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Downsize Your Desserts

Sweet Little Bites to Follow the Big Meal

By Gale Gand
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 21, 2004; Page R01

Come dessert time, it's a tossup as to who's at more of a loss -- the generous Thanksgiving baker or the polite Thanksgiving guest. The former likes to offer the bounty of the season, and the latter would rather avoid "sliver syndrome" ("I'll have a sliver of this, and a sliver of that . . . ").

Making small bites of desserts solves both problems; I think it's the only way to bake for the holidays. I like to use seasonal ingredients to celebrate the time of year. I choose a variety of flavors and textures so that three basic categories are served: chocolate, fruit and custard.

Chocolate may seem too rich, but I always offer something for the chocoholic at my dinner table. I make as much ahead of time as I can, breaking the recipes into steps that can be done days before. I also find that shopping on a different day than I'm cooking or baking is helpful to make the prep list easier to get through. At serving time, I arrange small desserts on a buffet so people can help themselves -- which saves me time putting them on plates and serving them. That way, my guests can taste a lot of different things or even graze in courses as they like. Less daunting than big slices of cake or pie, the desserts are pretty all on their own, without garnish. It makes things easy for younger guests, too, giving them the chance to sample without a big commitment and not much waste.

Small bites of dessert are easy to transport. You don't need special covered cake plates -- a tray with rows of Pumpkin Pots or Chocolate Pecan Pies covered with a bit of plastic wrap or placed in a lidded container with square corners will do the trick (see traveling with food story, Page 1).

Best of all, it's easy to send leftovers home with your guests since the small bites are pre-portioned, especially if you're trying to keep the temptations to a minimum this time of year.

Baked Ricotta Custards

10 to 12 servings

This dessert is considerably lighter than its cheesecake inspiration.

12 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

3/4 cup fresh ricotta cheese

2 eggs

1 egg white

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup heavy cream

Cranberry Sauce (recipe follows)

Coarse granulated sugar (optional)

Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Have ready 10 to 12 four-ounce ramekins.

In a large bowl using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the cream cheese until light, smooth and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the ricotta and mix until combined. Add the eggs and egg white, 1 at a time, mixing until completely incorporated after each addition. Add the vanilla and mix until combined. Add the sugar and cream and mix until combined. The batter should be smooth and glossy.

Divide the batter among the ramekins, place in a large roasting pan and place on the oven rack. Pour enough hot water into the roasting pan around the ramekins to reach about halfway up the sides. Bake for 45 minutes, until set. The top should not have changed color at all. Set aside to cool slightly. Refrigerate until chilled through, at least 3 hours.

Serve with the Cranberry Sauce on the side. If a crisp topping similar to that on creme brulee is desired, you may sprinkle the top of each custard with coarse sugar and caramelize it under the broiler or with a blow torch just before serving.

Per serving (based on 12, without cranberry sauce): 206 calories, 5 gm protein, 10 gm carbohydrates, 16 gm fat, 88 mg cholesterol, 10 gm saturated fat, 116 mg sodium, 0 gm dietary fiber

Cranberry Sauce

Makes about 2 cups

6 ounces ( 1/2 of a 12-ounce bag) cranberries

1 cup water

1 cup sugar

Place all the ingredients in a saucepan over medium-high heat and bring just to a boil. The skins of the cranberries should all burst within a minute. Remove from the heat, set aside to cool slightly then cover and refrigerate until chilled through, at least 3 hours. Serve chilled.

Per serving (based on 12): 69 calories, trace protein, 18 gm carbohydrates, trace fat, 0 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 10 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

Pumpkin Pots With Pie Crust Leaves

8 servings

A fun alternative to the big slice of pie; use the leaves to dip into the pumpkin filling.

One 15-ounce can pumpkin puree

3 eggs

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

1 3/4 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice*

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup whole milk

1/2 cup heavy cream

Pie Crust Leaves (optional; recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Have ready eight 4-ounce ramekins, 16 ovenproof egg cups (not usually used for baking, but they work fine) or several other small ovenproof dishes.

Using a whisk or electric mixer on medium speed, mix the pumpkin puree and eggs until combined. Add the granulated and brown sugars and mix until combined. Add the pumpkin pie spice, salt, milk and cream and mix until combined. Divide the pumpkin mixture among the ramekins and bake until the top is dry and lightly browned and a knife inserted into the center comes out almost completely clean, 30 to 35 minutes for 4-ounce ramekins, less for eggcups. (The timing will vary dramatically according to the size of the ramekin.) Set aside to cool slightly. Serve warm or cover and refrigerate overnight and serve chilled. Garnish each pot with Pie Crust Leaves sticking out of the custard.

