Call it dessert, pudding, or afters, nearly everyone likes to end a meal on a sweet note. Bucking the trend for delicate creations requiring hours of construction work, we think the best desserts are flexible classics that are easy to whip up from scratch (and from memory) and that you can riff on, turning 10 standard recipes into 50… Serve them with cream (double, whipped, or pouring), custard, or ice-cream, or drizzled with sauce, and the variations become even more endless. All the quantities here serve 8 polite guests or 4 unabashed dessert fiends.
Nothing says domestic god or goddess like a golden-crusted pie lifted steaming from the oven. The classic version contains nowt but peeled sliced apples (6–8 of a crisp, tart variety like Granny Smiths) and a sprinkle of sugar. However, you can doll those apples up by adding other fresh fruit (blackberries, pears, or plums), dried cranberries or raisins, chopped nuts, spices (cinnamon, allspice, or cloves), fresh or crystallized ginger, lemon or orange zest, or a big slog of booze (try rum or whisky). Ready-rolled all-butter pastry is pretty hard to tell from the homemade kind…
Related: Click here for apple pie video
A year-round sweet solution. Serve it piping hot and it’s a classic winter warmer.Chilled, it’s the perfect way to showcase soft summer fruits. Heat the oven to 180°C and fill a buttered ovenproof dish with about a kilo of raw fruit – peeled and chopped apples or pears; halved plums, peaches, or nectarines; or a mix of blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries. Sprinkle a few spoons of sugar over (more for tarter fruit). Rub 150g each of butter and sugar and 250g flour together into a coarse sand, cover the fruit with it, and bake till golden and bubbling.
Related: Get the full recipe here
The dusty dry lumps of polystyrene that come from a packet are a far cry from the crisp shells with a meltingly soft center you can make yourself. Preheat the oven to 180°C, beat 6 egg whites till stiff, then gradually beat in 375g caster sugar, 1 tbps cornflour, and 2 tsp vinegar. Spoon little nests onto a baking tray, turn the oven down to 150°C as you put it in, then off altogether after 90 minutes. The next day, top with whipped cream and fresh fruit for pavlova, or crush into glasses with strawberries and cream for Eton mess.
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Remember Angel Delight? Forget chocolate mousse — homemade, adult versions of those comforting, creamy concoctions of our childhood are the latest retro trend. Over a medium heat, mix 100g sugar, 3 beaten eggs, 3 tbsp cornstarch, and 600ml full-fat milk, stirring constantly. When it starts to thicken add 100g top-quality melted chocolate. Give it some kick with a splash of rum, or coffee or orange liqueur. Once gloopy, chill in individual cups. Serve with suitably delicate biscuits.
Related: Chocolate bread pudding
Once upon a time, a tub of raspberry ripple was as exotic as the ice-cream aisle got. Not any more… If you’ve still got any energy left after negotiating the countless ranges of gourmet gelatos, frozen yoghurts, and sorbets, then rustle up some homemade accessories for the cold stuff. Easy sauces include melted dark chocolate, maple syrup, Baileys, or fresh berries liquidized with icing sugar. Small bowls of chopped toasted nuts, crystallized ginger, Smarties, crushed Oreos or ginger snaps, or grated chocolate turn your table into a genuine ice-cream counter.
Related: Deep fried ice cream
More than a cake, more than a dessert – we think brownies are practically a food group. There are three secrets to getting them right. 1: Top-quality chocolate – 200g of it melted with 200g of butter in a small pan. 2: Hardly any flour – 60g plus another 60g of top-quality cocoa, added after you’ve mixed 125g of soft brown sugar and 4 beaten eggs into the melted chocolate. 3: Taking them out of the 180°C oven when they're still stodgy enough to poke a finger into. Nuts, spices, and orange zest all make interesting additions.
Related: Ways to make brownies taste better
The elegant continental cousin of the pie is perfect for showing off whatever fruit's in season. The secret's in the pastry. Blitz 200g of flour and 125g of butter (or half butter, half vegetable shortening) and 2 tbsp sugar in the food processor till you get a coarse sand, then drizzle in just enough cold water to be able to push the whole lot together into a ball. Leave it for half an hour then roll out and bake it till golden. Fill with thick custard or cream and top with artfully arranged fruit.
Related: Get the recipe here
The transformation of eggs, cream, and sugar into a silky golden cream is one of the great culinary miracles. Whether you make it from scratch, from a tin, or pour it from a carton, custard is a truly versatile pud. Chill it in bowls with slices of banana or mango for a classic comfort sweet, sprinkle it with sugar and grill for posh crème brulée, or layer it with sherry-soaked sponge, fresh berries, topped with whipped cream for that great British invention, the trifle.
Related: Custard tart
They're the easiest instant store cupboard dessert, yet crêpes still manage to be effortlessly stylish. The basic recipe is as follows: for every two diners, beat together (or liquidize) one egg, 55g plain flour, and 125ml milk. Swirl the batter round a hot buttered frying pan, flipping when they brown. A buttery, orangey sauce spiked with Grand Marnier makes them Crêpes Suzette, but ice-cream and chocolate sauce, fruit and cream, or nutella are all crowd-pleasers, too.
Related: 9 crepe recipes to die for
The French Solution
If you only get home minutes before your dinner guests arrive, or if the centrepiece of the meal is a fabulous main course you've slaved for hours over, then cut yourself some dessert slack. Sometimes, the best recipe for dessert is to make like the French and stop by a decent patisserie for an impossibly delicate gateau in an gorgeous box which, by the way, must be used to serve the confection (no-one will believe you cooked something quite that perfect, anyway).