Cool summer desserts: Fast, easy and fun

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This plum and puff pastry tart makes a This plum and puff pastry tart makes a great summer dessert. (June 10, 2011) Photo Credit: Doug Young

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Lauren Chattman

Lauren Chattman is a cookbook author, freelance writer and former professional pastry chef. Her recipes have appeared in

Is there a better time for dessert than summer, when late sunsets encourage us to linger at the table for an extra course? My favorite warm weather desserts are fuss-free and made with seasonal ingredients. When choosing a recipe to end a weeknight supper, family barbecue or a casual beach picnic, I keep the following in mind:

Take advantage of fruit

It's easy to put together a great dessert when you start off with farm-fresh peaches, juicy plums or Long Island's legendary strawberries. Recipes that require little or no cooking -- like watermelon and blackberries in ginger syrup, or grilled peaches with mascarpone and honey -- are my favorites this time of year.

 Look past ice cream

 A chilled dessert is always welcome in the summer. But instead of reaching for ice cream, why not try an equally refreshing alternative, like a cool parfait of coconut tapioca and mangoes or a zingy lemonade gelatin mixed with local strawberries?

Be whimsical

A barbecue is no occasion for a serious chocolate gâteau or a fancy crème brûlée. It is just the right time to pass around desserts like raspberry and marshmallow cream-filled whoopee pies or fresh strawberry hand pies.

PLUM AND PUFF PASTRY TART

Be sure to pierce the puff pastry all over with a fork before arranging the plums, so you won't get large air bubbles in the crust as the tart bakes. Peek into the oven after 15 minutes, and if you do see bubbles forming, simply deflate with a fork or the tip of a sharp paring knife. (I use Pepperidge Farm puff pastry, available in the supermarket freezer section.)

1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3 small ripe but firm plums, about 10ounces, pitted and thinly sliced

1 large egg

2 teaspoons apricot jam, well stirred

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Unfold thawed puff pastry sheet on top of paper. Prick all over with a fork. Cool in freezer for 15 minutes.

2. Combine sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl. Sprinkle chilled puff pastry with 2 tablespoons cinnamon sugar. Arrange plums, overlapping them slightly, on top of pastry, leaving a 11/2-inch border of pastry all around. Sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons cinnamon sugar. Brush edges of pastry with egg.

3. Bake until crust is golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Brush plums with apricot jam as soon as tart comes out of oven. Let cool completely on baking sheet. Slice and serve.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

WATERMELON AND BLACKBERRIES WITH GINGER SYRUP

For the most refreshing result, make sure your syrup and fruit are well chilled.

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup water

2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled

3 cups 1/2-inch cubes of watermelon, chilled

1/2 cup blackberries, chilled

1. Combine sugar, water and ginger in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl or glass measuring cup, let cool, discard ginger. Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 1 week. Divide fruit into 4 goblets. Pour syrup over fruit and serve.

GRILLED PEACHES WITH MASCARPONE

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Mascarpone, or Italian-style cream cheese, is available at specialty foods stores and most supermarkets. You may substitute fresh ricotta cheese or crème fraîche.

4 ripe but firm peaches, halved and pitted

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1/2 cup mascarpone

1/4 cup best-quality honey

1. Preheat gas grill to medium-high.

2. Brush cut sides of peaches with butter.

3. Grill, uncovered, until just softened and warmed through, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to dessert plates, spoon some mascarpone alongside peaches, drizzle with honey, and serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings.

COCONUT TAPIOCA AND MANGO PARFAITS

Other tropical fruits -- diced pineapple or kiwi -- may be combined with or substitute for the mangos.

3 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs

1 (13.66-ounce) can light coconut milk

3/4 cup milk

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon coconut extract, optional

2 small mangos, peeled, pitted and cut into 1/4-inch dice

1. Whisk together tapioca, sugar, salt, eggs, coconut milk and milk in a medium-size, heavy saucepan. Let stand 10 minutes without stirring.

2. Bring tapioca mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking constantly. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, whisking constantly, for 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla and coconut extracts. Transfer to a bowl, cover surface with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until chilled, at least 2 hours and up to 2 days.

3. Layer chilled tapioca and diced mango in parfait glasses and serve immediately.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

FRESH LEMON GELATIN WITH STRAWBERRIES

For a pink lemonade effect, add a little grenadine syrup to the gelatin while it's hot.