Pie Crust Leaves: On a floured surface, roll out frozen or refrigerated pie dough crust to a thickness of a little less than 1/4 inch. Using a paring knife or small cookie cutter, cut out leaf shapes. If desired, use the tip of the knife to draw the leaf spine on the dough, inserting the knife about halfway into the dough. Brush each leaf lightly with a little milk and sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 375 degrees till golden brown. Store in an airtight container.

NOTE: For the prepared pumpkin spice, you can substitute equal parts of ground cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, mace and cloves.

Per serving (without pie crust leaves): 202 calories, 4 gm protein, 31 gm carbohydrates, 8 gm fat, 102 mg cholesterol, 4 gm saturated fat, 190 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber

Eggnog Bread Pudding Bites With Quick Maple-Blueberry Sauce

6 to 8 servings

This recipe combines the subtle flavor of eggnog with the comfort of bread pudding -- hors d'oeuvre size.

2 eggs

1 pinch salt

2 cups eggnog

1/2 loaf brioche or challah, crusts cut off, bread cut into 1-inch cubes

Quick-Maple Blueberry Sauce (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs until lightly beaten. Whisk in the salt and eggnog. Pour the mixture into a shallow baking dish. Place the bread cubes in the dish and toss to coat. Set aside to soak for a few minutes.

On a nonstick griddle or wide flat nonstick pan over medium heat, cook the soaked bread cubes, working in batches so that they remain at least 1 inch apart on the griddle. Turn them so that the tops and bottoms are lightly golden, as you might make French toast. As you work, the finished pudding bites should be kept warm under a layer of aluminum foil. They can be reheated briefly in the microwave.

If desired, spear each one with a toothpick. Place the pudding bites on a warmed platter and serve with warm Quick Maple-Blueberry Sauce as a dipping sauce.

Per serving (based on 8, without maple-blueberry sauce): 238 calories, 8 gm protein, 27 gm carbohydrates, 11 gm fat, 127 mg cholesterol, 4 gm saturated fat, 241 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

Quick Maple-Blueberry Sauce

Makes about 1 cup

1/2 cup maple syrup

2 tablespoons water

1/2 pint blueberries

In a sauté pan, bring the maple syrup and water to a boil. Add the blueberries and cook just until they start to burst, about 6 to 8 minutes. Remove from the heat; set aside to cool for at least 10 minutes.

Pour the blueberry mixture into a blender and process or just use the back of a fork to mash it. Strain the sauce, if desired, to make it smooth. Serve at room temperature.

Per serving (based on 8): 65 calories, trace protein, 17 gm carbohydrates, trace fat, 0 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 3 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

Mini Chocolate Pecan Pies

Makes about 24 pies

These little pies will keep the chocoholics happy. Pecans make this recipe as American as can be.

For the crust:

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces

1/2 cup sour cream

1 egg yolk

Confectioners' sugar for the work surface

For the filling:

2 eggs

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup light corn syrup

4 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled

1 1/2 cups (about 6 ounces) pecan halves, toasted and coarsely chopped

6 ounces coarsely chopped semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate

For the crust: In a large bowl combine the flour and salt. Add the butter and, using a paddle attachment on a standing mixer or your fingertips, work or pinch the ingredients together until a sandy, crumbly mixture forms. Set aside.

In a small bowl combine the sour cream and egg yolk until very smooth. Add to the flour mixture and stir just until the dough comes together. The dough may feel a little dry. Form into a disk, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or up to overnight.

On a work surface thickly dusted with confectioners' sugar, using a rolling pin lightly dusted with confectioners' sugar, roll out the pastry to a squarish or rectangular shape as thin as you can and no thicker than 1/8 inch. Using the tip of a sharp knife or a pizza cutter, cut the dough into 24 three-inch squares. Transfer the squares of dough to muffin or mini-muffin tins, lining each depression with a square of dough and gathering up the corners of the square slightly to make a pouch. (You may have leftover dough or filling if you use mini-muffin tins.) Open the corners up so you can easily fill it. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

For the filling: In a bowl, whisk the eggs to combine. Add the granulated sugar, corn syrup and melted butter and whisk to combine.

Remove the mini-muffin tin from the refrigerator. Place a few pecan pieces and 1/2 to 1 teaspoon chopped chocolate in each pastry cup. Add enough of the corn syrup mixture to barely fill each cup and regather the corners of the pastry in the center, pinching them so they stick together and form a little four-cornered pouch.

Bake until lightly browned, about 25 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool slightly.

Per serving: 258 calories, 3 gm protein, 22 gm carbohydrates, 19 gm fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 9 gm saturated fat, 42 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

Gale Gand, executive pastry chef at Tru in Chicago and host of the Food Network's "Sweet Dreams," most recently co-authored "Gale Gand's Short + Sweet: Quick Desserts With Eight Ingredients or Less" (Clarkson Potter, 2004).

© 2004 The Washington Post Company