Sunday, May 27, 2012

Just Desserts

Desserts

A good meal is its own reward.  Good food, good friends, good times all happen around meals.  Add a fine wine and the event becomes even more special.  It doesn’t really get any better than this.


Well, it actually does.  From something simple like cupcakes and ice cream at your summer cookout to a lovely Bananas Foster as an ending to a fabulous dinner party, a good dessert can be – well – the cherry on the sundae! 

Cupcake


The tradition of eating dessert is directly linked to the medieval practice of eating a meal in two parts.  In the first part, the nobles and the servants would eat together although at separate tables.  During the second meal, the family would retire to their private chambers and finish eating without the servants present.  The food served was usually, but not always, sweets.  This second meal is what evolved into our current practice of having dessert as a final course.


Much like the tradition, the foods served for dessert have also evolved.  Originally, they were pieces of something crunchy, usually a type of bread flavored with dried fruits and nuts and served with honey.  Because sugar was expensive, only the wealthiest could afford desserts on a regular basis.  As sugar become more widely available, desserts worked their way into everyday life.



Cakes as we know them today, round with layers, filling and icing, were nothing like the cakes of early days.  Fruitcakes and gingerbread, baked goods flavored with seasonings and dried fruits, were popular in the 1200s because they could be kept for several days without spoiling.  The cakes we know and love today didn’t actually make it to the table until the mid-17th century. 


Pies are another dessert favorite.  Artwork found in ancient Egyptian tombs shows a form of pie being served to Ramases II.  Those pies, however, were more like a flat bread, flavored with honey and whatever fruits were available baked into them.  The flavoring elements varied depending what was available.  Modern pies, with two crusts and fruit in the middle, are a direct descendant of the pies made by Pilgrim women.  They brought these recipes over with them from England, then modified the filling with the berries and fruits they found in the New World.  Baking everything in a dish was the idea of pioneer women, who also added a top crust.  Fruits in season were popular, and apple pie soon became a favorite of kids everywhere.


Pudding is another favorite, although what we eat today is nothing like the puddings of old.  These forerunners to the vanilla and tapioca varieties we love were more like a sausage, a mix of grains and some kind of meat.  These turned out to be more like meat cakes than the dessert of today.  Modern pudding is a blend of milk, sugar(s), flavorings (like vanilla, chocolate or even lemon), and something like cornstarch or gelatin to thicken it.  Custards are a variation, incorporating eggs into the mixture as a thickener and leaving out the cornstarch or gelatin.


Ice cream had humble enough beginnings, even though it was eaten only by the nobility.  Early emperors had their servants find ice, crush it, then mix it with fruits.  In China, an ancient emperor got the idea of combining ice with milk, the forerunner of our current form of this family favorite.  Eventually, the combination of milk, sugar and flavorings were placed into a container and frozen.  Stirring the mix added air, which improved the texture.  Ice cream is a wonderful treat on its own, but can also be combined with cakes or pies as an extra treat.

Icecream


Although desserts have evolved through history, their main purpose is still the same:  leaving a sweet flavor in the mouth after a meal.  Whether you choose pie, pudding, cake or a combination, dessert will be sure to lend an air of sweetness to any meal.
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