Simple and Sophisticated Compotes: Saving the Day


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The compote is one of the simplest desserts you can ever prepare, and yet it lends itself well to the most sophisticated dinners. Some food historians believe compotes originated from Europe, and the earliest records of their existence hail from the Middle Ages. However, a good many food historians also say that the art of processing whole fruits in syrup may have originated in the Mediterranean.

Made of whole fruits stewed in water, spices, and sugar, this dessert’s cooking syrup can be flavored with nutmeg, vanilla, cloves, candied fruit, raisins, or orange peel. Because it can be served either warm or cold, a compote can be used to crown a meal no matter what the weather or the season is.

Compotes to Save the Day

If you are expecting guests for dinner, or if you just want to be ready for people unexpectedly dropping by, take a look at Ina Garten’s recipes for compotes. Because you can cook this dessert way ahead of time and just store it in the refrigerator, serving something sweet and homemade will be a breeze for you.

In her show, Food Network’s Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten shares her recipe for Perfect Poached Fruit, a term that is liberally applied to compotes. For this amazing dessert, you will need a 750 ml bottle of vin santo, 1 ½ cups sugar, a large cinnamon stick, six cloves, one vanilla bean, the julienned zest of one orange and one lemon, ten whole Bosch pears, 1 ½ cup of large dried figs, 1 ½ cup of large dried apricots, and ¾ cup prunes (died and pitted). As you can see, you are preparing a lot of fruit – enough for a respectable number of dinner guests or a whole season of unexpected visitors.

Preparing the Syrup

To prepare the cooking syrup, Ina Garten instructs her readers: “Place the vin santo, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, vanilla bean, and zests in a large, shallow saucepan with 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes.

Peel the pears, leaving the stems intact, and scoop out the seeds from the bottom with an apple corer or melon baller. Lay half the pears on their sides in the poaching liquid and simmer for 20 minutes, carefully turning the pears once with a spoon. Remove with a slotted spoon. Poach the remaining pears in the same liquid. Snip off the hard stems from the figs with scissors. Add the figs, apricots, prunes, and the first batch of poached pears and simmer 5 to 10 more minutes, until the pears and the dried fruit are all tender…”

Once all the fruits have been stewed, put everything in a large container and chill until you are ready to serve your compote. Right before serving, you can remove the spices, zests, and the vanilla bean, or you can keep them if they contribute to a pretty presentation.

Serving Compotes

To serve this dessert, you can do things family style with everything in a big bowl for people to choose the fruit they like. For a more formal approach, you can arrange the fruits in a cocktail glass and decorate each serving with a sprig of mint.

You can vary this recipe by adding a splash of liqueur before serving or half a cup of orange juice to the syrup before poaching. If you like apples better than pears, you can use those too. There is practically no limit to the flavor and fun you can have when you prepare compotes. An added bonus? Stewing fruits in aromatic syrup will make your whole house smell heavenly!

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