A dessert is the best way to finish off a meal; some don’t need cooking. Others can be made in advance and chilled. Here I will show you how to make yummy desserts.
Our modern-day practice of serving a savoury main course followed by a sweet course is relatively new in our culinary history. Until the 1700s dessert was used as a palate cleanser between courses, or to wash down a big meal. The first ever dessert was said to be custard, in the middle ages. The next was apple pie, around 1381, and gingerbread in the 1400s.
Dessert cookbooks emerged in the 1700s after the huge, sprawling sugar plantations in the New World made sugar affordable to the masses, instead of a high-priced treat that only the very wealthy could afford. Then with the advent of the industrial revolution, things like cakes and biscuits were readily available and cheap. People developed a ‘sweet tooth’ and anything sugary was eagerly gobbled up.
Today, we’re rather more health conscious than our ancestors and we don’t always have dessert after a meal. Except on special occasions or at Christmas time. But we do consume a lot of sweets and chocolate so maybe that’s replaced the traditional dessert course.
This makes me feel a bit sad; desserts and puddings are a delicious indulgence. Why deprive ourselves of this pleasure? I think it’s perfectly okay to have a dessert after, say, Sunday lunch. Cold, fruity desserts in summer, hot, comforting puddings in the autumn and winter. Think apple crumble with lashings of hot custard. Is your mouth watering yet?
Is Sugar Addictive?
Despite our desire to follow a healthier diet and active lifestyle, we still have a weakness for sweet things. Chocolate is said to be harder to give up than some recreational drugs. There is no solid proof that sugar is addictive, but it’s certainly hard to give it up. Have you ever tried to cut sweet foods out of your diet, or at least drastically cut down on consumption? Maybe it was fine for a couple of days, you felt quite strong and virtuous.
But then your brain suddenly woke up and started screaming for sugar.
The more you tried to resist this craving, the worse it became. Until you cracked and ate a large bar of chocolate or half a plate of brownies. Then you beat yourself up for not having more willpower.
The bad news is that our cravings for sweet foods are hard-wired into our DNA; back in the days of our caveman (and cavewomen) ancestors, if food tasted sweet then it was safe to eat and would provide vital energy. If food tasted bitter or sour then it could possibly harm us in some way. And it wasn’t pleasant to eat.
When babies have their first drink of milk from their mothers, they learn that sweet tastes mean love, comfort and safety. Breast milk is high in natural sugars such as lactose so this is the start of our love of sweet things. And if the mother decides to feed powdered milk this also contains sugar. We learn to love sweetness at a very early age.
So if you can’t resist cakes, biscuits and chocolate, it’s not because you lack willpower; it’s because you’re trying to fight against hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. And that’s a fight you really can’t win.
Here are some easy recipes for desserts that will make your mouth water before you’ve even had that first spoonful. Some don’t even require any cooking, just a couple of hours in the fridge to set or firm up. I hope that you enjoy trying them.
This is so quick to make but tastes unbelievably good. If you want, you can use it in an ice cream sundae by layering it up with some good quality vanilla ice cream and crumbled biscuits, such as shortbread or chocolate digestives. Serves 4.
300 ml double cream
300 ml fresh custard
150 ml butterscotch sauce
1 chocolate flake, crumbled into pieces
Put the cream and the custard into a large mixing bowl and use an electric mixer to whisk them until soft peaks form (this is when you lift up the beaters and a peak is left behind which holds its shape for a moment.) Swirl the butterscotch sauce through the cream to give a sort of ripple effect.
Spoon into serving dishes or glasses, sprinkle over the chocolate flake and cover with cling film. Refrigerate for an hour or two before serving.
Chocolate Mousse with Raspberries
This is a dark, rich chocolate mousse with a surprisingly light texture. Make sure you use good-quality dark chocolate with a minimum of 70% cocoa solids. The raspberries are a lovely contrast to the richness of the mousse. Serves 4 – 6.
