Spirited holiday desserts
Desserts that include infusions of alcohol have been traditional for centuries. Perhaps because historically, celebrations were rare occasions for bountiful food, especially sweets and strong drinks.
These days, for better or worse, celebratory occasions aren’t the only times many of us have the opportunity to overindulge. Regardless, the holidays (including but not limited to Christmas) are a wonderful time to incorporate some extra cheer into sweet stuff. Here are three favorites, ranging from a classic that takes some effort to the easiest and lightest dessert in my repertoire; it’s my absolute favorite to serve after a big meal.
Trifles, aka puddings, are the queens of British desserts. A combination of cake (preferably a bit stale), custard sauce, fruit and whipped cream, trifles are standard on any celebratory sideboard; not least Christmas.
A true trifle has a boozy component, sometimes sherry or brandy but most often whiskey, whether Scotch or Irish. Reports of someone becoming “tipsy on trifle” are not uncommon, though rarely verified. Bourbon works equally well. And if you’d prefer a less-alcoholic trifle, simple vanilla syrup (perhaps with a tablespoon of whiskey for flavor) can be substituted for the spirit.
• 1 day old, 9-inch round or square white cake or equivalent; regular cake, pound cake or sponge cake all work well
• 1/2 c., or more or less to taste, whiskey: Scotch, Irish whiskey or Bourbon
• Custard sauce, chilled (recipe below)
• Raspberry purée (recipe below)
• 1 c. heavy whipping cream, chilled
• 2 T. superfine or confectioner’s sugar
• Generous 1 pint (2 c.) fresh raspberries
• 1/2 c. pistachio nuts or slivered, blanched and lightly toasted almonds
In a large bowl, drizzle the cake cubes with the whiskey. Use just enough to dampen the cake and give it flavor, but not so much as to make it soggy. Let stand about 15 minutes.
Put half the cake cubes in the bottom of a clear trifle bowl or glass serving bowl and drizzle with some of the raspberry purée. Cover with half of the custard sauce and sprinkle half of the fresh raspberries over that. Repeat with another layer of cake, purée and custard.
Whip the chilled cream with the sugar until it stands in firm peaks. Smooth the whipped cream over the custard. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up to 3-4 hours.
Just before serving, drizzle with the remaining raspberry purée and garnish with the remaining fresh raspberries and nuts.
• 4 egg yolks
• 1/4 c. sugar
• Pinch of salt
• 1 c. milk
• 1 c. heavy cream
• 2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
Beat egg yolks, sugar and salt in the container of a blender, bowl of a food processor or by hand in with a whisk until thick and creamy.
Heat milk and cream in a heavy saucepan or the top of a double boiler just until tiny bubbles appear around the edge. Do not allow to boil. With the food processor or blender running, pour in the hot milk mixture in a thin stream. If doing by hand, remove the saucepan from the heat, then add the egg mixture in a thin stream, whisking constantly.
If using a food processor or blender, return the mixture to the saucepan over low heat; put the pan back on low heat if making by hand. Either way, stir constantly with a whisk or wooden spoon until the mixture has thickened to a creamy consistency that coats a spoon. Stir in the vanilla extract. Remove from the heat. Sauce may be served warm or cold.
• 12 oz. frozen, unsweetened raspberries, unthawed
• 1/2 c. sugar, or to taste
In the container of an electric blender or the bowl of a food processor, purée the berries and sugar until the sugar is dissolved and the berries are liquefied. Strain through a fine mesh strainer, discarding the solids.
This is a riff on one of my favorite ice cream flavors: rum raisin. Using a variety of dried fruits turns something commonplace into extraordinary, not least when served with cookies.
And it’s pretty awesome with just one kind of liquor-plumped fruit. While making your own ice cream is extra special, it’s easy and almost as good to stir the liquor-plumped fruits and rum into a best quality vanilla ice cream such as Häagen-Dazs.
The rum in the ice cream is boiled before adding; it’s also cooked before macerating the dried fruits so that there’s little alcohol in the finished ice cream.
Tutti fruitti rum ice cream
• 2 c. whole milk
• 4 tsp. (1 T. +1 tsp.) cornstarch
• 3 T. softened cream cheese
• 1/4 tsp. salt
• 1 1/4 c. heavy cream
• 1/3 c. sugar
• 2 T. dark corn syrup (or light molasses or cane syrup)
• 1/3 c. dark rum, such as Meyer’s
• 1 recipe liquor-plumped dried fruits (recipe below), drained and chilled
Mix about 2 tablespoons of the milk with the cornstarch to form a smooth slurry.
Put the cream in another medium-large bowl; stir until any lumps are broken up.
In a small saucepan, bring the rum to a boil over high heat; continue cooking until the rum has reduced to 2-3 tablespoons. Remove from the heat; chill before using.
Combine the remaining milk, salt, cream, sugar and corn/cane syrup in a 4-quart saucepan, bring to a rolling boil over medium-high heat and boil for 4 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat and gradually whisk in the cornstarch slurry.
Bring the mixture back to a boil over medium-high heat and cook, stirring constantly, until it’s slightly thickened, about a minute. Remove from the heat.
Gradually whisk the hot mixture into the cream cheese until smooth. Chill the mixture thoroughly before beginning to freeze it in an ice cream freezer. This is essential.
Freeze according to your ice cream maker’s directions. When it’s finished, pack it into a storage container, folding in the liquor-plumped fruits as you go.
• 1 c. dried fruits such as raisins, apricots, figs, dried cherries, cranberries, etc., cut into bite-sized (1/2-inch) pieces if necessary, in combination or singly
• 1/2 c. water
• 2 T. dark rum, such as Meyer’s
• 1/2 c. sugar
Put the fruit in a heat-proof bowl. Combine the remaining ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
Pour the syrup over the fruit, stir to combine and let cool to room temperature. Refrigerate until chilled. Makes approximately 1 1/2 quarts.
To make with store-bought ice cream: Reduce the rum as above and make the liquor-plumped fruits. Let cool completely.
Remove the ice cream from the freezer and let it soften just to the point that it’s still frozen but can be stirred, similar to soft-serve. Place in a large chilled bowl and stir in the reduced rum completely, then quickly mix in the plumped fruits, using an under/over motion. Repack into the ice cream container. Refreeze until solid before serving.
I’m not a fan of big and/or rich desserts after a substantial meal, although a bit of something sweet is welcome. I’ve been making this for decades; it’s still the best recipe I’ve found to fill that role.
Red grape parfaits with Grand Marnier and sour cream
• 4 c. stemmed seedless red grapes, preferred, or green grapes
• 1/2 c. sour cream
• 2 T. Grand Marnier, Cointreau, preferred, or Triple Sec
• Dark brown sugar
Combine grapes and sour cream, then stir in the orange liqueur. Macerate for at least an hour. Spoon into individual compotes or other serving dishes, then top each with a sprinkling of brown sugar.
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