The Equation for an Ideal Dessert

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Photo by Maria Robledo


To make all the elements of an ideal dessert, click here for instructions for stovetop-cooked fruit; here for roasted fruit; here for easy butter dough; and here for a guide on how to roll and cut the dough.

My taste in desserts leans toward rather sloppy, warm desserts I can eat out of a wide shallow soup bowl with a large soup spoon. So I've devised an approach I call Bowl and Spoon Desserts: freeform assemblages of cooked fruit with various embellishments, depending on my mood and how much time I have.

By "cooked fruit" I'm talking about warm fruits that taste like the inside of a pie. This can be as simple as briefly cooking berries with some sugar, lemon juice, and a split vanilla bean on the stove top until they melt slightly and their juices run. (The vanilla bean amplifies the fruit's own sweetness and perfume.) Or it might take the form of roasted fruit such as pears or peaches. Roasting tends to bring the out the best in fruits. The dry heat concentrates the flavors and caramelizes natural sugars. The flesh becomes soft and creamy.

I pile the cooked warm fruit into a bowl and embellish it in endless ways: with a scoop of ice cream, frozen yogurt or sorbet; or a sauce (such as whipped cream, crème fraiche, or one made from another fruit); and/or sometimes a prebaked pastry lid, or a thin butter cookie, which turns it into a freeform upside-down tart.

These desserts can be immensely inventive without being fussy; they inspire endless improvisation.

Bowl and Spoon Desserts are wonderful dinner party fare: they are the most spectacular and rewarding desserts for the amount of work involved, at once homey and elegant. The component parts can all be made ahead to be warmed up at the last minute and assembled right in the bowl. And these desserts can be immensely inventive without being fussy; they inspire endless improvisation.

For example, cooking blueberries with a little water and sugar makes their juices run and releases their perfume. They can be eaten warm as is, or with vanilla or peach ice cream for a splendid dessert. If you arrange a charmingly shaped, prebaked lid made out of pie or puff pastry on top, you have a deconstructed tart in a bowl.

Blueberries cooked this way also make a wonderful sauce for roasted nectarines, peaches, bananas or apricots, or for a plain cake. They are a great filling for short cake. You can use the basic blueberry cooking method with lots of other fruits, such as raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, peaches, and cherries, to name a few.

Peeled, sliced peaches can be cooked on the stovetop like the blueberries, or roasted to make "the inside of a peach pie" without making the pie; top with pastry lids and whipped cream for a pie-like effect. Or roast halved fresh figs and serve them with crushed raspberries and vanilla ice cream.

Bowl and Spoon desserts are more of a rough formula than a recipe:

      fragrant cooked fruit + whipped cream, ice cream +/or a sauce +/or a pastry lid or cookie

So rather than giving cut-in-stone recipes, I've written mutable ones for both stovetop and oven, that work with a variety of fruits, as well as how to make appealing shapes out of homemade or store-bought pastry dough (using either classic pie pastry or puff pastry).

One you know these simple formulas, you can devise your own Bowl and Spoon Desserts. The possibilities are endless.

Essential Warm Stovetop Fruit
Essential Roasted Fruit
Easy Butter Dough
How to Cut and Roll Pastry Dough

Presented by

Sally Schneider writes The Improvised Life, a lifestyle blog about improvising as a daily practice. Her cookbook The Improvisational Cook is now out in paperback. More

Sally Schneider is the founder of The Improvised Life, a lifestyle blog that inspires you to devise, invent, create, make it up as you go along, from design and cooking to cultivating the creative spirit. It's been called a "zeitgeist-perfect website." She is a regular contributor to public radio's The Splendid Table and the author of the best-selling cookbooks The Improvisational Cook and A New Way to Cook, which was recently named one of the best books of the decade by The Guardian. She has won numerous awards, including four James Beard awards, for her books and magazine writing.

Sally has worked as a journalist, editor, stylist, lecturer, restaurant chef, teacher, and small-space consultant, and once wrangled 600 live snails for the photographer Irving Penn. Her varied work has been the laboratory for the themes she writes and lectures about: improvising as an essential operating principle; cultivating resourcefulness and your inner artist; design, style, and food; and anything that is cost-effective, resourceful, and outside the box.

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