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Finding the sweet spot

Keep the grill going: A little smoke and fire can transform pineapple, pound cake, even cinnamon toast.

June 25, 2008|Dawna Nolan | Special to The Times

EVERYTHING seems to taste exponentially better when seasoned with fresh air and stars -- and smoke -- and maybe because it's unexpected, this is especially true of dessert. So after the grilled burgers or lamb, the chicken or ribs, why not keep those coals glowing a little longer?

Grilling deliciously caramelizes spears of juicy pineapple that have been brushed with a sweet and creamy rum glaze. That glaze gets a flowery bite from freshly ground Balinese long pepper, and the aromatic pepper, combined with smoke from the grill, has a heady, exotic effect. Cinnamon toast is intriguingly transformed on the grill; the mixture of butter and sugar and cinnamon gets deep golden brown, almost slightly charred. It's served with a mound of strawberries macerated in a lavender simple syrup. Pound cake -- slices of it with Nutella sandwiched in between -- undergoes a similar transformation from familiar to festive when you apply the magic of playing with fire.

Dessert on the grill is one of those many occasions when a slow burn trumps the flash and heat of leaping flames. If you're not careful, food that contains sugars can burn quickly when grilling. If using a charcoal grill (or hardwood), the heat from coals still glowing after you've cooked your main course should be about right. You'll also want to make sure there are no remnants of the main course on the grate; it should be impeccably clean and well-oiled. And if you're using a gas grill, you'll want to use your grill's setting and spot for indirect heat. On many gas grills, this means preheating the grill using the high-heat setting, then reducing it to low once it's hot and placing food to be grilled to one side, not directly over the burner.

Presumably, one never outgrows the pure pleasure of gooey marshmallows nestled in melting Hershey bars and crisp graham crackers. But for a more unexpected and elegant pleasure, start with a favorite fruit and cheese combination. Maybe firm ripe figs stuffed with Gorgonzola, halves of tangy nectarines with a nugget of chevre, or perfume-y white peaches with a chunk of Manchego. Any of these just needs a few minutes on an oiled grill, long enough for the fruit to soften and glisten with pretty grill marks, and for the cheese to begin melting.

And though fruit on the grill might be an apparent choice, grilled pineapple smeared with a luxurious glaze gets an unexpected kick from the Balinese long pepper. It's a wild, trailing pepper variety that grows in the Indonesian island's jungle canopies, looks like tiny cattails and has a deep, complex flavor that's more spicy and rich than round peppercorns.

For another easy dessert, bake a simple and perfect pound cake in the morning, even the day before. (You'll have enough to test a slice with a glass of wine as you await the arrival of your guests -- guaranteed to make you a more relaxed and convivial host.) Sandwich Nutella and toasted pecans between the thin slices you grill until the chocolate-hazelnut spread oozes into a warm puddle. Top it all with a scoop of cool, creamy ice cream.

If pound cake and chocolate-hazelnut sandwiches are a voluptuous temptation -- the "Marilyn" of grilled desserts, if you will -- cinnamon toast with lavender-macerated strawberries is your "Audrey," delicious and sweetly familiar, but undeniably alluring. It also has the added charm of a short ingredient list, and takes just seconds from the time you gently lay the toasts on the grate to standing the golden crunch of them in a bowl mounded with scented berries.

Apply a bit of imagination, and you'll turn out sophisticated grilled desserts that will do a lot for your reputation as a civilized host. With or without guests.



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Grilled Nutella and pecan pound cake sandwiches

Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes, plus cooling time

Servings: 8

Note: The pound cake recipe makes more cake than is needed for the sandwiches. The pound cake recipe comes from my grandmother, Elaine Smith. It's delicious even without the embellishment of grilling and chocolate.

Elaine Smith's pound cake

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsweetened butter, at room temperature

3 3/4 cups (1 pound) powdered sugar

6 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

2 3/4 cups sifted cake flour

1. Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Generously butter a 10-inch tube or bundt pan. Dust with flour, tapping out all excess. Set aside.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or use a large bowl and hand-held electric mixer), beat the butter until creamy and pale. Sift the powdered sugar and gradually add it to the butter, beating continuously until the mixture is very light and fluffy.

3. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, making sure to blend well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla. In a separate bowl, mix the baking soda with the cake flour and beat it into the butter mixture, half a cup at a time, until the batter is smooth and velvety.

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