200 ml double cream
200g dark chocolate
3 very fresh medium eggs
3 tablespoons caster sugar
50g fresh raspberries
30g milk chocolate, grated, to decorate
Gently heat the cream in a small pan until steam starts to rise from the surface. Don’t allow it to boil. Break up the chocolate into small pieces and add it to the cream. Remove the pan from the heat and leave it to sit, without stirring, for about 5 minutes or until the chocolate has melted.
Meanwhile, separate the eggs, putting the yolks into a small bowl and the whites into a larger one. Beat the yolks lightly with a fork to combine and whisk the whites with an electric hand whisk until you get peaks that can stand up on their own. With the whisk running, add the caster sugar a tablespoon at a time. The whites should stiffen up and turn very white and glossy.
Check that the chocolate has melted into the cream and if it has, give it a good stir. Add the egg yolks and stir again. Stir a spoonful of the chocolate mixture into the egg whites to loosen it up, then pour in the rest of the chocolate and gently fold it in using a metal spoon. You want to keep the air in the mixture so just lift and turn the spoon, making sure you get all the chocolate and egg whites thoroughly blended. This will make the mixture light and airy.
Spoon the mousse into serving glasses or ramekins and press some raspberries into the top of each one. Grate over the milk chocolate and cover the mousses with cling film. Chill in the fridge for about 2 hours before serving. Remove from the fridge 15 – 20 minutes before you want to eat them.
Mixed Berry Semi-Freddo
This is a bit like ice cream but it’s served semi-frozen – hence the name. It’s rich and creamy but not too sweet and you don’t need an ice cream machine to make it. Serves 6.
450g frozen forest fruits or mixed berries
170g icing sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
Fresh berries and flaked almonds to garnish
Defrost the berries to soften them and mash with a fork until broken up, but still recognisable. Stir the icing sugar and lemon juice into the mascarpone until smooth. Mix in the mashed fruits then transfer to a freezer-proof container and freeze for 2 – 3 hours. Serve in slices accompanied by fresh berries with a few almond flakes scattered on top.
Classic Fruit Crumble
This has to be my favourite hot pudding of all time; soft, sweet fruit and a buttery, crumbly topping. There’s no need to cook the fruit first as it will cook in the oven. This can be made with any kind of fruit. Serves 6.
450g cooking apples, such as Bramleys, peeled, cored and diced
100g caster sugar
225g plain flour
100g cold butter, cut into small pieces
75g caster sugar
Preheat the oven to gas mark 4/180C/350F. Place the prepared apples and the blackberries in a 2.25 litre ovenproof dish, sprinkle over the sugar and mix gently. Add 3 tablespoons of water or apple juice.
In a large bowl, sift the flour through a sieve then add the cold butter and use the tips of your fingers to rub the flour and butter together until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar and spread the topping evenly over the fruit.
Bake for 45 – 50 minutes until the top is golden brown. The fruit should be cooked to perfection. Serve warm or cold with cream, custard or ice cream. Or all three if you like.
This is a great recipe from America, which we’re very partial to in the UK. It’s a kind of sandwich made from a buttery, soft biscuit filled with fresh strawberries and whipped cream. I’m making individual ones here but feel free to make one large shortcake. The cooking times are the same. Serves 6.
175g butter, softened
75g caster sugar
275g self-raising flour
A pinch of salt
150 ml double cream
Icing sugar, whole strawberries and edible flowers to garnish (optional)
Place the butter and caster sugar in a bowl and beat with an electric whisk until light and fluffy and a pale cream colour. Add the flour and salt and mix by hand until you have a stiff dough.
Line a baking sheet with non-stick paper and put the shortcake dough onto a board dusted with icing sugar. Roll it out to a thickness of about 2cm. Use a pastry cutter to stamp out discs then transfer them to the baking sheet. You will probably have to gather up the dough and re-roll it to get 12 discs in total.
Bake in a preheated oven, gas mark 4/180C/350F for about 20 minutes. Keep an eye on it as you want it to be pale golden, not brown. Remove from the oven and transfer the discs to a wire rack. Leave to cool completely.
