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An airy holiday dessert

(article, Deborah Madison)

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As I’ve written before in my December column for Culinate, what I like to do during the holidays is to have small dinners with special friends. These are intimate occasions, giving us time to catch up with people we care about but don’t see often enough.

Four people, good wines, and a fire in the fireplace is perfection. The cooking is more manageable with such a small meal, too. 

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But celebratory cold-weather meals seem to end up being more heavy and elaborate than what my husband and I happily eat ourselves on a weeknight basis. For us, a menu of roasted sweet potatoes and kale salad is generally just fine. 

And holiday desserts, of course, are even richer. If you love to bake treats and make confections, you know how easily things can get out of hand this time of year. Before you know it, dessert becomes overwhelming — too much butter or cream or sugar, too many nuts, too much overall. 

I have two alternatives to the holiday-dessert dilemma: a assortment of small, wonderful tastes, or a gelée.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Make Deborah's pomegranate gelée for a holiday dessert."]

The first requires little more than assembly: a perfect pear accompanied by a small plate of Medjool dates, a bowl of nuts to crack, a fine chocolate bite of some kind, possibly a special cheese, or a cookie-type thing. 

Personally, I love wandering from bite to bite. It makes for a softer, more lingering end to an evening, and there’s always something special for each person to enjoy.

The second approach is to serve a gelée of some kind. Last week it was a Champagne glass of mocha gelée with cold heavy cream on top, waiting to be stirred into the espresso-chocolate-vanilla bean pudding. 

Or there’s always a jellied wine. Even without the summer fruit with which it is so good, when cut into cubes, a wine gelée sparkles like jewels and becomes this ethereal “What is it?” kind of dessert. 

You might choose to make it with a sparkling wine, then serve it in a wine or Champagne glass with a little extra bubbly poured over. No one will go home feeling stuffed, but they will feel happy — and amused.

One of my favorite wintertime gelées is made with pomegranate juice. It is a gorgeous deep-red jewel-like quivery thing. I let the gelée firm up in small, pretty juice glasses, leaving enough room for the topping, a saffron-infused yogurt sauce inspired by an Indian dessert, mishti doi, topped further with a mince of pistachio nuts and pomegranate seeds. (If that seems too unusual, you can always have whipped cream in place of the yogurt.)

Despite my love of intimate dinners, we often end up with a crowd around the table on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, whenever the Big Meal occurs. We still have the pecan pie and the Yule log for those who expect it — which, really, we all do, of course. But I also include this or another gelée for those who profess to prefer a lighter dessert — and we all do, of course, as well.

A Festive Pomegranate Gelée 
With Saffron-Yogurt Cream, Pistachios, and Pomegranate Seeds
Serves 4 to 6 (but easy to multiply!)

Gelée
2 cups pure pomegranate juice
1 package gelatin
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons orange-flower water

Yogurt cream
2 tablespoons milk 
Small pinch of saffron threads
1/2 cup full-fat Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon honey, or more, to taste

Garnish_
2 tablespoons peeled, green pistachio nuts, finely chopped
Pomegranate seeds for garnish

Pour ½ cup of the pomegranate juice into a bowl, sprinkle the gelatin on top, and let stand for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat half the remaining juice (¾ cup) just to the boiling point. Stir it into the gelatin, add the sugar, and stir until the gelatin is completely dissolved. Gradually stir in the rest of the juice, then add the orange-flower water.

Divide among 4 to 6 small glasses and refrigerate until set, allowing at least 6 hours or overnight.

Lightly heat the milk with the saffron threads and let cool. Stir the yogurt and honey together. Blend the saffron-milk mixture into the yogurt. Refrigerate until needed.

To serve, spoon the yogurt cream over each glass of pomegranate jelly. Garnish with the pistachio nuts and pomegranate seeds.


reference-image, l