Everyone loves a traditional dessert, especially during the festive season. But these creative recipes put a fresh, fruity spin on much-loved favourites.
When it comes to desserts, nothing beats nostalgia at this time of year. As soon as we hit December, our thoughts turn to all the vast quantities of golden mince pies, fruity Christmas pudding and brandy-laced yule logs we’ll be consuming once the holidays start (who are we kidding: we’ve already started).
But while everyone loves a classic dessert recipe, there’s still room to put a twist on tradition. In fact, this is precisely the season when we can inject a little flair into many of our much-loved favourites, especially with all those new baking skills we acquired during the year of stay-at-home everything.
As Jason Schreiber proves in his new cookbook Fruit Cake: Recipes for the Curious Baker (£25, William Morrow), it only requires a little imagination to create a unique dessert. Taking familiar baking recipes, Schreiber adds unexpected fillings to create flavour combinations as diverse as the stories behind them: think pomegranate molasses cake, blueberry ginger muffins and passionfruit lime pavlova.
Below, Schreiber shares three inventive fruit dessert recipes that are worth giving a whirl this festive season and beyond – starting with his tiramisu, which takes everything you love about the Italian classic and ups the ante with ripe bananas and a splash of dark rum.
The peanut butter and jelly cake, as the name suggests, cleverly balances the flavours of your favourite eat-from-the-tub toast topping with sweet strawberry jam (it looks suitably festive with its red berries, too).
And if you think chocolate and orange is a flavour combination that can’t be improved upon, get acquainted with Schreiber’s reworked chocolate orange babka. Aside from the fact that it’s a total visual feast, the tart marmalade and orange syrup works beautifully with the sweetness of the chocolate. Practise your plaiting now for a knockout alternative to Christmas pudding.
Jason says: “Tiramisu is Italian for ‘pick me up’, and what better way to lift your spirits than with chocolate, coffee, and booze? I’ve gone rogue and filled mine with bananas for extra flair — call it banana pudding if you must, but at least say it in Italian.”
Makes 12 to 16 servings
- 3-4 (360-480g) large ripe bananas, divided
- 3 tbsp granulated sugar, divided
- 226g mascarpone cheese
- 250ml heavy cream
- 250ml freshly brewed strong coffee or espresso, cooled slightly
- 2 glugs dark rum, optional (but also not?)
- 20-ish crisp ladyfingers, baked and cooled (recipe below; you can get away with store-bought ladyfingers, if you insist)
- 4 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder, preferably Dutch-processed, divided
For the ladyfingers (makes about 30 3in cookies):
- 3 large eggs, separated
- 106g granulated sugar, divided
- 1 ½ tsp pure vanilla extract
- ½ tsp coarse salt
- 107g plain flour
To make the ladyfingers, preheat the oven to 180° C with racks in the lower third and middle positions. Line two 13 x 18in rimmed baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper.
Using an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the egg whites on medium speed until foamy. Gradually increase the speed of the mixer while slowly adding 53g of sugar. When all the sugar is in the mix, continue whipping on high speed until firm peaks form, about two minutes longer. Scrape the meringue into a bowl and set aside.
Add the yolks, vanilla, salt, and remaining 53g of sugar to the now-dirty mixer bowl and whip on high speed until the mixture is pale and thick, about two minutes. Stir about one third of the whipped egg whites into the yolk mixture to lighten, and then gently fold in the remaining egg whites in two additions.
Sift about a third of the flour over the batter through a fine-mesh sieve and gently fold until mostly combined. Sift and fold in the remaining flour in two additions.
If you’re feeling fussy, transfer the batter to a piping bag fitted with a ½in plain round tip and pipe 3in-long cookies about 1in apart on the prepared baking sheets. If you’re feeling unscrupulous, use a couple of spoons or a spring-loaded scoop to drop 30ml mounds of batter; they won’t be fingers, but it will be OK.
Bake for 12-14 minutes, until the cookies spring back when gently pressed, rotating and transposing the baking sheets halfway. Reduce the temperature to 80°C and continue baking for 20 minutes, opening the oven periodically to blow off some steam, or until the cookies are quite firm to the touch.
Remove the baking sheets from the oven and allow the ladyfingers to cool completely on them; the cookies will crisp up as they cool.
For the tiramisu, in a large bowl, mash the two ripest bananas with 26g of the sugar, using a potato masher or fork, until very few lumps remain. Mash in the mascarpone.
In another large bowl, whip the cream and remaining 13g of sugar until stiff peaks form. You can do it by hand; think how nice your forearms will be. Gently fold the whipped cream into the banana mixture.
