Putting a Well-Stocked Pantry to Work

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett
Unexpected guests, that overused topic of food and home writers, rarely present a problem for me. Either this is a sign that I don’t have enough friends, or it shows that my friends know me all too well: I am not fond of surprise knocks at the door.
Nor am I fond of surprise occasions which require me to bring food, but these, owing to my sieve-like memory, pop up far too often.

So I find myself, with two hours to go, flipping through recipes and cabinets, wondering just what I can throw together that will still impress people. (This is when I wish no one knew what I do for a living; couldn’t I sneak out of Harris Teeter with a tube of cookie dough and not run into anyone I know, just this once? Not in this small town.)
This usually leads me into trouble. Either I pick something that I love to make but is really too complicated for that moment and go for it anyway, or I decide a few shortcuts won’t hurt. After this many years, I do, deep down, know better, but this is where the realistic part of my self-described “realistic optimism” escapes me.
So I’ve brought more mediocre desserts to special events than I care to remember, such as a bavarian torte that sounded like it would hit the spot. Never mind that these take at least several hours for the gelatin base to set up enough to slice; surely I could speed the process along? Uh, no, judging by the somewhat soupy purple wiggle I set on the banquet table.
At least I learn from my mistakes (the better to move on to new ones, but that’s another story). Now, I have a few rules to last-minute bake by.
First, I need a pantry worth baking from. That includes the obvious choices (flour, sugar, cocoa), but I actually rely less on my pantry than on my freezer and refrigerator.
As long as my iceboxes are stocked with cream, eggs, butter, frozen puff pastry, and frozen fruit (especially blueberries, cherries, raspberries and blackberries), I know I’m covered for any emergency. Add a package or two of chocolate chips in the cabinet, and I’m truly blessed.
Just from that short list, I can whip up fancy fruit tarts or turnovers, fruit “purses” with a chocolate sauce (squares of puff pastry folded up around fruit and a few chocolate chips and pinched at the top to form a ruffle), truffle rounds, panna cotta, chocolate cherry clafoutis, individual cobblers, sugar tartlets (in which the filling for puff pastry shells is just sugar, cream, eggs and flour), and fruit shortcakes.
If I add a package of phyllo to the freezer, I can also effortlessly make phyllo nests for fruit or chocolate fillings, avoiding the usual fussiness that phyllo demands. These nests gained popularity in the early years of the low-fat fad, but unlike so many desserts from that time, they actually taste great.
Then, I think shape: Even a basic dessert can go uptown if you give it a makeover. Take a simple brownie recipe and cook it in a tart pan; topped with an espresso cream, you have an addictive dessert that is definitely more than the sum of its parts. And instead of making one large fruit tart, I prefer the purses or phyllo nests, which take just the slightest bit longer but make people feel you went to great effort.
Even at their simplest, these desserts will have your friends assuming heavy lifting, because so few people bake from scratch anymore to understand just how easy it can be. And the final rule — cream, cream, cream will reinforce that notion. Softly whipped cream draped over the edge of a dessert — real cream, not from a can or plastic tub — takes almost no work, but people practically lick it off their plates. And with a little doctoring, they’ll nearly be eating out of your hands. Flavor that cream just before it’s finished whipping with some confectioner’s sugar and one of the following: a little espresso powder; a few tablespoons of liqueur; minced candied ginger; orange or mint extract; a tablespoon or two of cocoa and a pinch of cinnamon; maple syrup (omit the sugar); a few tablespoons of jam or preserves whisked smooth; even with just a teaspoon of vanilla. Just that, and your unexpected friends will suffer sweet delusions of grandeur.

Recipes: Brownie Tart with Espresso Cream, Fruit-filled Phyllo Nests, Chocolate-Cinnamon Truffle Rounds

First published in the Independent Weekly, October 8, 2003

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