For me, the abundance of fresh fruit in summer is a mixed blessing. Sure, perfectly ripe fruit is a joy to cook with, but there comes a point where even perfection becomes repetitious. At the place where I cook (a private château in France), many of the guests stay for days, so I’m always looking for new dessert ideas in order to not repeat myself. But there are only so many tarts, crumbles, buckles, shortcakes, cold soups, and fruit cocktails that I can serve. A fruit gratin—fresh fruit topped with a type of sabayon and browned under the broiler—is a handy addition to my arsenal of summer desserts, and even though it’s a cinch to make, it’s always a hit.
A topping as delectable as sabayon, but not nearly as finicky
The sabayon topping that I’ve developed is inspired by the classic French sabayon: a frothy concoction of egg yolks, sugar, and sweet wine that’s tediously whipped over a hot water bath and has to be served immediately. A sabayon is delicious, but frankly, it asks too much of my time and attention. And it can be tricky, curdling easily because the egg yolks are unprotected by any starch.
My “cheater’s” version of sabayon comes from a gratinéed plum tart that I learned to make from Chef Chambrette at La Varenne cooking school. Instead of using just yolks, sugar, and flavorings, I make a pastry cream (yolks, sugar, a little cornstarch, and milk), and then I add another egg yolk to make it richer and to make it brown better than pastry cream. And since plain pastry cream can be a tad bland and gluey, I spike it with some flavorful alcohol like an eau de vie or a sweet wine and then lighten the whole thing with whipped cream.
The billowy topping that results is every bit as delicate as a sabayon but much easier to work with. The pastry cream base can be made a day ahead and refrigerated. I can arrange the fruit in a large gratin dish (or in individual dishes—it’s really pretty that way), nap the fruit with the sauce, sit down and enjoy the meal, and then pop the dish into the oven for a quick browning right before I serve it for dessert.
Pairing fruit and flavoring
• Grand Marnier with oranges and figs
• Amaretto with peaches and apricots
• Armagnac with plums
• Dark rum with pineapple and bananas
• Framboise with mixed berries
The fruit keeps its fresh, uncooked character
One of the nice things about this gratin is that you don’t need to tamper with the fruit—I leave berries whole, and I simply cut other fruits into bite-size pieces.
You can make a fruit gratin with most fruits, though really watery types, such as melons, don’t do well. My favorites are berries, stone fruits (like peaches and apricots), cherries, and fresh figs. Apples and pears work, but you need to poach them briefly in sweetened wine or simple syrup to soften them. Do choose fruit that’s at its peak of flavor, but not overripe, of course. And play with combinations of fruit, like mixed berries, plums and raspberries, blueberries and peaches—just be sure to divide them in the dish so everyone gets a sampling of all the different varieties.
For a more substantial dessert, I sometimes line the bottom of the gratin dish with a layer of sponge cake or broken almond macaroons or amaretti cookies, sprinkled with liqueur.