There's nothing more likely to bring a smile to someone's face than walking into a home and smelling freshly-baked cookies or cake. I like to encourage people to resist the temptation of store-bought desserts for that reason alone, though there are many other good reasons to avoid them.
Not only do you miss out on having that intoxicating, sugary aroma in your home, you're also probably paying a lot more than you need to for that manufactured treat. Another downside is that commercial baked goods (those found at big-box stores) are typically not that fresh by the time they get to your table and they are often made with inferior, synthetic ingredients such as margarine or shortening instead of butter and whipped topping rather than cream. Store-bought desserts are often sold in a frozen state; and even those that are sold ‘fresh' are not typically made locally and therefore have potentially been transported from a far off location. Additionally, anything ‘fresh' will typically have artificial stabilizers and preservatives to extend appearance and shelf life. As if this wasn't enough to put you off, I can share that in my experience these commercial desserts really don't have much taste; they may look good but in the end do not have much flavour other than….sweet.
Making your own dessert will fill you with a sense of pride as well as giving you some control over the ingredients. This is important if you have a guest coming with a nut allergy - if you scrubbed your kitchen and equipment first, you can confidently serve it knowing it is nut free - this is something hard to achieve if buying a premade product at the grocery store. In addition, once you try your hand at preparing a dessert or two, you'll gain confidence to experiment and try other recipes.
Desserts typically do not take very long to prepare, particularly if you keep some staples on hand, either in your pantry, fridge or freezer. Butter, eggs and flour are the base for most pastry items. I'd also suggest the following ingredients and tools:
- Icing sugar
- Brown sugar and white granulated sugar
- Baking powder, baking soda
- Cold-pressed canola oil (some recipes will call for oil rather than butter. It is important to have a neutral-flavoured oil; cold-pressed canola is perfect and is naturally processed.)
- Spices, ground cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger
- Bittersweet chocolate (high quality); chips (rather than a slab) are best because they melt quickly
- Frozen Raspberries (always convenient to pull together a raspberry coulis on short notice)
- Stand mixer (optional but it really speeds things up and makes it possible for kids to do more in the kitchen)
- Good quality measuring spoons and measuring cups
- Good quality rubber spatulas
- Roll of parchment paper
- High speed internet access (for recipes and tips as you bake)
Some of my favourite quick and easy desserts - ones that are always crowd-pleasers - are peach and berry crumble; crème brûlée, homemade ice cream (really easy if you have an ice cream maker and they are quite inexpensive), sticky toffee pudding, microwave chocolate cake in a mug, strawberry shortcake and three-ingredient chocolate mousse. When I am really tight on time to make a dessert, I often resort to what I like to call my "Out of Time One Cup Fruit Crumble":
- 1 large can of sliced peaches,
- 1 cup frozen raspberries
- 1 cup flour
- 1 cup brown sugar (heaping)
- 1 cup oats
- 1 cup butter
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Mix all dry ingredients together until they are blended well, but not overworked. Drain peaches and add the raspberries (fresh peaches and raspberries can be used, but if you're in a rush you might not have those on hand) in a large bowl. Sprinkle 3/4 cup of the dry mix in with the peach mix and toss. Add peach mix to an oven proof casserole dish. Top with remaining crumble mix. Microwave on full power for about 15 minutes, uncovered. Serve slightly warm with high quality vanilla ice cream. They will never know how easy it was!
Another fun idea that doesn't take too long to prepare is a ‘make-your-own dessert bar'. A lot of the items I would include are things you can simply have on hand in your pantry or freezer. Guest will have fun choosing their favourites. Some elements to consider are ice cream, sherbet, frozen yogurt, chocolate chips, chopped toasted pecans, chopped peanuts, sprinkles (that goes without saying), brownie chunks, mango sauce, raspberry coulis, chocolate sauce, caramel sauce, mini marshmallows, freshly cut strawberries, fresh raspberries, caramelized pineapple (diced) mini m&m's (as long as you can resist eating them before your guests arrive).
One last great reason to make your own desserts is that it's a great way to spend some time with your kids. It involves lots of mixing, tasting, cracking and pouring so kids can stay busy and focused. I recommend starting out with something fairly simple and something they will enjoy as soon as it has cooled, like chocolate chip banana bread or dark chocolate pecan cookies. Don't try to make a cake that needs to be iced - this takes too long and instant gratification is important to keep them interested. I like to let the kids do everything from reading the recipe, scaling the ingredients, mixing and popping it in the oven all while I provide helpful little tips along the way. Once they taste something they have made they will be more apt to try it again or a different recipe…..now if only I could get them to be more "apt" to do the cleaning up and dishes! Baking is a deliciously messy sport.