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Showstopping Holiday Desserts For Home Cooks Of All Skill Levels

Pavlova is a meringue filled with cream and fruit. Chef Yotam Ottolenghi covers his with seasonal fruit. The version pictured above features summer peaches. For the holiday season, he suggests using plums and blackberries.
Peden + Munk
Pavlova is a meringue filled with cream and fruit. Chef Yotam Ottolenghi covers his with seasonal fruit. The version pictured above features summer peaches. For the holiday season, he suggests using plums and blackberries.

If you're a noted chef and invited to a holiday party, it's kind of assumed that you'll bring something homemade along. At least that's how it usually goes for Yotam Ottolenghi, who admits his success can sometimes intimidate hosts.

But you don't have to be a world-class chef to make showstopping desserts this holiday season: We asked him to suggest recipes that home cooks of all skill levels can tackle.

Though the Jerusalem-born, London-based Ottolenghi first gained fame for his inventive takes on vegetable dishes, his first job in a kitchen was as a pastry chef. He pays homage to that experience in his latest cookbook, Sweet, co-authored with pastry chef Helen Goh.

His suggestions for holiday sweets range from a simple twist on traditional cookies to a more sophisticated version of the traditional sponge-cake yule log.

He tells Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep that there are some key elements to consider. "Wintry desserts have to have a warming aspect to them," Ottolenghi says. "Also with festivities, you want color." Although some of the ingredients the chef suggests can be "perceived as a bit summery, like red currants ... actually this is very Christmasy as well: red currants and black currants and things that look good as decoration for beautiful cakes and pastries that you have around this time of year."

Rolled Pavlova With Plum and Blackberries


Pavlova is a meringue filled with cream and fruit. Ottolenghi's version looks like a Swiss roll and it's light because meringue has a lot of air in it. "Around Christmas, I use red currants, maybe some passion fruit, citrus but it doesn't matter what fruit you use," he says. The version below uses plums and blackberries. "It looks sensational because the meringue cracks and it looks like a yule log, where the meringue is the bark of the tree. And as soon as you dust it with a bit of powdered sugar, it really looks the part."

Serves 10–12

Meringue base
8 3/4 ounces egg whites (from about 7 large eggs), at room temperature (they whisk better if not fridge-cold)
1 3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons cornstarch

1 2/3 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons confectioners' sugar, sifted, plus extra to dust
7-8 plums, washed but unpeeled, pitted and cut into 1/4-inch wide segments (1 lb 5 ounces)
10 1/2 ounces fresh blackberries
1/2 cup toasted sliced almonds

1. To make the meringue base, preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a 15 x 10-inch jelly-roll pan or similar size shallow baking pan with parchment paper, so the paper rises 3⁄4-inch over the sides of the pan.

2. Place the egg whites in the bowl of an electric mixer with the whisk attachment in place and beat on medium-high speed for about 1 minute, until soft peaks form. Gradually add the sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating all the time for 5 minutes, until the mixture turns into a thick and glossy meringue. Turn the speed to low and add the vanilla extract, vinegar and cornstarch. Increase the speed to medium and beat for a minute, until fully combined.

3. Spoon the meringue into the lined pan and use a spatula to spread it out evenly. Place in the preheated oven and immediately lower the temperature to 400 degrees Fahrenheit; the contrast in temperature helps create the crisp outside along with the gooey marshmallow-like inside. Bake for about 35 minutes, until the meringue is pale beige in color and crusty on top. Remove from the oven and set aside in the pan until completely cool. The meringue will have puffed up in the oven but will deflate slightly when cooled. If keeping until the next day, the meringue can be covered with a kitchen towel and set aside at room temperature.

4. To make the filling, using an electric mixer with the whisk attachment on medium-high speed, beat the cream until very soft peaks form — this should take about 1 minute, longer if whisking by hand. Add the vanilla extract and confectioners' sugar and whisk to incorporate.

5. Place a clean kitchen towel flat on top of the meringue (or use the one that is already there, if you've made this the day before) and quickly but carefully invert it onto the work surface, so that the crisp top of the meringue is now facing down and sitting on top of the kitchen towel. Lift the pan off and carefully peel away the parchment paper before spreading the meringue evenly with two-thirds of the whipped cream. Cover generously with 1 lb 2 ounces of the plums and 7 ounces of the blackberries, and sprinkle with 1/3 cup of the almonds.

6. Starting with the longest side closest to you, and using the kitchen towel to assist, roll the meringue up and over, so that the edges come together to form a log. Gently pull away the kitchen towel as you roll, then slide the meringue onto a long tray or platter, seam side facing down. Don't worry if the meringue loses its shape a bit or some of the fruit spills out; just hold your nerve and use your hands to pat it back into the shape of the log.

7. Pipe or spoon the remaining whipped cream down the length of the log. Top with the remaining fruit and almonds, dust with confectioners' sugar and serve.

Make ahead
The meringue base (unfilled) can be prepared up to a day ahead. Leave it in the pan and drape with a kitchen towel until needed. You are then ready to fill it with the fruit and cream up to 4 hours before (but ideally as close as possible to) serving.

