My Recipe Box

Playful Desserts with Shortcut Ingredients

With a few shortcuts, these playful desserts are easy to put together

As the executive pastry chef of an innovative restaurant, it’s my job to come up with sensational desserts that not only taste great but also prompt gushing oohs and aahs with their originality. The catch is that most of these creations require hours of prep time, not to mention years of experience. You couldn’t make them at home, and truth be told, neither could I. With twin toddlers, a 10-year-old, four restaurants, and a TV show, I run on a tight schedule. But I still like to impress my family and friends with imaginative desserts that are big on flavor yet easy to make. With a few simple tricks—and a little creativity—I’ve found that I can pull it off. And so can you. Here’s how I’ve done it in the three desserts on these pages.

I limit the number of ingredients. Measuring, cutting, and chopping a lot of ingredients takes time. For these desserts, I never use more than eight ingredients—often fewer. But I’m a stickler for quality. I look for the best raw materials, so I don’t have to do much to them to coax out great flavor. For the pear tarts, for example, try to get your hands on some juicy pears at the peak of ripeness.

I use store-bought doughs. The secret to making these desserts without spending hours in the kitchen is to use prepared ingredients like frozen puff pastry, phyllo dough, and wonton wrappers, as well as jarred spreads, juice concentrates, and ice cream. To liven up my homemade sweets and elicit that jolt of surprise, I sometimes put a whimsical twist on a classic dessert, as in my redesigned pear tarts (the crust opens like a blossom), or a sweet spin on a savory dish, like my sweet chips and dip or fried wontons with orange dipping sauce.

Store-bought ingredients speed things up

Frozen Phyllo Dough: We used phyllo from a 1-lb. twin pack to test this recipe. Twin-pack sheets are 9 by 14 inches, smaller than those from a single pack. If you can find only larger, single-pack phyllo, either cut the sheets to size or use the larger sheets as they are, sprinkling 2 Tbs. sugar instead of 1-1/2 Tbs. between each layer. Frozen phyllo dough is available in grocery stores. For this recipe you’ll need only three phyllo sheets. Thaw one entire roll and refreeze what you don’t need.

Almond Paste: Made with finely ground blanched almonds and sugar, almond paste is commonly used in cake batters and pastry fillings. It’s also the base ingredient in marzipan (which is made by adding hot sugar syrup and light corn syrup to almond paste). In this recipe, almond paste provides a subtle, perfumy almond flavor that marries perfectly with the sweetness of the pears. You’ll find cans or tubes of almond paste in most grocery stores.

Nutella: Available in many supermarkets, Nutella is a brand of creamy chocolate-hazelnut spread whose flavor is similar to that of gianduja, the hazelnut-flavored chocolate from the Piedmont region of Italy. Italian children enjoy Nutella spread on a slice of crusty bread. But it’s also great when you need a chocolate filling in a pinch. You can substitute other brands of chocolate-hazelnut spread.

Photos: Scott Phillips


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