Monday, July 2, 2012

Summer Desserts

I got my first out-of-the-blue reader email recently (from someone who turned out to be my parents' neighbor, although we don't actually know him!), asking for summer dessert suggestions.  In my typical long winded way (when you get me talking about dessert), I ended up writing a fairly lengthy response.  Since I haven't had a lot to contribute to the blog lately I figured I'd share my musings with the rest of you, just in time for the Fourth of July!!  My response to him was mostly comprised of ideas, but has a few real recipes thrown in, too (and a reference to my 2010 post about rhubarb jam, that will never, ever get old for me!). 

I love light and fruity desserts, always, but particularly in the summer.  One of my favorite things to make is fruit compote or macerated strawberries, which I serve over a simple panna cotta, yogurt, or a good quality vanilla ice cream.  Panna cotta is lovely because it seems like it's fancy and complicated, but it's actually quite quick to make, and is cool and creamy and can play host to any number of fruity accompaniments.  I have used Ina Garten's recipe with good success.  You need to prep it a day ahead, but the active time is quite short, and won't heat up your kitchen in the summer.  It is as follows: 

Vanilla Panna Cotta with Macerated Strawberries
Makes 4 servings
* ½ packet (1 teaspoon) unflavored gelatin powder
* 1 ½ Tablespoons cold water 
* 1 ½ cups heavy cream, divided 
* 1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt 
* 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract 
* ½ vanilla split lengthwise and seeds scraped (if a whole vanilla bean is hard to come by, add another ½ teaspoon of extract) 
* cup granulated sugar
1. In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin on the 1 ½ Tablespoons of cold water. Stir and set aside for 10 minutes to allow the gelatin to be absorbed by the water and soften. 

2. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together ¾ cup of the cream, the yogurt, vanilla extract, and vanilla bean seeds. Heat the other ¾ cup of cream and the sugar in a small saucepan until the sugar is dissolved (it will just barely come to a simmer for this to happen). Off the heat, add the softened gelatin to the hot cream and stir to dissolve. 

3. Pour the hot cream-gelatin mixture into the cold cream-yogurt mixture and whisk to combine. Pour into 4 (6 to 8-ounce) ramekins or cups, or one larger dish, and refrigerate uncovered until cold. When the panna cottas are thoroughly chilled, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.  (Update: A friend tried this recipe and said that it set in 5 hours, so that's good to know!)

For the macerated strawberries, wash fresh strawberries, pat dry, and then remove the stems and halve or quarter them, depending on how big they are.  Sprinkle them with a tablespoon or two of granulated sugar and a tablespoon of freshly squeezed lemon or orange juice, or liqueur if you have any handy.  Grand Marnier is tasty, but I wouldn't buy a bottle just for this--lemon and orange juice works just fine, too!  Let the berries sit at room temperature for 30 minutes-up to a few hours, to let the sugar dissolve and let the strawberries release some of their juices and soften.  Alternatively, Ina suggests serving this with balsamic marinated strawberries, where you do the process described above, except you use a tablespoon or two of (good quality) balsamic vinegar instead of lemon juice or Grand Marnier.  Use your judgment about what kind of flavors you like! 

Also, 'tis the (tail end) of the rhubarb season, and I literally cannot get enough of the rhubarb compote that I blogged about a couple summers back.  I put it on yogurt with granola for breakfast, or on ice cream for dessert.  I haven't had an opportunity to try it on panna cotta, but I imagine it would be delicious.

For even more variations, you can cook down just about any fruit and spoon it over a panna cotta/ice cream/yogurt/just about everything.  Raspberries (fresh or frozen), blackberries, blueberries, nectarines, peaches (best to peel those), the list goes on...  Simply wash fruit, cut up stone fruits or de-stem berries, and cook over medium heat with some sugar and a pinch of salt until they've reached a saucy consistency of your liking.  Taste, adjust sweetness, and I always finish with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to add some brightness to the sauce and ensure that it's not cloyingly sweet.  Cool in the fridge.  When serving either macerated berries or a cold fruit compote on panna cotta, I simply spoon the fruit on top of the panna cotta in it ramekin or whatever you've chilled it in (teacups work well, too, if you don't have ramekins).  Ditto for ice cream.

The other thing I love in the summer is fruit crumbles, because they are so versatile.  Once you know how to make a good crumble topping, you can put it on top of so many different fruit combos to make the most of what's in season.  I'm currently really into crumble topping with oats, although when my grandmother first taught me how to make blueberry crumble when I was about 8 years old, she only used flour, brown sugar and butter.  Either way it's quick to make.  When I was a kid I didn't understand ratios, and making blueberry crumble was really just an excuse for me to eat a ton of raw topping while adjusting the brown sugar/butter/flour ratio.  Now I follow a recipe, (but yet I still eat a fair amount of the topping...) 

Fruit Crumble Topping
Makes topping for one 9-10 inch square crumble
* 1 cup all purpose flour 
* ½ cup brown sugar, packed (light or dark is fine) 
* ¾ teaspoon kosher salt 
* 1 cup quick-cooking (not instant) or old fashioned oats (or you can omit these, and use less butter--I usually eyeball this kind of thing, but I would guess that you'd only need about 7 tablespoons of butter) 
* 12 tablespoons (1 ½ sticks) cold unsalted butter, diced 

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, if you have one, or in a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients.  Sprinkle with the butter, and combine on medium speed until the butter is evenly distributed and the mixture is coarse and crumbly (about 4-5 minutes I think?)  If you don't have a mixer, use your hands and pinch the butter into the dry ingredients until its well distributed, and will hold together in clumps if you squeeze it together.  This recipe (with the oats) makes enough topping to cover a 9 x 9-inch or a 10 x 10-inch crumble, or its equivalent, if you're using a different shaped pan.

It is super easy to halve or double the topping recipe, and extra will keep in the fridge for a week or two, or in the freezer for longer.
So, now to the fruit.  As I said, I learned this with blueberries, but the possibilities are extensive: Blueberry/nectarine (or peach), strawberry rhubarb, plum, peach/raspberry, apple (I usually save apple for fall, and add a touch of cinnamon and sugar to the apples), etc.  Depending on the fruit, I add a little bit of citrus juice/zest.  I mostly use the juice and zest of one lemon, but orange is equally delicious. For most of these, with the exception of strawberry rhubarb, the process is as follows:

Wash the fruit, peel/cut it if necessary, toss with citrus juice and zest, and put it in a lightly buttered baking dish, about 1 1/2 inches deep (the fruit, not the dish), and cover with the crumble topping.  Place the baking dish on a cookie sheet (to catch any juices that bubble over), and bake for 40 minutes to an hour in a 350°F oven until the fruit is bubbling around the edges and the top is golden brown.  Serve warm or at room temperature, with vanilla ice cream or freshly whipped cream, if desired.  

Strawberry rhubarb is a little different, because those are fruits that give off a lot of liquid, and rhubarb is not naturally sweet.  If you want to do strawberry rhubarb crumble, I recommend Ina, as always.

Hope some of these ideas inspire your own summer desserting.  It's all about taking advantage of what is fresh and abundant and cheap while the seasons last.   Apple desserts you can make year-round, chocolate never goes out of season, but you can only have a delicious blueberry or plum crumble for a few short weeks when the fruit is at its peak, so embrace it!

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