By Alison Ashton
Lately, I’ve preached the benefits of indulgences. I believe that if you eat what you really want, you’re less likely to overdo it in the long run. For me, that means saving room for dessert. Most of the time, however, all I really want is a little something to end a meal on a sweet grace note–a treat to enjoy, not make me groan, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”
That point came home for me during the recent holiday season, when I offered to bring dessert for dinner at our friends’ house. I spent all day making a rich chocolate torte. With chocolate ganache. And pumpkinseed brittle. And cranberry coulis to brighten up the plate. It was delicious, but after our wonderful supper of heritage turkey and all the fixings, it was the last thing I wanted.
Instead, I craved something simple and light–a refreshing citrus sorbet, perhaps, or a selection of cookies to nibble with after-dinner coffee.
The best light desserts are those that aren’t too heavy to begin with; many of which are simple affairs. I’m a big fan of icy, refreshing sorbets or granitas, especially when they spotlight seasonal fruit. Fruit compote served over low-fat Greek yogurt is creamy and satisfying, and simple savory-sweet concoctions like Chocolate Crostini with Orange Zest and Sea Salt deliver big flavor in petite packages.
All Whipped Up
The main tool in the light baking arsenal is meringue, which is nothing more than egg whites beaten with sugar. There are three types of meringues, which you can use in any number of ways:
- French: egg whites and sugar beaten as stiff as you like (anywhere from soft to stiff peaks). Because the eggs are raw, a French meringue must be cooked. If you beat a French meringue to stiff peaks, you can bake it into crunchy little cookies or into larger circles to use as a base for fruit-topped Pavlovas.
- Italian: egg whites beaten with hot sugar syrup to a creamy consistency. The hot syrup raises the temperature of the egg whites to a level that’s safe to consume without further cooking. An Italian meringue is stable enough to use as a naturally low-fat cake frosting.
- Swiss: egg whites and sugar are heated in a double-boiler. This also brings the egg whites up to a safe temperature so the meringue requires no further cooking. Like an Italian meringue, this is a stable mixture that can be used to frost cakes, decorate tarts, and pies.
Angel food cake is a classic foam cake that is leavened by a French meringue for a heavenly light texture (most likely the source of its celestial name). Some food historians credit the Pennsylvania Dutch with the angel food cake’s creation, as a way to use leftover egg whites. Others believe it was perfected by African-American slaves, since beating the egg whites would have been a laborious chore before the invention of the electric mixer. Both stories sound plausible to me, but either way this old-time dessert is perfect for modern meals.
A longtime editor, writer, and recipe developer, Alison Ashton is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef. She has worked as a features editor for a national wire service and as senior food editor for a top food magazine. Her work has appeared in Cooking Light, Vegetarian Times, and Natural Health as well as on her blog, Eat Cheap, Eat Well, Eat Up.