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Today, when you're not sure what to make for dinner, start with dessert.
It’s funny to think of dinner in terms of dessert, sort of like reading a novel backwards and beginning with the very last chapter. But that is just what I do; it just seems to work out better that way. I plan what I will bake for dessert and worry about everything else—antipasti or appetizers, main course, and so forth—later, with the quiet comfort that once the last course is sorted everything else will just fall into place.
You see, a good dessert dictates the tone of an evening. I’m speaking of the kind of dessert that, when everyone has gone home and the last of the dishes are washed, dried, and put back in the cupboard, you can’t help but cut one more piece for yourself before bed.
That kind of dessert allows you to be as lazy as you like when it comes to cooking the rest of the meal. When a mozzarella and tomato salad (maybe with a little charcuterie), a nice bowl of chilled white asparagus soup, and a loaf of crusty bread or even a frittata (I like this one with wild hops, but you could make it with ramps, zucchini, or pretty much any greens of your choosing—baby spinach is good!) is followed by something sweet, homemade, and dusted in a veneer of icing sugar, a kitchen supper suddenly morphs into a veritable feast.
That kind of dessert, in my mind, is—and always will be—this flourless chocolate cake. It’s not a fancy cake. It’s not tricky to make, nor does it come laden with some kind of extravagant buttercream icing (though I do serve mine with a good dollop of rosemary whipped cream on the side). Rather, it’s simple and sophisticated—rich, dark, and, most importantly of all, irresistible to any guest at my table. It is the kind of cake that you can prepare ahead of time and, better still, it’s the kind of cake that improves with age. Rather like a good bottle of wine, its flavors develop and the crumb becomes denser and richer and all the more irresistible with the passing of time.
So I let my chocolate cake rest in the fridge for a few days (three is optimal, I have found), while I ponder on what else to cook for dinner. And if all else fails—if the roast spoils or I find myself lost for time to cook—I know that the cake, that cake, alone will carry dinner off.
Some menu ideas built around great desserts:
- Charcuterie board with olives, salted almonds, and cheeses
- Chilled white asparagus soup with homemade bread (or a nice loaf of bread from a good bakery)
- Flourless chocolate cake with rosemary whipped cream (pictured above)
- A really good roast chicken
- Tomato panzanella
- Arugala watercress, and fennel salad with shavings of Parmesan
- Peach and saffron tart (you can bake this earlier in the day, or even the day before, and serve it cold with a drizzle of runny cream)
- Baked Brie with crusty bread
- Braised endives
- Sautéed zucchini with mint, basil, and walnuts
- Honey, ginger, salted almond and thyme semifreddo (the joy of this semifreddo is that it can be made days—even a couple weeks—ahead of time; just before serving, turn it out on to a nice dish, drizzle with honey, and sprinkle with crystallized ginger, almonds, and a few sprigs of fresh thyme)
Serves 8 to 10
For the cake:
200 grams butter
200 grams good-quality dark chocolate
200 grams caster (superfine) sugar, divided
1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar, for dusting
For the whipped cream:
300 milliliters heavy cream
2 sprigs rosemary
1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar
Second photo by Emiko Davies; all others by Skye McAlpine