Sugar Plum Dessert Buffet

Take the stress out of entertaining this holiday season and plan a sweet celebration for your guests.

As the song says, “There’s no place like home for the holidays.” And for many of us, they can be overwhelming. It’s easy to put undo stress on ourselves, and I am the first to admit I am guilty. For the holidays, we want things to be perfect and memorable; we want our home to be inviting; we want to be surrounded by family and friends; we want the magic of the season to envelop us in a way that no other time of the year can. But all that comes with a price, and I have found that controlling holiday stress in the kitchen starts with planning well ahead.  

Even before the last drumstick of Thanksgiving dinner has disappeared, my mind is rushing to make a list of what I need to see me through the long holiday season. That means stocking up on staple items, such as flour, sugar, butter, wines and anything else that doesn’t need to be purchased at the last minute.

Instead of the predictable open house or holiday dinner with the host bogged down in myriad preparations from shopping to cooking to setting a pretty holiday table, why not plan a “Sugar Plum Dessert Buffet” and ask your guests to each bring a favorite holiday treat on an attractive serving dish. That way, there is less stress on you to provide and prepare everything.

I like to think of the dessert buffet as “visions of sugar plums dancing in my head” where guilty pleasures can be realized from cookies to trifle, and just a taste goes a long way to delight.

Suggest desserts your guests can bring that can be prepared ahead of time, require minimum fussing and hold up well. Cold weather and the holidays cry out for warm fruit crisps and cobblers, soothing trifles and comforting bread puddings—and the great thing about these is that they can serve a crowd as part of a dessert buffet where there are many choices.

Offer some sparkling dessert wines to accompany the sweet confections and enjoy the party. And remember that Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are not just moments in time, they are seasons—so celebrate by savoring them slowly.

Apple Bread Pudding with Caramel Sauce
Serves 8

Any sweet bread—such as raisin bread, cinnamon bread or a sweet brioche—is a good candidate for this delicious bread pudding with apples and caramel sauce. The pudding is baked in a water bath, which gives it even heat and provides a wonderful textural taste.

1/2 cup raisins, dried cranberries or dried cherries
1/3 cup brandy
12 slices sweet bread, torn into 1-inch pieces
11/2 cups light cream
11/2 cups sugar, divided
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
3 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons melted butter
4 Golden Delicious apples, cored, peeled and thinly sliced

1. In a small bowl, soak the raisins in the brandy for 30 minutes.
2. Place the bread pieces in a rectangular
casserole dish and pour the cream over them. Set aside.
3. In a large bowl, whisk 1/2 cup of the sugar with the nutmeg, eggs, salt and butter until well blended. Drain the raisins, reserving 2 tablespoons of the brandy, and add the raisins and reserved brandy to the sugar mixture. Add the apple slices; remove the bread slices from the cream and add them. Combine well. Set aside.
4. Preheat the oven to 350°F. In a saucepan set over medium-high heat, combine the remaining sugar and 1/3 cup water. Let the sugar dissolve completely, and then boil until it darkens to a caramel color. Immediately pour it into a 91/2-by-21/2-deep ring mold and swirl to coat the bottom of the mold. Be careful not to hold the mold by the bottom or you may burn your hand; use the rim. Pour the apple-bread mixture into the mold, spreading and packing it evenly with a wooden spoon.
5. Place the mold in a baking pan and pour enough boiling water around the outside of the mold to come 11/2 inches up the sides. Carefully transfer the pan to the oven and bake for 45 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the middle comes out still slightly damp.
6. Remove the mold from the pan and allow it to cool for a few minutes. Carefully place a round-rimmed serving dish or platter larger than the mold over the top of the mold and invert it onto the dish.

Mom’s Cranberry Crisp 
Serves 4–6

My mother’s notebooks are full of recipes for the holidays, but this simple crisp remains a favorite.

6  cups fresh or frozen cranberries
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup apple cider
1  cup flour
1/4 cup quick-cooking oatmeal
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/4 stick butter, melted and cooled
1 egg, lightly beaten with a fork

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Place the cranberries in a large saucepan and add the granulated sugar and cider. Bring to boil over medium heat, and cook until the cranberries pop and mixture thickens. Transfer to an 8-inch baking dish and spread evenly.
2. In a separate bowl, mix the flour, oatmeal, brown sugar, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. With a fork, work in the butter until mixture looks crumbly. Mix in the egg.
3. Crumble the mixture over the top of the cranberries. Bake for 30-40 minutes or until the top is nicely browned and the cranberries are bubbly and juicy. Serve warm, scooped from the pan.

English Trifle Cake
Serves 8

English trifle cake is a classic for the holidays and is best when made a day ahead, but the filling can be made up to two days ahead,
leaving you with only the assembly on the day of serving.

3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon cake flour

Pinch of salt

3 large eggs, separated, at room temperature, plus 4 large egg yolks

1 cup sugar, divided 1 cup milk

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon unsalted butter

1 tablespoon grated lemon zest

1 tablespoon vanilla

3/4 cup diced mixed dried fruits (such as apricots, pears and apples)

1 tablespoon rum or brandy

11/4 cups whipping cream

2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

Dried apricots, pears and/or apples for garnish, optional

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly butter and flour a 9-inch, round cake pan. Sift the cake flour and salt onto wax paper. 
In a bowl, beat 3 egg yolks until lemon-colored. Gradually beat in 3/4 cup of sugar.

2. In another bowl, with clean beaters, beat 3 egg whites until stiff but not dry. Gradually fold the whites into the egg yolk mixture until well blended. Spoon the flour mixture over the eggs a little at a time, and fold in until there aren’t any streaks of flour. Pour the batter into the pan. Bake for 25 minutes, or until the cake is delicately browned and a cake skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.

3. Let the cake cool completely in the pan on a rack, then use a knife to loosen the cake from the edges of the pan and invert it to a rack. 

4. Meanwhile, make the filling. In a small saucepan, scald the milk (bring to just under a boil). Let cool to warm. In the top of a double boiler, off the heat, whisk the 4 yolks with the ¼ cup of sugar until smooth. Gradually whisk in the 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour. Slowly whisk in the warm milk. Place the double boiler over medium-low heat and cook, whisking constantly, until the filling thickens and coats the whisk. Remove the top of the double boiler from the heat and stir in the butter, zest, vanilla and diced fruits. Set the pan in a bed of ice cubes and water to cool.

When cool, transfer the filling to a bowl; cover with a piece of buttered wax paper, pressing it against the surface of the filling; and refrigerate for several hours or overnight.

5. To assemble the cake, use a serrated knife to split the cake into two layers. Place one layer on a serving plate. Sprinkle with the rum or brandy. Spread the filling evenly over the layer. Top with the second cake layer. Refrigerate until chilled. (The cake can be loosely covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated overnight.)

6. In a bowl, beat the cream with the confectioners’ sugar until stiff peaks form. Fill a pastry bag fitted with a star tip with the cream. Pipe a decorative border around the top and bottom edges of the cake.

7. If you wish, arrange the dried fruits in the cream. To serve, cut the cake into wedges with a serrated knife.

Categories: Food & Recipes