Whip the cream until thick. Remove the stalks from the strawberries and cut them into pieces about 1.5cm in size. Mix the strawberries and whipped cream together and use them to sandwich the shortcake discs together. Dust the tops with icing sugar and garnish with whole strawberries and some flowers if you like. You can also add a blob of whipped cream on top just to up the calorie count.
*Don’t leave these in the fridge for too long as the shortcake will go soft. These will disappear so fast though, you won’t need to worry about storing them…
This lovely combination of rich, vanilla custard and an almost burnt-tasting caramel is absolutely delicious. Serve with some well-chilled pouring cream. Serves 4 – 6.
*Please don’t be put off by the long-sounding method, it really isn’t complicated at all.
175g caster sugar
2 tablespoons hot water
150 ml whole milk
275 ml double cream
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Start by making the caramel. Put the sugar in a small non-stick pan and place it over medium heat. Leave it to melt for about 5 minutes without stirring. Once the sugar starts to turn liquid give the pan a good shake. Then leave it for another few minutes until about a quarter of the sugar has melted.
Using a wooden spoon, gently stir the melting sugar until the crystals have turned to liquid, and become a dark brown colour. This takes about 10 – 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and add the hot water. Be careful because it often spits and you don’t want any of it to land on your exposed skin. You might need to put the pan back on the heat if any lumps have formed.
Pour about two thirds of the caramel into a souffle dish and swirl it around to coat the base and sides. Leave to one side.
To make the custard, pour the milk and cream into the pan containing the remaining caramel and place over a gentle heat. Use a whisk to combine the cream with the caramel. Don’t worry if there are lumps of caramel stuck to the whisk, they will melt. Remove the pan from the heat and leave to cool slightly.
Break the eggs into a jug and beat thoroughly. Pour the caramel flavoured custard into the jug of eggs, whisking as you pour. Add the vanilla then pour the custard carefully onto the caramel in the dish.
Stand the dish in a shallow tin and pour boiling water into the tin to come half way up the sides of the dish. This is known as a bain marie and will cook the custard gently and thoroughly.
Bake at gas mark 2/150C/300F for an hour to an hour and 15 minutes. If you touch your fingertip to the surface of the custard and it feels firm and springy then it’s cooked. Remove the dish from the roasting tin and leave the custard to get completely cold. Once cold, cover with cling film and refrigerate for several hours or overnight.
When you’re ready to serve, run a flat-bladed knife around the edges of the dish, put a plate on top then holding the plate and dish in both hands turn it upside down and give it a little shake. You will hear and feel the custard come out of the dish and onto the plate. Set the plate the right way up and lift off the dish. You should have a lovely, set custard surrounded by a pool of caramel sauce.
Serve in slices with some chilled pouring cream.
This combination of toasted oatmeal, raspberries, honey and whisky originated in Scotland. Use the best ingredients you can afford to guarantee a sensational taste experience. Serves 4.
2 tablespoons medium oatmeal
300g fresh raspberries
Caster sugar to taste
350 ml whipping cream
2 tablespoons heather honey
2 – 3 tablespoons Scottish whisky
Spread out the oatmeal on a baking sheet and put it under a hot grill for a few minutes. It won’t brown very quickly but keep an eye on it and use your nose to tell you when it’s done – it should smell toasty and nutty. Leave to cool.
Whip the cream, honey and whisky together using an electric whisk. You want the cream to be soft but able to stand up in peaks. Don’t overdo it or you’ll end up with butter. Mash half of the raspberries in a bowl, adding caster sugar to taste.
Take 4 tall glasses or sundae dishes and layer up the oatmeal, whisky cream, whole raspberries and raspberry puree. Place a couple of whole raspberries on top of each glass to garnish. Chill in the fridge for an hour before eating.
I hope that you enjoyed this article and will try the recipes for yourself. If you have any comments or questions, please leave them below.
Do you love ice cream? Find out how to make your own quick easy homemade ice cream – without a machine!
For cheesecake lovers, see this post on best homemade cheesecake recipes
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