By Mary Ann Esposito
Our diets are in peril! Like clockwork, as soon as the New Year begins, so do all those ads telling us how unfit we are. There are so many diet plans that would have us beat the battle of the bulge as we enter a new year. But while we all scramble in the grocery store to find something healthy to cook, my sweet tooth has kicked in and I am craving something sinfully sweet and succulent to help ward off the winter blues. That nagging feeling leads me right to the produce department. Aha, caught you! Maybe you thought that I was going to recommend some cake, pie, cookies or ice cream. Not a chance. I am thinking sweets that are good for you like baked apples with walnuts and figs, or pears baked in wine. All the ingredients to make them are readily available and the recipes are easy to make. But the best part is how surprisingly good they taste, leaving you not caring a wit if you ever eat pie, cake or cookies again. Your diet, if you stay on it, will thank you.
Baked Apples with Dried Figs and Honey
4 large Golden Delicious or Cortland apples, washed and cored
5 dried figs
4 dried apricots, diced
1/2 cup toasted chopped walnuts
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons of unsalted butter, in bits
1/2 cup white wine or fresh orange juice
Put the figs in a small bowl and cover them with hot water; allow them to stand for 30 minutes to soften them. Drain them, cut off the stems and discard them. Cut the figs into small pieces and place them in a bowl with the apricots and walnuts. Stir in the honey and coat the fruits well. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Divide and stuff the mixture in the cored apples. Dot the apples with the butter and place them in a baking dish. Pour the orange juice in the bottom of the dish. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the apples are just soft but not collapsed.
Serve warm with some of the pan juices. Note: The apples can also be cooked in a microwave oven on high power for 4 to 5 minutes. Microwaves vary, so check your settings.
Dried Figs in Red Wine
1 tablespoon butter
12 large dried whole figs (1/2 pound)
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup dry red wine
1/4 cup honey
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease an 8 inch casserole dish with the butter. Make a slit with a small knife near the stem of each fig just large enough to form a small hole with your finger. Stuff some of the walnuts into each fig and place them stem side up in the casserole side by side. Heat the wine and honey in a small saucepan just until the mixture is smooth. Pour over the figs.
Sprinkle them with the zest and cover the casserole tightly with foil or oven proof cover. Bake 30 minutes. Cool the casserole to room temperature.
Place 3 figs on each of the 4 dessert bowls and pour some of the wine sauce over each.
Pears in Wine Sauce
6 ripe Bartlett or Anjou pears, washed
6 tablespoons plus 1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup cranberry or pomegranate juice
3 cups dry red wine
Preheat oven to 350°F.
With a small knife remove a small slice from the bottom of each pear to make it stand upright. Using a vegetable peeler, remove 4 or 5 long narrow strips of skin from each pear to make a striped look. Place the pears upright in a deep 3 inch baking dish just large enough to hold them snugly.
Separately combine the juice and wine together and pour over the pears.
Sprinkle each pear with 1 tablespoon of sugar.
Bake the pears uncovered for about 35 minutes, basting them occasionally with the wine sauce.
The pears are done when a knife is easily inserted into them; do not overbake them or they will collapse. When cooked, transfer the pears with a slotted spoon to a serving dish.
Pour the wine sauce into a small saucepan and add the remaining 1/2 cup sugar. Bring the mixture to boil, then reduce the heat to low and cook until the liquid is reduced by half and is syrupy looking.
Remove the pan from the heat.
Baste the pears with the syrup frequently and refrigerate them at least one hour before serving.
To serve, place the pears on individual dessert dishes and spoon some of the sauce over each one.
With a small sieve sprinkle confectioners sugar over each pear for a beautiful striped effect.
Mary Ann Esposito, author of Ciao Italia Five-Ingredient Favorites: Quick and Delicious Recipes from an Italian Kitchen, is the creator and host of the long-running PBS seriesCiao Italia, celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2010. She is the author of eleven successful cookbooks, including Ciao Italia Slow and Easy and Ciao Italia Pronto! She lives in Durham, New Hampshire.
For more information, please visit www.CiaoItalia.com.