Trish Deseine always offers to bring dessert which she considers the starting point of a good supper …
Of all the French dinner party codes I have become accustomed to, and grown to love, the tradition of bringing pudding your hosts’ gathering is perhaps my favourite. Although it is not considered good manners to suggest such a thing to brand new acquaintances, or, say, your boss – might you be suggesting they’re not be capable of cooking an entire meal? – for friends it is quite acceptable, and often a godsend for both you and them.
The sweet custom is further strengthened by the persistent fallacy that dessert is a mere afterthought in a meal, an optional, frivolous add-on to the altogether more noble savoury starter and mains. But it only takes a few minutes in the Sunday morning queue at my local pâtisserie, to see just how much care and pride goes into the cakes chosen as gifts to all the dutiful cooks grappling away with roast lamb or chicken.
To me, dinner plans start with dessert, and then I work backwards. I know I’m not alone in this way of doing things, and I enjoy sharing the greedy fellowship of The Sugar Club with many friends and followers, even if they rarely speak up too loudly in these sugar-phobic times. I know that, if dessert is good, then any mishaps before it is served have a greater chance of being forgotten. There’s also the regressive pleasure of spoiling your guests when you make an effort around the last thing they will taste before leaving your table. That said, I am careful not to hijack their appetites, especially if they have succumbed to second helpings during the previous courses (or rehearsals, as I call them). I always make sure there is a slight dessert kit aspect to my sweet offerings, in the form of fresh fruit, either as is, or in a light compote, all in a separate bowl. Cream, custard and all sweet sauces are certainly copious, but always on the side, to be refused or (more usually) re-served. If I have made a cake or a tart which needs to be cut à table, I always serve smallish slivers, and then quickly offer top-ups to anyone who still has that glint in their eye as they finish up every crumb of their first serving.
Recently, I have taken to serving a new creation – an Eccles-ish tart, spicy, buttery and rich, served with cream in its pure dessert form, but also alongside a slab of good cheese, and fresh grapes and figs as an option. This is a handy way of dodging the plates and cutlery-heavy cheese and salad course – still expected at most of my French dinners – but does mean you need to be careful about not serving too heavy a starter and main.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, my French girlfriends (yes, even the Parisiennes!) all share my love of plentiful, decadent desserts. And are delighted to have me bring something sweet when I’m invited. As my wine cellar is definitely less than impressive, and finding original presents somewhat complicated in Deep France, I am always more than willing to oblige with a crowd-pleasing pavlova or gooey chocolate cake. It’s important, however, to make things as easy as possible for your hosts, by not forgetting to bring the accompanying cream, coulis, fresh fruit or crunchy topping and ensuring you have the required serving dish to hand. If you value the friendship at all, remember that, unlike flowers, wine or chocolates, your responsibility for dessert does not end when you deposit it in the kitchen upon arrival.
Another advantage to the participatory approach to dessert in my food circles, is that usually one or more of the guests will have literally gone the extra mile to buy something really special, just for the fun of discovery. In France, you are never far from a local speciality, dessert-wise, and every pâtissier worth their salt will have a signature cake. Flan à la vanille from Bayeux, Paris-Brest from Bellême or any number of exciting, new season creations from the Parisian friends arriving for a few days will always be on display.
It’s such a good idea to leave room for dessert. And when all the offerings, be they home or professionally made, are spread out buffet-style for everyone to help themselves, it’s like the party is starting all over again. @TrishDeseine @trishdeseineencore
I’m lucky to have a couple of excellent ready-made puff pastry suppliers near me, and good pastry definitely makes a difference here, so do seek it out. I like to mix and match the dried fruit, going for plumper options like cranberries, or fruit with more sourness, like barberries or dried cherries. This is a wonderfully well-behaved tart, so don’t worry about making it well in advance, the flavours will develop better. Just make sure you leave it in a dry place, to avoid that gorgeous crunchy surface from absorbing any moisture. Cheese-wise, it pairs well with a characterful Hegarty’s cheddar, pungent Durrus or even a good creamy Young Buck.
30 minutes preparation
35–40 minutes baking
2 ready-made puff pastry circles, 25cm or more
300g cranberries or raisins
50g barberries or sour cherries
50g dried mixed peel
Grated zest of a lemon and half an orange
2 tsps ground mixed spice
2 tbps rum, brandy or whiskey (optional)
75g melted salted butter
200g light muscovado sugar
1 egg white
3 or 4 tsps demerara sugar
Heat the oven to 180°C.
Put all the ingredients except the egg white and demerara sugar into a bowl, mix well and leave the fruit to soak for 20 minutes or so.
Fill a 24cm (or larger) tart tin with the pastry, either leaving it on the paper surrounding it, or buttering and dusting the tin with flour.
Spread the tart filling over the base.
Lay the second round of pastry on top, flattening it over the fruit, and pinching the edges shut. Brush the surface with the egg white, scatter generously with sugar and make small 5cm or so slashes all over the top of the tart.
Bake for 35 minutes, until golden and crisp all over. Check the tart around 30 minutes, if the top is too dark, cover with silver foil and let the rest cook properly.
Remove from the oven and serve warm with cream or ice cream, or at room tempearture with some good cheese and fresh fruit.
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