By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Dessert might be the last frontier of the solo cook. It hardly seems worth the time to whip up something fanciful for a meal-ender when you're the only one who's going to appreciate it. I have never pulled out my pastry bag, for instance, to pipe a rosette of whipped cream onto pie unless I'm serving it to friends.
But that doesn't mean my sweet tooth deactivates when I'm cooking for myself. On the contrary, by the time I've put together and polished off a quick weeknight dinner, I'm ready to grab just about anything sugary that's hanging around. It's a dangerous moment, along the lines of supermarket shopping on an empty stomach. Something left over from a previous baking binge -- say, half a layer cake I made for a birthday dinner the day before -- becomes fair game. All of it.
Which is why I try to pawn off cake or pie leftovers on departing guests and instead stock my fridge, freezer and pantry with lighter ways to get my dessert fix. The most common is probably a parfait I make by layering Greek-style yogurt or its Icelandic cousin, skyr, with honey, nuts and seasonal fruit or jam. In the summer, I'll sometimes spoon yogurt over berries or stone fruit in a gratin dish, sprinkle with brown sugar and run it all under the broiler.
As delicious as that is, sometimes it's just not enough. My urge for an actual baked good will start to get the best of me, and that's when I usually pull a sheet of puff-pastry dough out of the freezer, cut out a square and bake a free-form apple, pear or peach tart. Once I add dried cranberries and walnuts, plus a little ground cardamom or cinnamon, I feel like I've almost made something from scratch. If I want to indulge, I indulge, and pick up a cup of 2-percent yogurt -- oh, the naughtiness! -- instead of the nonfat kind to eat alongside.
Even that option can get old. So my need to sift flour, whisk eggs and crank up the hand mixer takes over. I'll bake a batch of cookies, eat just a few (or try to) and take the rest to co-workers. Or if I can find a spare corner in my freezer, I'll stash some of the unbaked dough there. I often forget to label it, which causes some confusion a year later when I pull it out and wonder what lurks inside the plastic.
There are better ways to make dessert, even though solo cooks don't always believe it. When Debby Maugans wrote her 2004 cookbook "Small-Batch Baking," she heard the refrain. "People would say, 'I'm not going to go to all that trouble and turn on the oven for that small of an amount,' " said Maugans (who after her divorce has stopped using the surname Nakos that appears on the book).
But it's actually pretty easy to drop a few tablespoons of flour into a bowl, beat a single egg white with a little sugar and fold the two together for miniature angel food cakes that you bake in two wells of a large-muffin pan. This works perfectly in a modern toaster oven.
Maugans, who lives in Birmingham, Ala., is working on a book about small-batch baking with chocolate. The most difficult part of her testing has been, not surprisingly, scaling down recipes without losing quality. Adjusting the leavening agents (eggs, baking soda and baking powder) was the biggest challenge.
She wrote her book with couples in mind; most of the recipes serve two. But in many cases, such as mini-layer cakes (which she bakes in aluminum cans such as those that once held tomatoes or beans), the recipe could easily be adapted to one. Freeze one of the cakes; make half of the frosting now and half later. A much better idea than staring at a recipe for a party-size cake and wondering how to adapt it for a party of one.
Once I really started looking into the idea, the prospect of desserts for one became less daunting. One of my favorite cookbook authors, San Francisco's Joyce Goldstein, speaks directly to my tastes in the dessert chapter of her 2003 book, "Solo Suppers." In fact, her simple fruit-gratin recipe reads like a recitation of my own technique. Her desserts in the book skew toward the minimal, and she writes that, indeed, her go-to meal-ender is likely to be fruit and cheese (albeit a delectable combination such as pear, Gorgonzola cheese and chestnut honey).
She has created some slightly more involved desserts, and they're tempting. Goldstein's individual rice pudding, which calls for cooking a mere three tablespoons of short-grain rice in a cup of water, then stirring it into spiced and sweetened milk, has made it onto my must-try list.
But first I have to get my fill of her dessert French toast, a version of French pain perdu or Spanish torrijas. The first time I soaked a piece of challah in a single egg beaten with a little milk, coated it in sugared panko flakes and pan-fried it in butter, I was in heaven from the smell alone. Then I added the sauteed bananas and a dollop of yogurt, tasted it and thought: Who needs a dinner party?