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Just Desserts - by Ron Skaar - December 2014


Just Desserts - by Ron Skaar - December 2014

by Ron Skaar

by Ron Skaar with photo by Jon Russo

Ancient civilizations enjoyed the occasional sweet treat of fresh or dried fruit and nuts rolled in honey. Pastry most likely evolved in Ancient Greece. There, noble household diets included buckwheat fritters with oil and honey, griddle cakes, eaten hot after being dipped in wine and tarts filled with grapes and almonds. 

In second century B.C. Rome, pastries were being enjoyed by rich and poor alike. Pastry making became a respectable profession with its own guild. Roman bakers created custard tarts, sweet wafers and savory “dish” pies. Emperor Nero ordered ice brought in to combine with fruit toppings for his dessert. Around the same time King Tang, of China, combined ice and milk for a first form of ice cream.

Early on sugar was exotic, used by the affluent to flavor meat and fish or to conceal unpleasant tastes. Sugar did not appear in European kitchens until medieval times. The expanding Moorish Empire introduced it to Spain, where it quickly spread throughout the continent. By the Middle Ages a rivalry between the wafer makers (who evolved into confectioners) and the pastry pie-crust cooks had developed.

The pilgrims brought their favorite family pie fillings to the New World and added to them the local berries and fruits, gifted thru the Native Americans. By the 1700’s pioneer women served pie as a dessert to accompany almost every meal! These gals also concocted the round pan for pies, to conserve ingredients.

Cake comes from an Old Norse word, Kaka, at first resembling bread with honey, nuts and dried fruit, similar to pannetone. In the mid-17th century, round iced cakes became popular and evolved with the use of white flour and baking powder. Dessert derives from the French word desservir which literally means to “clear the table”.

December allows us to “set the table” with desserts. It’s the official national fruit cake and egg nog month. During the beginning of the month falls the national pie, fritter, cookie, and chocolate brownie days. December 16th is national chocolate covered anything day and December 21st is kiwi fruit day in California. The end of the month rounds out with national pumpkin pie day on the 25th, candy cane day on the 26th and chocolate-covered candy day on the 28th

There are many other classic convections created and consumed at this time of the year. England’s “Christmas Pudding” began in the Middle Ages as a frumenty, a pudding of grain soaked in milk and then baked. It was improved by the addition of raisins, prunes and currants, which led to the name plum pudding. This old time dish has kept its ritual  place in the English holiday feast.  

Sculpted in the form of a yule log, the dramatic Buche de Noel consists of a raspberry filled sponge cake roll, frosted with a bark like mocha butter cream surface, accompanied by delicate meringue mushrooms. The architectural Croquembouche is made from scores of filled cream puffs, dipped in molten caramel and stacked into a pyramid shape. With every bite the hardened caramel goes “crunch” (croque) in the “mouth” (bouce).

With a modest name for a very luxurious dessert, the Trifle is made with sponge cake layered with custard, fresh fruits and whipped cream. The contemporary recipe included below will add delight to all your holiday celebrations.


Chocolate-Caramel Trifle With Raspberries And Kiwi

For the Pastry Cream:

6 egg yolks

2/3 cup dark brown sugar

3 tablespoons cornstarch

3 tablespoons all purpose flour

2 cups milk, scalded

2 teaspoons vanilla

For Cake:

4 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted

½ cup butter, at room temperature

1 cup sugar

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1½ cups all-purpose flour

¾ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

¾ cup milk

Fresh raspberries and kiwi for garnish


Make and cool pastry cream while cake bakes and cools. In a bowl beat egg yolks and sugar until light and creamy. Add the cornstarch and flour, beating until smooth. Add hot milk in stream, beating until well mixed. Return mixture to milk pan and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. The mixture will be thick and custard like. Off-heat, stir in vanilla.

Butter and flour 9-inch square baking pan. In large bowl beat butter and sugar until fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla and beat until blended and stir in melted chocolate. Mix flour, baking soda and salt. Stir in milk and flour mixture to butter mixture to combine.

Bake in a 350 degree oven until cake begins to pull from pan sides, 40 to 50 minutes.

Cut cooled cake into 1 to 2 inch cubes. Layer a third of cubes in a glass 3 quart bowl.

Pipe a third of pastry cream over cake and spread level. Repeat to make two more levels,

ending with pastry cream. Cover and chill at least two hours. Garnish with fruits, chocolate shavings and whipped cream. Scoop onto dessert plates, serves 10.

*Traditionally the cake cubes can be drizzled with liquor or fruit syrup during set-up.