You may argue that desserts aren’t necessarily frugal or good for you. I’ll argue that sometimes you need a little something to feed the soul as well as the body. I’ll be adding to my collection of family favorites over time. One a frugal/health note: by implementing a rule years ago that we would make, rather than buy our desserts, it has proved to be somewhat self limiting.
I do have to say that my strength in cooking is primarily baking. I love pouring through magazines and books and planning over the top desserts for special occasions, birthdays and holidays. For several years, we ate many of our holiday meals with good friends, and it became tradition that I bring dessert. These people opened up their homes to so many, that rather than bring several of one dessert, I’d bring several desserts.
I had more fun baking them than I can say, but the real fun, for me, was listening to the happy noises as people ate. I began to actually feel a little selfish; like I was stealing the show. It became a joke that I needed a 12 step program…”Hi, I’m _______, and I can’t bake just one dessert.” Of course, with not paying for the meal itself, I really did have the budget to go over the top…
For the occasional every day sweet, or a little something for a weekly dessert, I’ve found as I’ve aged I’ve become more nostalgic for the desserts of my childhood. I miss “snack” cakes, the ones stirred up quickly and baked in a 9 x 9 pan. I’ve missed the simple puddings – my Mom would make a cornstarch pudding from the box, blanc mange, I’d know to call it now, or simple baked custards. Rhubarb sauce over ice cream in the spring. Strawberry shortcake, always, in the summer, was a treat. Apple crisps, baked apples or apple cake with caramel sauce. Banana pudding, bread pudding, hot fudge sauce over ice cream, and lemon meringue pie. Carrot cake, with all those carrots grated by, yeah, you guessed it, me. Oh, and who could forget the bars, the veritable plethora of bar upon bar upon bar? Always appropriate for any occasion, from birth to death and everything in between.
So many of these desserts were so homey and humble and decidedly noncheffy. After 911, and with the recession, “entertaining” became wildly popular. I can’t help but chuckle at the idea of having to be “on” and “entertaining” for friends. The same decade we were looking most for comfort, we were taking our dishes and desserts and blowing them up into something incredible and perhaps a bit “too” much.
I noticed the same thing happening with garden roses – the old fashioned climbers replaced by heavy producing landscape roses that are always “on,” and bloom for months. My son calls them “Pleasantville” roses. I think he hit the nail on the head, because it’s not just the roses that have become “Pleasantville,” is it?
It seems those childhood desserts are the polar opposite of what we make when we “entertain,” always with a bit of a nod to frugality, based upon the season. In my small town, things like canned pie filling were frowned upon, with the exception of pumpkin at Thanksgiving. You cooked with what you had and what was available in the stores. It’s interesting to me that there was/is a movement toward seasonality in cooking and baking because the seasons have always been so deeply ingrained in me by my childhood, I’ve never considered any other option. You just know that strawberries aren’t good in December and that they cost three times the amount…that a peach cobbler in February from frozen peaches is passable, but can’t compare to those few short weeks in summer…it’s October, now, and I’m totally fixated at this moment of the memory of the scent of a warm, fresh peach, the soft give in your hand and the smooth fuzz. But I digress…
For desserts, especially, I like to use what’s seasonal and fresh, and make desserts that simply highlight the flavors, at their peak for just a few short weeks. Caramel, chocolate and lemon are often my fallback options when nothing else is available. In my opinion, you can’t get much better, or more frugal than that. Now, none of that is going to stop me from trying a 6 layer salted caramel cake for a birthday, or a three layer white chocolate, milk chocolate and dark chocolate mousse for a special occasion…but here, I want to focus on some of my favorite down-home desserts – the ones that, hopefully, will replace something store bought on our tables. Simple, homey, tasty, and for the most part easy enough to throw together.
What’s your favorite childhood dessert?