pseu: I think it depends on the crowd; most of our friends are less apt to eat rich desserts than we were in the past. But if kids are involved, bring on the fudgey and decadent! Or two desserts...?
D. A. Wolf said…
Poached pears are something I've always wanted to try, but haven't yet.

My "will bring" dessert? Pineapple upside down cake, somehow very festive this time of year. And I love love love making "mini" pineapple upside down cakes instead, bite-sized, slow to make (of course), but fun to spread on a doily and serve.

One of my sons, believe it or not, after spending 9 months in Geneva (school then working), taught himself to bake European cakes. (He's better at following recipes than I am.) He makes a variation on Smitten Kitchens apple sharlotka that is heavenly!

And yes, the ingredients for both are in the cupboard. My boys will be home for the holidays, and certain baking expectations are my responsibility... and also, now, my son's!
materfamilias said…
I love doing poached pears with mascarpone (studded with candied ginger, sometimes). I must admit that I rarely offer to bring dessert other than my blackberry pies which have acquired some renown (but they're messier than some hostesses need to contend with). I do have a killer Blue Cheesecake recipe that I have brought a few times in the past, and more recently the fallback is a simple Lemon-Rosemary Olive Oil cake. As you say, there's just less call for the overly rich these days. The kids will probably insist, though, that I still bring a Trifle for Christmas dinner. . .
Anonymous said…
I mean to try both of these, though poached fruit without something naughty on the side--cake, cookies, creme chantilly or ice cream--is a little too grown-up for me, I must admit.

In Summer, the dessert I bring is almost always a tart of whatever fruit is ripe and beautiful. My winter choice is usually a moist lemon pound cake. Baked in a bundt pan, drizzled with vanilla glaze, and surrounded by fresh citrus leaves and kumquats or homemade marzipan fruits, it's a gorgeous and delicious presence on the buffet table.

In graduate school, when I had lots of friends and very few dishes, I came up with this dessert for a crowd: Buy a packet of foil-backed paper muffin cups, crush some good butter cookies and put a spoonful of crumbs in each cup, sprinkle the crumbs with rum or bourbon. Make a double recipe of a rich chocolate mousse and spoon it into the cups. Refrigerate until it's time to serve, then add a dollop of whipped cream to each and garnish with grated chocolate. With a goblet full of plastic spoons handy, these mousse cups will make a lot of people too happy to miss dishes and silverware.

Susan said…
I just remembered two other desserts in my go to category. The first is a simple raspberry buttermilk cake. It's a one layer cake and is wonderful served with ice cream:

The other is a Cranberry Nut Pudding:

1 1/2 cups of fresh cranberries
1 cup chopped pecans (or a few less)
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
2 eggs
1/2 cup white sugar
2/3 cup all purpose flour
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter, melted
Vanilla ice cream

Arrange berries evenly over the bottom of a buttered (or Pammed) 1 quart baking dish. Sprinkle with brown sugar and chopped pecans. Beat eggs and sugar in a large mixing bowl until thick. Pour batter over cranberries. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes (check starting at 30 minutes) or until a wooden pick in center comes out clean. Cool for 15 minutes. Serve warm with ice cream. 6 to 8 (small) servings
I plan to try your recipe for nuts...I am not great at making desserts. Fruit is my fall back though and often paired with angel food cake or a pavlova.
Duchesse said…
D.A. Wolf: A 'mini' presentation is so smart, people can take as much as they wish. Isn't it wonderful to see the next generation build their culinary skills? Sometimes they want our recipes but it's also exciting when they branch off in new directions.

materfamilias: I would put up happily with the mess for your homemade blackberry pie! And when you have a reputation it's hard to say no when asked to bring your "famous" treat.

C.: Marzipan fruits around the bundt cake, what a delightful presentation. I am lazy but I have seen some gorgeous ones at the market.

Muffin tins as dishes, ingenious.

Susan: Thank you for the recipe, so festive!

hostess: I am still having a hard time selling fruit for dessert to Le Duc- he loves cakes, mousse, creme caramel, etc. But I too prefer fruit or at least fruit-based desserts.

Those poached pears look lovely; one could also just drizzle a bit of melted bitter chocolate atop them.

Another light dessert solution is fruit-only sorbets, such as those made here by Solo Fruit. They do contain some fruit juice concentrate, so there are a certain number of grammes of sugar in them, though there is no white sugar. However they are far less sweet than other sorbets, and very refreshing. I like the pear, and the trio, which includes ginger.

