For better or worse, dessert is a dish that leaves a lasting impression. If it’s phenomenal, you leave the table feeling incredibly happy and satisfied. If it’s terrible, it can ruin what until then was a pleasant evening.
The pressure is really on when you’re throwing a party for family and friends. As the host or hostess, you want to end the gathering in style with a dessert that’s as great-tasting as it is appealing. But let’s be honest: The twin endeavors of cooking for a crowd while also making sure everyone in attendance is having fun is hard work. So the last dish (or dishes) of the day needs to be all about ease, convenience and simplicity.
How do you accomplish that goal? Desserts that can be made a day or so in advance, using everyday ingredients, are always a stellar idea — think a single-layer cake with yummy, finger-licking icing or a simple, seasonal fruit tart. It’s also to your advantage if the dishes serve more than just a handful of people.
The wrinkle to this well-formed plan is that different people often like different things. The chocoholics among us, for example, hope for something full of rich, cocoa goodness, while others prefer tangy desserts or one built around fruit. So it’s good to have a range of colors, tastes and textures for guests to choose from.
As a kitchen overachiever, I usually tackle that problem with at least two desserts. In the case of a recent paella party for around 15 friends and colleagues, I made three desserts: a tangy lemon tea cake infused with a sweet lemon syrup, an incredibly decadent chocolate zucchini cake glazed with more gooey chocolate, and The New York Times’ iconic, no-fail Italian plum torte.
Believe it or not, it wasn’t a ton of work.
All were easy to make the night before the party while watching “Billions” on TV. Even better, the end results looked gorgeous on my picnic table the following evening.
The only stressor was wondering if my mother’s banged-up metal Bundt pan from the 1960s would cooperate and release the lemon cake in one pretty, fell swoop — and whether I could snag a piece or two for breakfast the following morning.
Lemon Tea Cake
Serves 10-12. “Gatherings: Casual-Fancy Meals to Share” by America’s Test Kitchen ($35)
This easy Bundt cake is full of lemon flavor thanks to an infusion of lemon syrup and a sweet lemon glaze.
To assure an easy release from the pan, grease it thoroughly (including the center tube) before adding the batter with nonstick vegetable oil spray or melted shortening; the milk solids in butter can act like glue, encouraging cake batter to stick to the pan. Also, allow the hot cake to rest for about 5 minutes right side up and then for another 5 minutes upside-down on a rack before unmolding it with a few gentle side-to-side jiggles.
16 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon table salt
1/4 cup grated lemon zest, plus 3/4 cup lemon juice, divided (4-5 lemons)
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
21/2 cups granulated sugar, divided
5 large eggs
31/2 tablespoons lemon juice (1-2 lemons)
2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Coat 10-inch Bundt pan with non-stick vegetable spray or melted shortening; set aside.
Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a small bowl; set aside. Combine 1/4 cup lemon juice, buttermilk and vanilla in a small bowl; set aside.
Using stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat butter on medium speed until light, about 2 minutes. With mixer running, add 2 cups sugar (1 at a time) until incorporated. Continue beating until light and fluffy, 3-5 minutes, scraping down sides of bowl as needed.
With mixer still on medium speed, add eggs, 1 at a time, beating after each addition until completely incorporated. Beat in lemon zest.
Reduce mixer speed to low and beat in flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with lemon juice-buttermilk mixture. Mix just until batter is smooth. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 50-60 minutes. Transfer pan to wire rack.
Meanwhile, combine remaining 1/2 cup sugar and remaining 1/2 cup lemon juice in small saucepan. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir, then set aside to cool slightly.
Poke holes over cake surface with wooden skewer. Spoon lemon syrup over entire surface, allowing syrup to soak in between spoonfuls and using all of syrup. Let cake cook in pan for 10 minutes, then invert cake onto wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet.
Let cake cook completely, about 1 hour. (You can make the cake up to this point 2 days ahead; store at room temperature, covered loosely with plastic wrap.)
For glaze, whisk lemon juice and confectioners’ sugar in small bowl until smooth. Drizzle glaze over top of cake, letting it drip down the sides.
Let glaze set before slicing and serving, about 1 hour.
Chocolate Zucchini Cake
Serves 10-12. kingarthurbaking.com
Three cups of shredded zucchini give this luscious chocolate cake its tender crumb
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup vegetable oil
13/4 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup sour cream, buttermilk, or yogurt, at room temperature
21/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa, Dutch-process or natural
2 teaspoons espresso powder, optional
3 cups shredded zucchini
1/2 cup chocolate chips
11/3 cup chocolate chips
7 tablespoons half-and-half or heavy cream
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly grease a 9-by-13-inch pan.
Prepare cake: In a large mixing bowl, beat together butter, oil, sugar, vanilla, baking powder, baking soda and salt until smooth.
Beat in the eggs.
Stir in sour cream, buttermilk, or yogurt alternately with the flour. Add cocoa and espresso powder, mixing until smooth.
Fold in zucchini and chocolate chips. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan.
Bake the cake for 40-45 minutes, until the top springs back lightly when touched, and it seems set. A toothpick or paring knife inserted into the center should come out clean when done.
Remove the cake from the oven and cool in the pan on a wire rack.
To ice the cake: In the microwave or on the stovetop, combine chocolate chips and half-and-half, heating until the chocolate starts to melt. Whisk to combine, and then pour over cake (it will be thin, but will thicken as it cools).
New York Times Plum Torte
The New York Times first published this easy summer torte recipe in 1983, and it’s remained one of the paper’s most popular recipes for a very good reason — it’s impossible to mess it up. Since discovering it a few years ago, I’ve made this torte so many times I’ve lost count. It never fails to please.
If you can’t find Italian prune plums, regular purple plums will also work perfectly.
¾ to 1 cup sugar
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup unbleached flour, sifted
1 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt (optional)
12 pitted Italian prune plums, halved
Sugar, lemon juice and cinnamon, for topping
Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Cream sugar and butter in a bowl. Add flour, baking powder, salt and eggs and beat well.
Spoon the batter into a springform pan of 8, 9 or 10 inches. Place the plum halves skin side up on top of the batter. Sprinkle lightly with sugar and lemon juice, depending on the sweetness of the fruit. Sprinkle with about 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, depending on how much you like cinnamon.
Bake 1 hour, approximately. Remove and cool; refrigerate or freeze, if desired. Or, cool to lukewarm and serve plain or with whipped cream.