2 envelopes unflavored gelatin

2 1/2 cups water

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

1 cup fresh lemon juice (7 or 8 lemons)

1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1/4 teaspoon grenadine syrup (optional), available at supermarket

2 cups strawberries, hulled and cut in half (or quarters, if large)

1. Sprinkle gelatin over 1/2 cup water and let soften for 5 minutes. Combine remaining 2 cups water, sugar, lemon juice and zest in a saucepan and bring to a simmer, whisking to dissolve sugar. Remove from heat and whisk in gelatin mixture and grenadine syrup, if using. Pour into a bowl, cover with plastic and refrigerate until firm, at least 6 hours and up to 3 days.

2. Combine berries and remaining tablespoon sugar in a medium bowl and let stand, stirring occasionally, to dissolve sugar. Spoon a couple of berries into dessert goblets, top with some gelatin, spoon in a few more berries, and continue to layer berries and gelatin until goblets are full. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

CHOCOLATE-RASPBERRY WHOOPIE PIES

A cookie scoop or small ice-cream scoop is handy for making cookies of similar size in this recipe. Other flavors of jam -- blueberry, strawberry, apricot or orange -- may be substituted for the raspberry.

For the cookies

1 cup unsweetened natural (not Dutch-process) cocoa powder

1 cup boiling water

1/2 cup full-fat sour cream

1 large egg yolk

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

For the filling

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1/4 cup confectioners' sugar

1/4 cup raspberry jam

Pinch salt

3/4 cup Marshmallow Fluff

1. To make the cookies: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Whisk together cocoa powder and boiling water in a small bowl until smooth. Set aside to cool. Combine sour cream, egg yolk and vanilla in a medium-size mixing bowl and beat lightly with a fork. Set aside.

3. Combine flour, brown sugar, baking soda and salt in a large mixing bowl. Add the butter; using an electric mixer, mix on low speed until the butter pieces are no larger than small peas. Stir in sour cream mixture and mix on low to moisten. Add cocoa mixture and beat on medium-high speed until combined, scraping down sides of the bowl once or twice, as necessary.

4. Use a small ice cream scoop to drop batter by tablespoonfuls onto parchment-lined baking sheets, leaving 21/2 inches between cookies. Bake until tops are cracked and dry, 8 to 9 minutes. Remove sheets from oven and let cookies cool on baking sheets for 5 minutes before transferring to wire racks to cool completely.

5. Make filling: Cream together butter and confectioners' sugar in a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer on low speed. Stir in jam and salt. Stir in Marshmallow Fluff. Beat on high until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Refrigerate until slightly thickened, about 20 minutes.

6. Spoon 1 generous teaspoon of filling onto flat side of a cookie. Sandwich with another cookie. Repeat with the remaining cookies.

Makes about 20 whoopie pies.

FRESH STRAWBERRY HAND PIES

You can fill, seal and glaze these hand pies in advance. Drape them lightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate them right on the baking sheet for up to 1day before baking.

For the pie dough

1 cup sugar

1 cup (8 ounces) chilled cream cheese

1 cup (2 sticks) chilled unsalted butter

2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

For the filling

2 cups finely diced strawberries

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon cornstarch

Pinch salt

1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 large egg, lightly beaten

Sanding sugar or granulated sugar for sprinkling

1. To make dough: Combine sugar, cream cheese and butter in a large mixing bowl. Beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until smooth. Add flour and salt, and beat on low speed until the dough comes together. Press into two balls, wrap them in plastic and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 1 day.

2. Combine strawberries, sugar, cornstarch, salt and vanilla in a large bowl. Let stand, stirring several times, until sugar is dissolved.

3. On a lightly floured surface, roll one dough ball to 1/8-inch thick. Use a 41/2-inch biscuit cutter to cut dough into circles. Using a metal spatula, lift dough from countertop as you roll, and sprinkle more flour on countertop and rolling pin as necessary (this dough is sticky). Transfer circles to parchment-lined baking sheets. Reroll scraps and cut into more circles. Repeat with remaining dough.

4. Spoon a heaping tablespoon of filling onto one side of each circle. Fold circles in half and seal by pressing edges together with the tines of a fork dipped in flour. Brush dough with egg and sprinkle with sanding sugar or granulated sugar. Chill in freezer for 30 minutes.

5. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bake until pastry is golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool on baking sheets for 10 minutes and use a spatula to transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

Makes 14 pies.

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