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One last bite: How to end a meal

BY Tamar Adler

27th Mar 2023 Food Heroes

One last bite: How to end a meal

Dessert may bring a meal to a close, but it can add to what has come before just perfectly, writes food critic Tamar Adler 

What we eat at the end of a meal marks its passage. If we have eaten well, our hearts and bellies full, the occasion will be bittersweet. Conversation will have slowed, the night’s slope tilted.

What seemed like it would last forever now seems certain to be nearly done.

I am always grateful for a little more time at the table; the meal must pass somehow, and I am better consoled with one more taste than with the rather less voluptuary sound of a gong.

"If a meal cannot go on forever I ask only that its passage be not too jarring"

If a meal cannot go on forever I ask only that its passage be not too jarring. I ask dessert to leave room for the flavours and smells before it, to let them linger faint, and not erased, in its margins. I prefer not to clear my mental slate.

I ask dessert to look kindly on my current condition: what tastes have been on my tongue, how much I have eaten, and of what.

Baked dessert ideas

Sponge cake sprinkled with icing sugar and strawberries served for dessertA sponge cake is a simple baking recipe that can be enjoyed the next day for breakfast

If you want to bake dessert, choose an easy one. Easy baking exists, and if you are not trying to pummel a meal’s savour out of memory with sugar and cream, but to usher it to a graceful close, the simplest cakes and cookies are often the best.

I like rosemary cake, because it’s not so sweet that I’m quietly sad that the salad has left the table. There are no layers or frosting; nothing to crack or leak. The olive oil in the batter is forgiving of hasty measuring and doesn’t mind the temperature at which it’s mixed.

"I like rosemary cake, because it’s not so sweet that I’m quietly sad that the salad has left the table"

Tomorrow, warmed in an oven, a slice of this cake, spread with jam, makes a consummate breakfast.

Italian cookies called brutti ma buoni (“ugly but good”) are worth keeping in your quiver, first because most disappointment or satisfaction has its origin in expectations, and here you have made your intentions very clear; second, because they are truly not ugly, but simply plain, and additionally light and delicious.

The fruits of your labour

Figs stewed in wine in saucepanStew figs in wine to make a rich fruit compote

One of the best desserts is fruit. Fruit is a chance for cook and eater to make a final pact to end a meal together. Serve fruit whole. Let people choose to use their hands or a knife.

Give everyone an opportunity to feel the meal’s energy vibrate, to feel and smell something raw, and to be both feeding themselves and being fed.

Make a bowl of fruit abundant. Whatever isn’t eaten tonight will be eaten tomorrow, and filling a bowl with enough that everyone can have more makes it look opulent, and keeps people from feeling as though they have each been assigned a fruit.

In winter, slowly warm dried figs or prunes with a little sugar and a cinnamon stick in sweet wine, like port or brandy. Once the wine has heated, leave the fruit in it for an hour, on very low heat, or off the burner completely, until it plumps up. Remove the fruit and let the wine reduce for ten minutes to sweet, thick syrup.

Serve it in little bowls or teacups, dolloped with mascarpone, or serve the heady compote, once it has chilled, over vanilla ice cream.

Closing with a savoury snack

Cheese and honey with hazelnuts on toast for end of mealInstead of choosing between savoury and sweet, drizzle some honey on top of cheese on toast

Or serve little pieces of the same bread you had at dinner, flattened in a hot cast-iron pan with another pressed on top of it, or made very hot on a griddle, then topped with a heaping spoonful of fresh ricotta cheese and a big handful of roughly chopped toasted almonds or hazelnuts, all of it drizzled with honey.

Or press and heat pieces of baguette, then make them into little sandwiches filled with squares of barely sweet dark chocolate, as severe and gratifying as coffee.

First spread one side of the sandwich with cold butter, then scatter a few grains of flaky salt over it, then add the square of chocolate and the second little piece of bread, and press down with the second pan.

"There’s an old British tradition of serving something savoury at the end of a meal"

Or dispense with any heating and combining and buy a few dark chocolate bars. Break them into big squares and serve them in a tumble on a plate, with a glass of Scotch per person, which will make each appetite feel listened to, and provide a tiny anaesthetic to the pain of letting go.

There’s an old British tradition of serving something savoury at the end of a meal. It is designed as a shield against dessert’s taunt. What if, a savoury bite asks, the wisp of sadness at a meal’s close were swept away with a riddle? It is a tradition I like.

Serve little bites of strong cheddar cheese melted with beer alongside dark toasts, or tins of caviar and buttered bread.

Then, more wine may be opened and the night can march on…

Excerpt from An Everlasting Meal—Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler (published by Swift Press) hbk £14.99

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