Telos in ancient Greek means “goal, target, mission, completion, perfection.” In all these senses, dessert is the telos of the meal.
When I say dessert, I mean the real thing. These low fat, sugar free desserts seem morally wrong and repulsive to me. Wraithlike, these desserts hide a horrible nothingness inside their pretty looking cloaks. No, proper desserts have real fat, sugar, butter, cream, honey, chocolate and others of the Lord’s bountiful blessings.
As I have often been reminded, it is easy for me to say this. I was stick thin until I got married and immediately gained twenty pounds walking back from the altar. Nevertheless, I think that if you have diabetes or are watching your weight you should either just avoid desserts or have small amounts of them. (“And finally, monsieur, a wafer-thin mint.“)
My own love for desserts has led me to be on the lookout throughout my travels for the best that various countries have to offer. So here is a select collection that I am sure leaves out many worthy desserts but should serve as a good short list.
Éclair: Many Americans, unfortunately, have had their impressions of éclairs formed by abominable imitations that use sugary cake icing type stuff for the filling. Proper éclair filling will be yellow, not white, because it is a custard involving lots of egg yolks. Personally, I have never particularly thought much of hard candies. Most of my favorite desserts are pastries or in some sense bready. The éclair is almost the ideal dessert as far as I’m concerned. Good pastry, creamy rich custard and chocolate as a tasteful highlight. It is simple enough to appreciate each element.
Crepe: When I first visited France in 1987 one of the things that made a lasting impression was the crepe. Describing it definitely undersells it. It’s a big thin pancake folded up with some kind of filling, often sweet but also savory (my favorites are the simplest: chocolate spread (Nutella) or butter and sugar). Ignore that description and let me tell you that me and my friends would grab a crepe from the ubiquitous crepe stands on the way down to the Metro, then again as we came out of the Metro, then take a little crepe break before starting a tour of the Louvre… You get the idea. On the last night of our time in Paris we decided to have a fancy dinner. We went to the exclusive little island Ile St. Louis and paid for a fancy French gourmet meal. As the end of the meal approached I was excited to see that they served crepes here, gourmet crepes far superior I assumed to the simple crepes the street vendors absent-mindedly threw together in double quick time. Oh how wrong I was! The gourmet crepe was terrible, too complicated. Stick with the entrepreneurial street vendors that have to make good crepes if they are not to lose business to the other guy a block away. Here’s my little amateur tip, by the way, on getting the French “R” right like the one in “crepe.” Throw the R half way down the back of your throat, forget about it and clear your throat a little at that part of the word.
Now, I have little patience for the elitist snobbery that looks down on Americans’ lack of foreign language skills and general lack of knowledge of the rest of the world. First of all, let’s say you go abroad hoping to practice a language with native speakers that you’ve been studying. Unless you already speak the language perfectly, the first thing most foreigners do is switch to English, which they usually speak better than you speak their language! In regards to American ignorance of foreign affairs, I would just like to point out in our defense that the United States is really, really big. If you live in Switzerland, where three languages are all well represented by the way, your country borders 4 major countries and you can get to any of them by hopping on a train for a few hours. In the state of Missouri where I live the nearest foreign country is about 1000 miles away (1600 km) and mostly speaks the same language anyway. I do agree that given the way the U.S. Central State gets in everyone’s business it would be nice if Americans knew how to locate the country that the Empire was currently bombing. But my solution to this is that the American Empire should be shut down. Frankly, my plan is far more likely to happen than that Americans are all suddenly going to become intimately familiar with places that they primarily hear about on the evening news.
But there is one thing about Americans’ ignorance of foreign things that really does go too far, that really gets me thinking, “What is wrong with you people?” That is that Americans still are largely unaware of the Italian style ice cream, gelato. I mean you don’t have to have Italian taste buds to appreciate gelato; you don’t need to be able to understand Italian or even particularly care about Italy.
Gelato is Italian style ice cream, which is, in my judgment, far superior to the ice cream we typically eat in America. Gelato is whipped with far less air than regular ice cream (say, 20% instead of 60%), is less firmly frozen, more intensely flavored and creamier. Spagnola (vanilla with cherries), Stracciatella (chocolate chip), Fior di Latte (creamy milk), how I love to hear these words and say these words, especially if it means I’m going to actually get some gelato handed to me. Some gelato flavors (pdf).
On our ten-week honeymoon, nine weeks of which were in Italy, my wife and I ate gelato pretty much every day. (As soon as we mention the length of our honeymoon, people usually ask why it was so long. The lengthy foreign adventure, my wife’s first trip abroad, was my subtle little way of saying, “Hey, marriage is cool.”)
Toblerone is a “Swiss Milk Chocolate with Honey and Almond Nougat” candy bar that you might actually prefer to have for dessert unlike most candy bars that you just get out of desperation when all you have to turn to are vending machines. I had the exact description on hand, by the way, because I still have the 14 oz Toblerone bar that my parents put in my stocking this Christmas. It’s nice to be understood by your parents.
Yes, the English actually have a good dessert. It is called Treacle Sponge with Custard and far from being the sort of mild mannered dull dessert one might expect from English cuisine it is actually one of the few desserts that I can barely handle. It is sweet sponge cake with sweet treacle drizzled through the cake and sweet custard on top of that. In short, it is very sweet. It is almost too sweet but very good.
Gulaab Jamun, or as I prefer to call them, “golden balls of joy” are a favorite Indian dessert of mine. They are described as “brown colored dumplings of dried milk and refined flour in sugar syrup” but taste better than that sounds. My dear friends from Cochin, Kerala (land of spices, where St. Thomas ended up and Columbus was trying to get to) are kind enough to serve me homemade Gulaab Jamun when I am over for dinner.
I do not really understand what fyllo pastry is. I don’t necessarily like other things made with it. But in Baklava, the thin delicate layers covered in honey and filled with almonds are dessert perfection.
Finally, here is a recipe for cinnamon biscuits. It is very simple to make, so simple that you will look at the recipe and laugh at me.
Tin of plain buttermilk biscuits
Half a stick of Butter
Melt the butter in one bowl. Make a sugar cinnamon mixture in another bowl. Dip each raw biscuit in the butter (make sure it is drenched!) Then roll the biscuit around in the cinnamon and sugar until it is completely covered. Put in a baking pan. Repeat for all the biscuits. Cook for the time recommended for the biscuits. Drizzle any extra melted butter over the cooked biscuits when they come out. Eat them hot.
My wife Heather scoffed at first, until she tried one. When I was young and making these I would carefully explain to my half-annoyed, half-amused little brother how the unit was not the single biscuit but the tin of biscuits, so I couldn’t possibly share a biscuit with him and break the tin up.