We can all use a little dessert now and again. I'm not talking the kind of splurge that afterwards requires eating nothing but grapefruit, spring water and boiled eggs for a couple of weeks (thank heavens, the Girl Scout cookies are finally gone).
I'm just saying that something sweet, satisfying and judiciously chosen can be the element that defines a great meal, as well as offering the best excuse to linger over good conversation with good company.
The kind of dessert I look for is prepared with fresh ingredients and provides genuine nutritional value without sacrificing deliciousness. Such desserts are not as rare as they might sound. I still fantasize about one I ate years ago at a Thai restaurant that fit those requirements to a T: Delicately spiced coconut milk custard had been steamed inside a small, whole pumpkin. It was sliced in wedges and served ice cold, and each glorious forkful delivered a layer of custard with a layer of sweet, spicy pumpkin.
I did find coconut milk custard on a recent visit to Bahn Thai. It's on the menu as sangkaya ($3), served like a flan, but with chunks of butternut squash cooked inside. It was good, but the more satisfying choice was khao neaw ma muang ($4) or sticky rice and mango. A half mango is sliced and served over a generous portion of lightly sweetened black sticky rice. The tang of fresh mango with the chewy, sweet rice makes a very satisfying finish. Sa-Bai Thong serves up its own equally delicious and nutritious version of this dessert for $4.25.
Another tasty vegetable-based dessert, carrot kheer (also known as carrot payasam), shows up on the lunch buffet table at most Indian restaurants, with recipes varying slightly from place to place. In Madison, Maharani serves my favorite version of this pudding-like concoction of grated carrots cooked in sweetened milk with cashews and raisins, and spiced with lots of cardamom and a pinch of saffron. Sweet, yummy, loaded with vitamin A, and as it's part of a lunch buffet, you control your own portion size.
The Nepali restaurant Himal Chuli is dedicated to preparing food that nourishes as well as pleases the palate. As you would expect, its desserts follow suit. Khir ($4) is an outstanding rice pudding cooked with flax seed and ground orange rinds that imbue a rich, complex flavor. It's served topped with coconut and almonds. Another wholesome dessert, gudpakh ($4), is prepared with dates, almonds and ricotta cheese, sweetened with honey and spiced with nutmeg, cinnamon and cardamom. According to the menu, this sweet is especially recommended for nursing mothers. Another great choice, gajar halauwa squares ($4), are made from slowly cooked ricotta cheese, carrot, honey and cardamom. These eminently sensible desserts do not sacrifice one bit of flavor.
At Sushi Muramoto, the dessert menu changes regularly, but a recent sampling included an amaretto milk pudding ($6) both sweet and delicious, but hardly decadent. The pudding was refreshingly light, reminiscent of an Italian panna cotta, and served cold and topped with fresh berries. Also at Sushi Muramoto you could do worse than order a scoop of green tea or black sesame seed ice cream ($3) to finish your meal. The serving is small, but the ice cream is rich, so order an extra spoon and let a friend help you out.
Once we leave the Asian restaurants behind, there are fewer options that meet my fresh ingredients plus nutritional value test. The American and European traditions tend to be much heavier on flour, sugar and fat, which, while delicious, neutralize any potential nourishing qualities. I won't get into the debate about the health-enhancing properties of chocolate, except to say that it is usually delivered with unhealthy doses of saturated fat.
Luckily, a number of local kitchens prepare fresh, seasonal sorbets. At Sardine, the sorbets are prepared almost daily, so the flavors change regularly, influenced by what is available and the whims of the chef. On a recent visit, we tried the sorbet sampler ($6), an assortment of three sorbets - cranberry, coconut and peach on that evening - served together in a wide cocktail glass and garnished with raspberries and blueberries. The flavors were intense and as aromatic and refreshing as the fruits themselves, light and not overly sweet.
Harvest is another restaurant that always offers a freshly prepared seasonal sorbet ($7.50) on its dessert list. The night we visited, a lemon-rosemary sorbet came out, garnished with a thin slice of excellent homemade biscotti. The woodsy herb under-flavor of rosemary complemented perfectly the bright citrus of the lemon, making a light, clean finish to a truly great meal.
Of course, complete abstinence from all things rich is not practical, and sometimes a small splurge is in order. In those cases, I can recommend a dessert called Tequila Mangoes and Ice Cream ($4.75), created at Eldorado Grill. This is not a low-fat entry in the healthy dessert repertoire, but the tequila mangoes are a sweet, succulent sauce actually made from fresh mangoes, orange juice and lime juice, simmered with brown sugar and butter. The tart, fruity syrup melts in your mouth when poured warm over a premium (read: high fat content) vanilla bean ice cream. The portion is generous - enough for four people to get more than a small taste - so if you're going to indulge, plan on sharing. Sometimes you just shouldn't skimp on the pleasures of a sweet treat.