Summer party season is well under way. The trick, of course, is making those events memorable and delicious without making them labor-intensive as well. And a spectacular dessert that showcases summer's bounty leaves a gorgeous, lasting impression.
So, we turned to a trio of cookbook authors - notable chefs and food writers whose books are zooming up bestseller lists - for suggestions on how to make a special, all-American dessert that's party perfect but has all the ease of a summer breeze.
The answers were sublime:warm cornmeal shortcakes with strawberries, and chocolate cupcakes with a cherry on top - bing, not maraschino.
In short, the answer begins with beautiful fruit.
"There's no reason to get a really fussy dessert in summer, when the fruit is practically dessert itself," says Janet Fletcher, a Chez Panisse alum and James Beard Award-winning writer. Ms. Fletcher's most recent book, Eating Local: The Cookbook Inspired by America's Farmers (Andrews McMeel), is a love letter to the nation's small, organic farms - and it brims with dessert ideas.
"I love fruit desserts, so I look to the berries and the peaches and the stone fruits of summer," Ms. Fletcher says.
"One of the simplest things you can make - it's a great party dessert because you can make it ahead - is a Summer Fruit Macedonia. It's basically a fruit salad."
Ms. Fletcher soaks nectarines, plums, berries, and cherries in a wine syrup.
"I make it hours ahead and it just gets better, because the fruit gives up its juices. I add a little Sambuca or a little kirsch, and serve it in a beautiful wine glass with a cookie," she says.
Use the best, most perfectly ripe fruit, says Jennie Schacht, an Oakland, Calif., food writer whose latest book, Farmers Market Desserts (Chronicle Books), features autumnal pear cobblers and berry-filled dishes for spring.
"Farmers markets are perfect for that. The fruit's so good, it can speak for itself," she says. "One of my favorite Fourth of July desserts is a rhubarb, blueberry and cream parfait. Parfaits are really easy to make. You make all the components ahead."
Ms. Schacht tucks a crunchy oatmeal topping between layers of fresh blueberries, sweet cream, and fresh raspberries or poached rhubarb, then serves the confection in tall parfait glasses. Swap yogurt for the cream, and it makes a great breakfast treat.
"And everyone loves a cupcake," she adds. Her favorite is a chocolate-cherry version, filled with kirsch-soaked fresh cherries and adorned with a rosy bing.
For the Cornmeal Cake:
3/4 cup unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
1 1/2 cups sifted, unbleached, all-purpose flour, plus more for the pan
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2/3 cup yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup fine semolina
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2/3 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup buttermilk
For the Berries:
3 pints mixed juice berries
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
4 teaspoons brandy
1 cup cream
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat the oven to 375. Lightly grease a 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan with butter. Coat bottom and sides with flour and shake out the excess.
Sift the flour, baking powder and soda together into a medium bowl. Whisk in the cornmeal, semolina and salt.
Using an electric mixer, cream the butter. Add the sugar gradually, beating until mixture is pale and light. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, then beat in the almond extract.
On low speed, add half the dry ingredients and beat just until blended. Beat in the buttermilk, then remaining dry ingredients, just until blended. Transfer batter to pan.
Bake until the cake is firm to the touch and beginning to pull away from the sides, 45-50 minutes. A cake tester inserted in the center should come out clean. Cool in pan 15 minutes, then turn out of the pan and finish cooling on a rack.
Meanwhile, combine the berries, cup sugar, and brandy. Stir gently and let macerate at room temperature for 1 hour to draw out the juices.
Whisk the cream, 1 tablespoon sugar, and vanilla to soft peaks. Chill until ready to serve.
Preheat oven to 375. Cut the ends off the cake, then cut the cake into 8 equal slices. Arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast in oven until hot and slightly crusty, 5 minutes. Transfer to individual plates, top with berries and their juices, and cream.
Yield: 8 servings
Source: Janet Fletcher's Eating Local (Andrews McMeel)
Chocolate Cherry Cupcakes
36 firm-ripe cherries, at least 12 with stems
1 tablespoon kirsch
1 1/3 cups unbleached flour
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened natural cocoa powder (not Dutch processed)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons cold water
5 tablespoon canola oil
1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
3/4 teaspoon vanilla
For the Frosting:
1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 1/2 cups sour cream, room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons kirsch
Preheat oven to 350. Line a muffin tin with paper liners.
Set aside the 12 nicest cherries with stems. Stem and pit remaining cherries; cut into halves if small, quarters if large. Toss with 1 tablespoon kirsch and set aside.
Whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, and salt. Blend in the water, oil, vinegar, and vanilla. Fold in cherries and their juice.
Fill cupcake papers about two-thirds full. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center tests clean, 30 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool completely.
For the frosting, melt the chocolates in a double boiler over gently simmering water. Stir in sour cream and kirsch. Set aside to firm up until spreadable, about 20 minutes.
Using an icing spatula or a pastry bag fitted with a No. 16 star tip, frost the cooled cupcakes. Top each cupcake with a reserved cherry. Leftover cupcakes can be refrigerated for up to 2 days.
Yield: Makes 12
Source: Jennie Schacht's Farmers Market Desserts (Chronicle Books)