It's 5:30 and crisp autumn air welcomes Thanksgiving night. The host's home is fragrant from warming potpourri that has mingled with the aroma of a roasted bird, a hint of garlic and fresh rosemary. Merry guests and family are gathered at a lavish table brightly lit with peach-colored candles.
Sixty gastronomic minutes glide by, and after sipping more wine and relishing the last chunk of orange-scented yams, each anticipating guest wonders:
"What, no dessert?"
No, it burned. It collapsed. The oven wasn't turned on.
The truth is, time ran out on the host and cook.
It's actually 5:30 on a crisp Thanksgiving morn. The cook wakes up relieved to find out that it was all a bad culinary dream. But the question still rises: Will he/she be able to create and finish a magnificent and sumptuous piece de resistance for that awaited moment?
In exchange for a labor of love and discounting all due praises, one could always turn to some of the splendid patisseries or dessert take-outs in town. What's wrong with fresh fruit or cheese? Easily found in any frozen gourmet foods department or gelato shop are plenty of fancy and exotic sherbets and frozen desserts. These make great palate cleansers after a heavy traditional meal.
But no, the host insists on doing it all. Let it be as honestly simple as a winter ice of frozen persimmon, but it has to be his own production.
The passion that some people have for eating desserts translates to others as an obsession for manufacturing one's own. For Jim Dodge, a native of New Hampshire, the passion started at age 21, when he became a pastry chef. Classically trained, he now passes on his Swiss-melded American pastry techniques to students at Tante Marie's Cooking School in San Francisco. In the nine years he's been with the Stanford Court Hotel in the Bay Area, Dodge has been expressing his artistic ideas in the preparation of famous desserts for the hotel's Fournou's Ovens restaurant.
"I seem to have more of a sweet tooth than before," said Dodge, after whipping up a luscious banana cream pie at a recent demonstration at the Williams-Sonoma store in the Beverly Center. The sweet craving naturally helps him develop more decadent recipes, although he also leans toward unique and healthier desserts. For these Dodge relies on the natural goodness of fresh fruits and purees.
Taking a cue from restaurant experts such as Dodge, who have to line up a repertoire of exquisite desserts ahead of time for customers, the key to success boils down to time management and preparing items in advance.
Often the big scare comes when one sees layers of surprises inside a classic pastry, and the first thought is of a long recipe filled with subrecipes.
Triumph isn't farfetched, however, because most of these substeps can be prepared ahead and stored. Who says you can't freeze butter cream, spongecake layers, meringue shells, puff pastry, tart shells, choux paste? Who says you can't refrigerate creme anglaise, pastry cream, lemon curd, royal icing, ganache and other chocolate glazes for several days? And who says you can't fill and frost and freeze a cake or torte? For hot bread or steamed puddings, you can count on the blessings of a microwave.
In addition to making all necessary sidesteps beforehand, Dodge advises that you should "feel comfortable with the recipe; read it over very well. And it has to be something you'll enjoy making."
His signature dessert at Fournou's Ovens, Praline Ice Cream Pie, sets a perfect example of a do-ahead structure. The pecan praline can be done days ahead. Chunks of these crunchies are folded into vanilla ice cream, another do-ahead. And the same goes for the genoise layer, the shell base for the pie (you can substitute a bakery poundcake or spongecake). Meringue rosettes are piped atop the pie and then are either browned in the oven or with a blowtorch.
Hard to believe but proven to do so, Praline Ice Cream Pie stores beautifully in the freezer for four to five days. The superb Rum Sauce, which is also delicious with any cheesecake, can be refrigerated as long as a week.
Dodge recommends serving this Stanford favorite during the holidays. He also suggests fresh-fruit ices, which are especially refreshing after a big meal.
"The public likes to have desserts that are healthier, but they also want desserts that are sinful as ever," Dodge said. He extols the uncomplicated flavors of fresh ingredients such as fruits as well as modified and classic creations in a new book titled "The American Baker: Exquisite Desserts from the Pastry Chef of Stanford Court" (Simon and Schuster: $22.95).
Going for the unusual, Dodge exhibits offbeat-flavor marriages such as oranges sweetened with tarragon, or lime-scented honeydew laced with serrano chile-syrup. There also is a recipe in the book for strawberries mixed with green peppercorns and spiked with strawberry eau de vie.