In a shallow bowl, stir together the coffee and rum, if using.
Quickly dip some of the ladyfingers in the spiked coffee and use them to line the bottom of an 8 x 2in square baking dish, breaking them as needed to form an even layer. It should take about 10.
Evenly spread half the banana cream over the ladyfingers. Thinly slice the remaining banana and arrange the slices neatly over the cream, then generously dust everything with 3g of the cocoa powder. Repeat the process with the remaining ladyfingers and banana cream.
Chill the tiramisu, covered, for at least three hours (or up to two days) before serving, to allow time for the flavours to harmonise. Dust with the remaining 3g of cocoa powder just before serving generous scoops.
This will keep in the refrigerator, covered, for up to two days.
Store the ladyfingers at room temperature in an airtight container for a week or more.
Peanut butter and jelly cake
Jason says: “I love peanut butter. It’s what I would take to a desert island, on a road trip, and possibly to my grave. I prefer natural peanut butter — the kind with only two ingredients that needs to be lovingly stirred back together — for my spoon licking and toast spreading, but I’ve learned (reluctantly) that it’s a poor choice when it comes to baking. It weighs down and toughens batters; trust me, that’s not what you’re after. Go with something unnatural here.
“This cake bakes up with a creamy texture and irresistibly peanutty flavour, just savoury enough to balance the sweetness of the jam and berries. It’s a cake that you might have to hide from your children — or yourself.”
Makes 12 servings
- pan goo (see recipe below), for greasing the pan
- 107g plain flour
- ¾ tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp coarse salt
- 128g smooth peanut butter (not natural)
- 4 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
- 159g firmly packed light brown sugar
- 1 whole large egg, plus 1 large yolk
- 83ml whole milk
- 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 107g strawberry jam
- 454g strawberries, the largest ones cut into halves or quarters
For the pan goo (makes about 375ml):
- 62ml neutral oil, such as sunflower
- 47g plain flour
To make the pan goo, whisk the oil and flour together in a small container with a lid until combined. Brush onto baking pans in place of parchment paper or cooking spray.
For the cake, preheat the oven to 180°C with a rack in the centre position. Brush a 9 x 2in round cake pan with pan goo.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the peanut butter, butter, and light brown sugar. Beat together on medium speed until the mixture is smooth and very creamy, about three minutes.
Stop the mixer, scrape down the sides of the bowl, and add the egg and yolk. Continue beating on medium speed until the egg has been completely incorporated into the batter, about one minute longer.
With the mixer running on low speed, add half the flour mixture, beating until just combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and continue mixing on low speed while slowly adding the milk and vanilla.
Add the remaining flour mixture and stir by hand until smooth. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top with a small offset spatula.
Bake until the cake is just firm to the touch and a cake tester inserted into the centre comes out with moist crumbs, about 25 minutes.
Transfer the pan to a wire rack. Allow the cake to rest in the pan for 10 minutes before inverting it onto the rack to cool completely.
Transfer the cake to a serving platter. Be careful, because the underside may want to stick to the cooling rack. (It’s a sign of how delicious the cake will be.)
Spread the jam over the top of the cake, leaving about a ½in border around the edges, and then pile high with strawberries. Try not to dig in before your guests arrive.
This cake stores well enough in the refrigerator, but you’re not going to have to worry about that for long.
Keep the pan goo in the fridge for a couple of weeks. A month seems like maybe too long.
Chocolate orange babka
Jason says: “The number of babkas I made while working on this recipe is second only to the number of babkas I ate. It was worth the struggle; this one is my idea of perfect. It’s soft and sticky, but not too sticky. Sweet, but not too sweet, and loaded with chocolate without being difficult to handle.
“I’ve called for a sweeter percentage of chocolate to balance the bitterness of the marmalade. For those who simply can’t stand the orange stuff, feel free to swap in another flavour of jam at your discretion. Refrigerating the dough overnight makes the dough easier to shape and the babka more flavourful.”
