Save Dinner: Serve Dessert

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett

Nothing rescues dinner like dessert.

No matter how terrible that which came before, dessert has the power to make my guests leave happy.

I’m always surprised how baking terrifies people who consider themselves good cooks. And for new cooks, choosing a dessert seems overwhelming. If it’s easy, it’s probably not fancy enough. But fancy’s frightening, or it requires last-minute work that needs steadier nerves than yours.

A few tricks, though, can make fancy work out of little effort. Almost anything looks more impressive in an individual serving, and ramekins may be the easiest and cheapest way to accomplish this. I used to buy mine for about a dollar apiece at Pier 1 Imports; they’re about 4 inches across and 1 3/4 inches high. These work for molded desserts served in or popped out of the ramekins, as well as for savory flans or a simple cheese grits or rice mold (just pack cooked grits or rice into a slightly wet mold and invert it onto a plate).

Then dress up your dessert with ganache, a simple mixture of cream and chocolate, and maybe some macerated berries (that is, berries with sugar stirred in and left to sit for a bit), and you look like a pro.

Panna cotta (cooked cream in Italian) may be one of the easiest fancy desserts around. It’s not trendy anymore, but it’s still simple and delicious; a few minutes of cooking and it’s done, barely heating up the kitchen. My version calls for buttermilk in place of much of the cream, making it significantly less decadent but still delicious. If you want the richness, you can replace some or all of the buttermilk with cream, being sure to bring all the cream to a boil as called for in the recipe.

To dress it up a bit, I give the panna cotta a ganache base made easily with chocolate chips, and reserve a bit of the ganache to drizzle over the top. I like to flavor it with a touch of dried lavender (look for it with spices sold in bulk), though it’s tasty without it. Stop there, or spoon onto the plate some sliced strawberries, blueberries or kiwi tossed with a spoonful or two of sugar (depending on how sweet and juicy the fruit is to start) about 15 minutes before serving.

Recipe: Buttermilk Panna Cotta

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