When having company, think of dessert first

When I start planning a menu for a celebratory dinner, my first line of attack is the dessert course. Whether it’s an intimate sit-down affair with fine china and silver or an after-service Kiddush with paper plates and plastic forks, I want the grand finale to be a memorable one.

Of course, creating a dessert for eight is quite different from making one for 80. The former allows the chef to be more complex, creating treats such as spectacular individual fruit tarts, beautiful molded puddings and cakes of a variety of layers that are elaborately plated and presented.

Baking for a crowd is another story. Large pans yield a cake or cookie that can be cut into plentiful and pretty shapes, and mini-muffin pans can be filled with a variety of batters for your guests’ pleasure. Even a large bowl of the finest fruit salad or compote you can make is a fine end to a good meal.

Assembling treats on a large tray or platter usually results in an artistic display of “eye candy.”

I always include at least one chocolate confection. After all, what’s a celebration without chocolate?

Molten Chocolate Lava Cakes | Makes 8

14 oz. bittersweet (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate, chopped
1 1/4 cups (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
6 large eggs
6 large egg yolks
2 tsp. vanilla extract
3 cups powdered sugar
1 cup flour
Additional powdered sugar

Generously butter 8 3/4-cup soufflé dishes. Stir chocolate, butter and cinnamon in heavy medium saucepan over low heat until melted and smooth. Cool slightly. Whisk eggs, egg yolks, and vanilla in large bowl to blend. Whisk in 3 cups powdered sugar, then chocolate mixture, then flour. Transfer batter to prepared dishes, filling to top. (Can be made a day ahead; keep covered and refrigerated.)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Bake cakes until batter has risen above dish; the top edges should be dark brown and the centers still soft and runny (about 15 minutes, 18 minutes for refrigerated batter.)
Run a small knife around cakes to loosen. Allow cakes to rest in dishes 5 minutes. Using a hot pad, firmly (but gently) place a flat dessert dish on top of a cake and invert so the loosened cake comes out. Repeat with remaining cakes. Dust with powdered sugar. Serve with ice cream or crème fraiche if desired.

Almond Bars | Makes 36-48

1/2 cup packed canned almond paste* (about 5 oz; not marzipan), coarsely crumbled
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup sugar
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1 large egg, separated
1 tsp. almond extract
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 cup sliced almonds (about 1 1/2 oz.)

Pulse almond paste in a food processor until broken up into small bits, then add salt and 1/4 cup sugar. Continue to pulse until finely ground, about 1 minute.
Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch-square baking pan and line with foil, leaving a 2-inch overhang on two opposite sides. Butter foil.
Beat together butter and remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about three minutes in a stand mixer with a paddle attachment or six minutes with a handheld. Add almond mixture, egg yolk and almond extract and beat until combined well, about two minutes. Reduce speed to low, add flour and mix until combined.
Spread batter evenly in pan with an offset spatula. Lightly beat egg white in a small bowl, then brush some of it over batter and sprinkle evenly with almonds.
Bake until top is golden, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool completely in pan on a rack, about an hour. Transfer with foil to a cutting board, then discard foil. Cut into squares or decorative rounds using a crimp-edge 1- or 2-inch cookie cutter.

Louise Fiszer is a Palo Alto cooking teacher, author and the co-author of “Jewish Holiday Cooking.” Her columns alternate with those of Rebecca Ets-Hokin. Questions and recipe ideas can be sent to j. or to [email protected].