Makes about 8 servings
For the dough:
- 125ml whole milk, warmed to about 43°C
- 4 ½ tsp instant yeast (14g, or two 7g envelopes)
- 1 whole large egg, plus 1 large yolk
- 71g granulated sugar
- 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 1 tsp finely grated orange zest (from 1 orange)
- 355g plain flour, plus additional for dusting
- 1 tsp freshly ground cardamom
- 1 tsp coarse salt
- 4 tbsp unsalted butter, softened, plus additional for greasing the bowl
For the filling:
- 50g best quality dark chocolate, preferably around 55% cacao, finely chopped
- 3 tbsp unsalted butter
- 3 tbsp icing sugar
- 2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder, preferably Dutch-processed
- 1 pinch coarse salt
- 3 tbsp orange marmalade
For the syrup:
- 120g orange marmalade
- 2 tbsp orange liqueur, such as Triple Sec
In a small bowl, combine the milk and yeast and let stand until the yeast softens, about five minutes.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, whisk together the egg, yolk, granulated sugar, vanilla, and orange zest. Whisk the milk and yeast into the egg mixture, then stir in the flour and cardamom until a dry, shaggy dough forms. Cover the bowl with beeswax wrap or plastic film and let the dough sit for 15 minutes to hydrate.
Add the salt to the bowl. Using the electric mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment, knead the dough on low speed for about three minutes, until it is sticky, smooth, and cleans the sides of the bowl.
Begin adding the butter, about one tablespoon at a time, waiting until each piece has been incorporated before adding the next.
Continue kneading on low speed, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl occasionally, until the dough is soft and elastic, just a bit tacky to the touch, and once again cleans the sides (but probably not the bottom) of the bowl, six to eight minutes.
Using a bowl scraper or a rubber spatula, scrape the dough into a buttered bowl and, with buttered hands and quick movements, shape into a tight ball. Cover the bowl with beeswax wrap or plastic film and set in a warm spot to rise until doubled in volume, about one and a half hours.
Flip the dough out of the bowl onto a floured surface and press into a square about 10 inches across. Fold the top half down to meet the bottom and the left half over to meet the right. Press the dough out into a square once more; it will be stiffer now and may stretch to only about 8-9in. Fold in quarters again. Tuck the edges of the dough under and shape into a ball.
Return the dough to the buttered bowl (with the seams on the bottom), cover, and refrigerate for 8-12 hours. Sleep well.
In the morning, make the babka filling before you take the dough out of the refrigerator. Combine the chocolate and butter in a small heatproof bowl. Set over a pan of gently simmering water and heat, stirring occasionally, until melted, about two minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the icing sugar, cocoa powder, and salt. Set aside to cool slightly.
Brush a standard 8 ½ x 4 ½in loaf pan with butter and line the bottom and two long sides with a sheet of parchment paper, leaving about 2in overhanging the sides.
Flip the dough out of the bowl onto a well-floured surface. Lightly dust the top of the dough with flour and roll into a rectangle that’s about 12 x 14in, with a short side facing you.
Use a small offset spatula to spread the chocolate filling over the dough, leaving about a ½in border around the edges.
Drop tablespoons of marmalade on top of the chocolate filling and spread to form a thin, even layer.
Beginning at the side closest to you, roll the dough around the filling, forming a tightly spiralled log. Transfer the dough to a rimmed baking sheet and freeze for about 15 minutes, until firm enough to slice.
Return the log to the work surface with a short end facing you. Use a sharp knife to slice the log in half lengthwise and open like a book, exposing all the layers of dough and filling.
Carefully lift the left strand of dough and cross it over the right, forming an X in the centre.
Starting in the centre and working toward the ends, twist the two strands over and under each other, always keeping the cut sides face up, forming a spiral known as a Russian braid.
Gingerly scoop the shaped loaf off the work surface and lower it into the prepared pan, tucking the ends of the dough under as you do.
Set the pan in a warm spot to rise until the dough is light and full of air and crests about 1in above the top of the pan, about 1 ½ hours.
At least 30 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 170°C with a rack in the centre position. When the dough is ready to bake, set the loaf pan on a rimmed baking sheet to catch any drips.
Bake the babka until it’s golden brown and firm to the touch and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the centre reads 85°C, about one hour, tenting with foil if the top darkens too quickly.
Remove the pan from the oven and make the syrup: In a small saucepan, whisk the marmalade, orange liqueur, and two tablespoons water. Stir over medium heat until the mixture is loose enough to pour easily, about 45 seconds.
Strain the syrup through a coarse-mesh sieve and slowly pour over the cooling babka, letting it work its way down through all the crevasses.
Allow the babka to cool completely in the loaf pan, then use the overhanging parchment paper as handles to lift it out.
The babka will keep for a few days in an airtight container at room temperature.
Fruit Cake: Recipes for the Curious Baker by Jason Schreiber (£25, William Morrow) is out now
Photography: Ethan Calabrese
Christobel Hastings is a London-based journalist covering pop culture, feminism, LGBTQ and lore.