This should be eaten on the day it is assembled and served, although leftovers can be stored in the fridge and eaten cold.

Pecan Snowballs

Pecan Snowballs
/ Peden + Munk
Peden + Munk
Pecan Snowballs

Simple and hard to resist. These are buttery cookies filled with pecan nuts and a bit of rosewater. They are rolled in powdered sugar so they look like miniature snowballs. "Various versions of these cookies are popular throughout the world" and are given out at festivals and celebrations, Ottolenghi writes in Sweet. "They are sometimes called Mexican wedding cakes, even though they're a short, nutty cookie rather than a cake."

Ottolenghi recommends spiking these with brandy, Pernod or rum — any bottle that is open!

Makes about 21

3/4 cup pecan halves
8 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, cubed
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar, plus 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon
Scraped seeds of ¼ vanilla pod
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon brandy (optional)
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Spread the pecans out on a rimmed baking sheet and roast for 8–10 minutes, until they have taken on some color and smell nutty, then leave to cool. Transfer to a food processor, process until fine — stopping the machine before the nuts turn into an oily paste — and set aside.

3. Place the butter and confectioners' sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer with the paddle attachment in place. Beat on medium-high speed, scraping down the sides of the bowl a few times to ensure even mixing, until the mixture is light. With the machine still running, add the vanilla seeds, vanilla extract, brandy (if using), salt and ground pecans. Finally, add the flour and beat on low speed until everything comes together and there are no longer any bits of flour visible. Tip the mixture onto a clean work surface and knead gently for 30 seconds, then form into a ball. Cover loosely in plastic wrap, press to flatten into a disk and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes to firm up.

4. Increase the oven temperature to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

5. Roll the dough into balls, about 2/3 ounce each. Spread out on the lined baking sheet and bake for 16–18 minutes; the underside of the cookies should be firm and a light golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 3 minutes on the baking sheet.

6. Sift the 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar into a bowl, then, one at a time, gently roll the warm cookies in the sugar. Return them to the still-hot baking sheet to allow the confectioners' sugar to set into a thin coating. Leave for 5 minutes before coating the cookies for a second time (you may need another tablespoon or two of confectioners' sugar).

These will keep well for up to 7 days in an airtight container. They also freeze well for up to a month (after baking) and are uncommonly good eaten straight from the freezer!

Vineyard Cake

Vineyard Cake
/ Peden + Munk
Peden + Munk
Vineyard Cake


This cake contains olive oil and a whole bottle of wine. Both add complexity and richness, according to Ottolenghi. He says don't worry that the ingredients may seem unlikely in a cake. "What happens when you add a dessert wine to a cake, you don't get drunk but you've got all the wonderful flavors of fermentation," he says, adding, "The aging of a good dessert wine brings a lot of flavor with it, and this particular cake has got the most wonderful texture — really soft and pillowy."

Serves 12

4 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon salt
1 2/3 cups granulated sugar
3/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra for greasing
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons (2 teaspoons)
Finely grated zest of 1 orange (2 teaspoons)
Scraped seeds of ½ vanilla pod
4 large eggs
1 3/4 cups Carte Or Muscat de Beaumes de Venise wine, at room temperature
3 1/2 ounces seedless red grapes, washed and halved lengthwise

Sugar Crust Topping
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup granulated sugar
3 1/2 ounces seedless red grapes, washed and halved lengthwise

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease and lightly flour a 10-inch round, 4-inch deep angel food cake or chiffon pan, tapping away any excess flour.

2. Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together into a bowl and set aside.

3. Place the sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer with the paddle attachment in place. Add the butter, olive oil, lemon zest, orange zest and vanilla seeds and beat for 2 minutes on medium-high speed, until smooth and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Turn the speed to low and add a third of the flour mixture, followed by half of the wine. Repeat with the remaining flour and wine, finishing with the final third of flour and continuing to beat on a low speed. Once combined, pour into the prepared cake pan and scatter the grapes evenly on top. Place in the oven and bake for 20 minutes.

4. To make the sugar crust topping while the cake is in the oven, place the butter and sugar in a small bowl and beat with a wooden spoon to form a thick paste. When the cake has been in the oven for 20 minutes, quickly but gently remove it and dot the sugar crust evenly over the top, breaking it into small pieces as you go. Scatter the grapes evenly over the top and return it to the oven.

5. Immediately lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and continue to bake for another 35–40 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool for 30 minutes before removing from the pan. The cake can either be served straightaway or stored in an airtight container.

This cake must be made in an angel food cake or chiffon pan. The cake is so large that it's only this kind of pan — with the hole built into the middle — that will enable an even bake. Bundt pans will not work because you want the sugar crust and grapes to remain on top when the cake is served, which would not be possible as the Bundt pan is inverted.

The cake will keep for up to 5 days in an airtight container at room temperature.

Recipes reprinted with permission from Sweet: Desserts from London's Ottolenghi, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh, copyright 2017. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Ottolenghi adapted the pavlova recipe for NPR to feature fruits of the winter season.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Reena Advani is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and NPR's news podcast Up First.