I was going to say "cheese", of course, more in terms of limiting sugar than in being fat or calorie light...
Swissy said…
My current top favorite "to bring" is Ina Garten's lemon yoghurt cake. I don't always make the last glaze, since the lemon syrup is enough, I think. I serve it at home with ginger or coconut or black raspberry ice cream or sorbet. In summer I heap it with all kinds of in-season berries. My winter version is a homey one: apple or pear or quince (mixed or not)crisp with dried cranberries and golden raisins. It's great with whipped cream, vanilla ice cream, ginger ice cream and butter pecan ice cream. Or I make a fruit crostata, which takes NO TIME. Thanks to all!
Susan said…
I want to amend directions on Cranberry nut pudding to say that flour and other ingredients remaining should be mixed with butter and sugar after they are first mixed together and thick. It's an easy dessert to make. It is tart AND sweet. I hope you like it as much as we do.
Duchesse said…
lagatta: Fruit sorbet is an elegant idea and better than fresh fruits that are not in season. (Apricots, always disappointing.)

Swissy: I like the idea of a summer/winter version of a cake! My mouth was watering reading your description.

Susan: Thank you; the order of ingredients can make a real difference.

Darla said…
We have a Meyer lemon tree and I have a great citrus tart recipe. That is my go to dessert.

Leslie said…
I make the Coconut-Cranberry Chews from a recipe found in the December 2001 Sunset magazine. They are buttery, orangey, coconut, cranberry cookies that everyone loves. I bought the ingredients yesterday and will roll out a double batch this weekend.
Eleanorjane said…
I don't cook or bake much at all these days, but my go-to dessert is probably either a self-saucing chocolate pudding (you make it all in one dish and it forms a cake with a liquid chocolate sauce under it) or a variation of pineapple upside down cake (I use whatever fruit I've got i.e. tinned peaches or pears etc. and triple the butter, sugar and spices in the topping to make plenty of nice goo. The cake bit is simple but it looks impressive and is delicious warm.
Anonymous said…
I've lurked for a long time and never commented, but I just have to tell you: I tried your sweet and spicy nuts recipe and they are DELICIOUS. My husband, the pickiest eater in the world, liked them too.
Duchesse said…
Darla: I've noticed that even those who say they are "not dessert people" enjoy a lemon tart, and to have fresh ones at hand, divine!

Leslie: Thanks for the link! A substantial cookie makes a wonderful dessert, easy to carry and a guest can choose the quantity he or she wishes.

Eleanorjane: Triple the butter and sugar to make more goo- you would be revered at my table.

Anon@11:44: I don't think they are the gateway to broccoli, but as long as a picky eater will eat nuts, they're pretty addictive!
Anonymous said…
Thank you for that recipe! Some "dressed up" pecans will be going along to the book groups annual party :-)
Love your blog - thank you for that too! Have a wonderful season of holidays.

JoyceP in Wisconsin
Northmoon said…
I find the younger generation doesn't bake; I completely amaze them when I bring a homemade dessert. I've made Allrecipe's Best Lemon Cheesecake to great acclaim.

I was looking for something to take to a New Year's Day dinner and Susan's Cranberry Pudding sounds like just the thing - thank you. A combination of sweet and tart is better than sweet and rich after a big meal.
Viktoria Berg said…
A traditional Swedish Christmas dessert that is always appreciated (and hardly anyone can be bothered to make) is Ris á la Malta. It takes a while to make but is easy: cold rice porrige (a slow cooking thing) is mixed with whipped cream, sliced and chopped oranges, and almonds. Yum!
Duchesse said…
Northmoon: There is indeed something about a homemade dessert; it's like a hug. I too thought that about Susan;s recipe- and it also has that festive holiday red. I'm making it tonight!

Viktoria: This is sophisticated comfort food and I am certain it's absolutely wonderful.
I found a recipe here:

Also, I thought the tradition of including a whole almond with a gift for the "winner" made it fun, too.

Do you think the cherry sauce is important?
Kristen said…
Those sweet-spiced pecans are THE BOMB. I used chipotle instead of cayenne to get a rmokier, softer kick. We loved them so much they never even made it to the party! :)
Duchesse said…
Kristien: I know of few other recipes that are so easy to make and yet return so much pleasure- maybe butterscotch sauce?

The cayenne is a great tweak, thanks!
Duchesse said…
JoyceP: I have even used peanuts in a pinch but pecans are the 'special-est'. I predict the book club will ask for the recipe!
Beth said…
Brownies are always a hit, but I have a flourless chocolate cake recipe that is gluten-free and still, basically, a chocolate bomb: I serve small slices with a fresh raspberry sauce. Another favoritefor a crowd is my cardamom-flavored Easy Iranian Cake; it needs no frosting and isn't very rich but tastes delicious and exotic.
Viktoria Berg said…
Duchesse said: "Also, I thought the tradition of including a whole almond with a gift for the "winner" made it fun, too.
Do you think the cherry sauce is important?"

Actually, in the tradition I adhere to the whole almond is added to the hot Christmas rice porridge, which is plain porridge, served with sugar, cinnamon, milk, and a ham sandwich on the side.

The dessert is made from the porridge leftovers and cherry sauce goes nowhere near it. But I expect there are as many recipes as there are people who make it. Mum-in-law makes a version from regular rice leftovers, she even uses take-away rice. Honestly, it´s rather horrid...;-)

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