What is it about dessert?

I don’t do dessert . . . meaning, when I’m invited to dinner, I’m not the one you ask to bake. Not that I can’t be counted on to choose some exquisite, mouth-watering delights from our local French pastry shop.

On the other hand, you want a brisket as good as it gets, come to my house for Rosh Hashanah in autumn (or Passover when springtime rolls around). I have a few other specialties in my repertoire. But a baker I’m not. Maybe apple cakeit’s my lack of a sweet tooth—I was more of a vanilla ice cream kind of girl, with an appreciation for chocolate that extended to sprinkles on the cone; nothing rich ever appealed to me, and I was known to scrape whipped cream off birthday cake, though what’s there not to love about a Charlotte Russe?

My mother did not bake; my aunt was supreme at it. Both were very good cooks, and the Jewish holidays were nothing if not a foodfest. Somewhere along the way we may have lost sight of the spirituality, but family spirit demanded we get together. And eat.

These days, holiday celebrations are a mix of family and friends.   Everyone wants to bring something, so I assign side dishes. And dessert. A good friend of mine makes a mean flourless chocolate cake. This year she indulged me with a home-made sponge cake as well. My sister-in-law puts her sweet stamp on a traditional favorite, chocolate mandelbrot.

The point? You’ll never run short of dessert at any holiday gathering. Sometimes it can be over the top. A friend of mine always asks a cousin to bring just two or three desserts. The cousin can’t help herself. She brings at least twice that amount. All those tortes and cakes and cookies set on a table after a full meal make for a beautiful piece of art. And even if I’m forever baffled by what would possess someone to bring the equivalent of a cake per person, espcupcakesecially when asked to cut back, who am I to judge what amounts to generosity of spirit? And maybe there’s a metaphor behind it all: sweeten our world, sweeten our day.

The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known as Days of Awe, intended for reflection and repentance.   We think of Rosh Hashanah as marking the Jewish New Year, though it actually coincides with the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, which begins in springtime, with its Passover celebration. In a word, Rosh Hashanah calls up the creation of the world, and Passover the founding of the Jewish people. No matter how you slice it, they’re seasonal celebrations. Tonight, observant Jews will have a big meal in preparation for a fast day. My level of observance has varied over the years, but I always fast on Yom Kippur and it has as much to do with connecting me to a tradition that is so much a part of me as it has to do with reminding myself that there are too many people in the world who go to bed hungry.

Fasting is a good thing to do for the body and the spirit. My body, with its fluctuating blood sugar levels,  has learned that if I skip dessert during the pre-fast meal, I’m not so hungry in the morning. My spirit, never more in the moment, has learned that there’s nothing so sweet as that first bite of a piece of challah after a day devoted to conscious non-eating. A day in which I’ve done my best not to think about what I might be missing.

 All photos are courtesy of Sara Dolin, whose baking skills far surpass her mother’s ;-)

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12 thoughts on “What is it about dessert?

  1. A delicious post. Just yesterday I smugly walked right past the Cupcake shop here in Santa Fe; it is a superior moment of grace NOT to be reined into temptation. Growing up with desert served at every supper, it is a hard ritual to break, but I’m getting there!

    • Yes, I would define that as moment of grace, Monica. And I do confess –given my reputation, it sometimes surprises people to know that I do love a good piece of chocolate (preferably dark). What’s there not to love, really? 😉

    • That would be a Cronut, Kim. People have been known to line up at 5 a.m. at Dominique Ansel’s bakery in SoHo, for that croissant/donut delicacy he created.

  2. For all the dessert avoidance, these pictures sure stir a dessert craving. At least for me. I love the idea of the lack of dessert helping the fasting process. Interesting. I had a single piece of cheesecake for dinner last night. Hahahaha.

    • It was funny to be writing about dessert on the eve of a fast — but once again I did make it through with barely a craving for anything (except sleep).

  3. Since I was a young girl and got my very own Easy Bake Oven for Christmas, I’ve been a baker. I have an insatiable sweet-tooth and have always shown my love for others with offerings of gifts of freshly baked treats. To me, a fine meal without a decadent dessert is sacrilegious! Happy Holidays to you, my dear friend–happy eating!

    • Well I know for a fact that you are a wonderful baker, Jessica — and you know I have thing for scones.

  4. And here I thought you were going to give us a recipe. Your photos look good enough to eat. I used to bake and cook all the time. But then I got a divorce and raising the kids on my own meant not enough time to prepare meals everyday. But you’re right. The holidays are the time for fancy eating. Foods you don’t see much the rest of the year. My favorite is noodle kugel, the sweet version with raisins and apples. When folks invite me over, that’s what I often bring. I’ve also been known to bake a pretty mean challah. With sesame seeds, of course!

    • Kugel is always good, and I do like it with raisins. Will have to try apples as well. And I’m pretty impressed that you bake challah. Forget Paleo diets — it’s carbs we need. 😉

    • I did have a good holiday, Jayne. Funny how fasting doesn’t seem so daunting. And, like I said, any sweet is even sweeter after a fast.

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