The Holiday Keep-It-Simple Strategy

This is the time of year when I start to receive emails from readers asking for ideas for fancy holiday meal pastries. My response is almost always the same: keep it simple. A well-executed simple sweet beats a hastily-prepared complex pastry any day of the week. That’s especially true during a holiday dinner where guests are already loading up on appetizers, main courses and fixin’s. An opulent dessert on top of a multi-course banquet generally puts diners over the edge.

So my advice is to think about the flow of your meal and come up with a nice, understated capper. True fancy pastries, it’s important to remember, weren’t created for dessert. Napoleons, Sacher torte and Marjolaine slices are supposed to be consumed in the afternoon, as a between meal treat, since they’re practically meals in themselves. A little bit of mousse, a small cake of some sort, a few cookies with an after-dinner wine. These are the sorts of things that are always well received after a large meal — and you don’t drive yourself mad trying to get them on the table once the main course is cleared away. This year I say: gear down and have fun!

16 thoughts on “The Holiday Keep-It-Simple Strategy”

  1. One of the best desserts I’ve served was a simple poached pear with caramel sauce drizzled over and vanilla shortbread; all very easy to make and serve and just enough after an elaborate meal. Shortbread, especially a good homemade one, is always the best. Serve it with poached or roasted fruit or sorbet or ice-cream and you’ve got a very good and easy dessert!

  2. Bûche de Noël are always impressive, but I do not recommend making one for a gathering smaller than 20 people. It’s just too much cake. It’s a real pity, because I do love making them. They’re lots of fun.

    1. And never bad to just have around over the holidays. My family used to work on one over the course of the week. It was fun!

      Thanks, GL!

      – Joe

  3. Now that I’m thinking about desserts, have you ever done a Christmas pudding?

    One of my son’s favorite Christmas books is Plum Pudding for Christmas by Virginia Kahl, and I think this year I can anticipate a request to actually make a pudding. I’m not strictly opposed, but I don’t know how to go about it either. All I do know is there’s a bag of prunes in my pantry that need a good home.

    1. I have done puddings. There’s one fairly basic on the site, but there are so many others. Have a look and let me know what you think. I was thinking about doing another pudding this season.

      – Joe

      1. I was thinking a proper British Christmas pudding, the kind you stir up weeks before and top with hard sauce and holly and maybe set on fire.

          1. Yes! But without the persimmons. I knew you’d done one, but I couldn’t find it unless I searched for pudding and drilled backwards about 5 pages of posts.

          2. Check that Pastry menu! It’s all there. It’s under “English-Style Pudding”.

            – Joe

          3. Persimmons! How can you stand them? Fortunately they play no part in the traditional English Christmas pudding.

            The recipe you give is for a steamed pudding rather than a traditional Christmas pudding. The real thing must contain spices, suet and breadcrumbs as well as lots of dried fruit consisting mostly of sultanas, raisins and currants and usually peel as well as whatever other fruit you choose. It can also incorporate some fresh chopped apple and lemon or orange zest and brandy or scotch or even rum. It needs to be matured over several weeks for the flavours to blend and develop the rich complexity which is the hallmark of a good Christmas pudding.

            As usual, I don’t have a written recipe myself, so here is a link to Delia Smith’s recipe which should be reliable although I personally do not use beer or stout. Brandy, orange juice and port or sherry are my choices.


            Of course it must be served with the obligatory hard sauce or rum butter.

            Hard sauce is just butter, powdered sugar and brandy thoroughly creamed to a firm consistency and refrigerated before serving. I always addd a little vanilla to mine as well. It can be made the day before you need to use it. Rum butter is the same type of thing made with brown sugar and rum.

            Hope this is helpful.

  4. So what I’m hearing is “I don’t really want to make croquembouche.” [Yes, I am relentless]

    1. I was thinking about you, Roger, while we walked the girls to school the other day. I figured I was going to hear from you soon and was musing on the idea of making a mold. We’ll see!!

      – Joe

      1. Huzzah! It’s a funny thing, I made an attempt at that last year, it was okay, but not shareable. I’d love to have one for the extended family at the holidays, just for the majesty effect. 🙂

        1. Oooooh, you and your silver tongue. I shall try to get up the motivation!

          – Joe

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