So, you've had your friends over. You are full and sleepy with all the wine and conversation and humor.
"I wish we had dessert!", someone yawns. It's too late for coffee and chocolate. And it's summertime so you happen to have a couple of "past-their-prime" strawberries and raspberries. There is only one or two things you should have remembered before grocery shopping in order to really put the finishing touches on your cleverly whipped-out dinner...
Don't worry, this is painless!
Step 1: Things You Oughta Have on Hand:
1) Some berries. Other fruit will do. Canned fruit. Fruit cocktail (well, it's your dessert, and I don't mean to be judgmental, but what are you thinking?).
2) Some wine. If you use berries (strawberries, raspberries, cherries, blueberries, etc.) then you may want to go with a red. The varietal doesn't really matter, as you're going to overpower all the delicacies with sugar and simmering. If you use other fruit (and I should mention, you ought not to cook watermelon or kiwis, ever), then white wine may be called for. You may find interesting combinations of flavor and color that work for you. I imagine blueberries stewed in a Riesling would have a very delicate blue color, and would probably taste quite nice.
3) Sugar. Your preference, again. Most applications call for plain white sugar, but if you were to do this with say, apples, then brown sugar would be really good. This might work well in the late summer or fall.
4) Some creamy thing to offset the perkiness of the fruit. I went with Breyer's vanilla ice cream, here. We stopped at the local quickie mart to get some beer and a bell went off, so it worked out nicely. Whipped cream and even instant creamy topping (blech!) would probably work well, too.
5) Some bottom layer of puffy tastiness. I admit that what I bought for this particular occasion is not my first choice: grocery store brand "angel food" cups. Hey, they were right next to the handsome strawberries and are cheap and tasty and easy. If you wanted to dazzle a potential love interest, then get you some puff-pastries out of the freezer section. That's another instructable, though. Lastly, in a pinch, you could toast and doctor up some good bread. This works with french bread, cuban bread, brioche, whatever you can lay your hands on. With the simpler, crusty breads, you'd probably need to slather it up with butter after warming it up some - hmm. My 10 minute dessert stretches on, doesn't it?
6) A good knife and cutting board. Always have a good knife. As a cook I have several. If you are reading this and don't cook much, be advised that using a dull knife is dangerous, much more so than having a high quality, very sharp one. It oughta feel good in your hand, like when you pick it up things are well in the world and you are really and truly going to accomplish something. You'll know it when you feel it.
7) Something to cook with and in - an oven and range, and a little pot (lid not necessary). A campfire and clean tin can might work, but those are not logistics I'll address, here. If you do that stuff, you shouldn't be reading this beginner's instructable (but thanks for peeking in, anyways! And have a nice outing).
8) Options - Vanilla. Cinnamon. If you are REALLY trying to impress somebody you are cooking a romantic dinner for, I suggest a sprig of mint. It might not taste very good with berries, but it does add a dashing and sexy finish to tie things all together.
9) Probably some other things that I cannot recall at the moment. These will be in version 2.0 (this is, after all, my first Instructable).
Step 2: Preparation:
Clean your pot. Nobody likes weird bits of Ramen in their berry-flavored dessert.
Wash berries or fruit.
Let your ice cream sit out on the counter a little bit whilst you focus and think about what comes next.
Measuring cup? Well, I should say that the beauty of this thing is that if you are judicious and reserved, measuring is a non-step. Why? Well, you can only fit so much stuff in your favorite small pot, and it'll be mostly berries/fruit. What's the difference between half a cup and a cup of sugar? Sweetness, that's what. And a cup or a cup and a half of wine? The chunkiness of your delicious fruit topping, that's what.
Armed with this information, I trust you will do what comes naturally and things will turn out tasty as they should. I respect your autonomy and goodness as a person. Only someone with a horrible, horrible soul would destroy a pot of summer berries by leaving it unattended to burn. But then, that person wouldn't be looking at an instructable like this, would they?
Now, get your clean cutting board. Remove the un-tasty parts of your fruit. The stem, seeds, and skin of an apple (although, some apples have tasty skin). Here, I used strawberries, so the hull and leaves (the green bits, and the dense white pithy thing underneath) will go in the trash. Or, if you are very conscientious, the compost heap. Also, I had a half a pint of cherries on hand, but decided that the work of "pitting" the cherries - removing the stony seed in the middle - would tear me away from my company for far too long. So, about a dozen pitted cherries ended up in the mix.
Divide your fruit into small bits depending upon your preferred chunkiness - the strawberries were medium-sized, so I cut them in quarters. Sorry about not having pictures for this step, my trusty knife and lack of trust for people handling my camera meant no one could take a suitable photo.
Now, heat up your oven. I used a toaster oven this time.
Is all in a state of readiness? Are you? If not, breathe deeply for 5 seconds. Hold it in and think about how happy you are about to make your friends. Think of the romance and opportunities that will abound when your love interest experiences the endorphine rush of a simply prepared and quite tasty dessert. Do you feel tingly and happy inside? Release. Good. If not, have another glass of wine and think up some conversational topics to return to with your company. Come back in a few. Don't cook while nervous. You'll be able to taste it. Again, you can't mess this up. You are a good person. The universe wants this dessert to unfold in all its simple, elegant glory.
Apply the small pot (or medium sized saucepan, if you prefer) to the burner. And turn the burner on.
Here is where the fun begins.
Step 3: Let the Cooking Commence.
Put your berries or other fruit in the pot after it's warmed up a little. I find that adding a small chunk of butter to the bottom helps the berries to cook. The sizzling noise means deliciousness and some amazing chemistry is happening. The release of juices when the cell walls of the fruit breaks down. Possibly, caramelization (although we're mostly going to squelch that with the wine). Maybe the mythic and mysterious Maillard reaction! Look it up, it's an elegant thing, too. Doesn't really pertain to this Instructable, but I like to mention it, 'cause then I feel more smart.
Step 4: Stewin' - the Amazing Laws of Physics and Chemistry That Makes Fruit Into Dessert
One of the most wonderful things about cooking, and many people to my mind don't appreciate this, is that if you understand some simple principles and are aware of your own preferences, then recipes transform themselves from rigid itemized lists into elegant cartographies that lead to happiness.
The thing we try to accomplish by stewing fruit is the breakdown of cellulose in the cell wall of that fruit. Cellulose is good, it helps keep you regular and holds trees and fruit together. But if you want squishy, sweet, sumptuous desserts, you want all that cellulose in your fruit to turn into something else.
How do we do this? With the application of heat, water, and a little love and patience and care.
When your fruit is heated, you may add the sugar. Just a little bit. The cells in the strawberries in this example burst and release their sugars and water. That's a start. The sugar will go from grainy to syrupy. Not a lot, just yet, but you'll notice. Stir it all up a bit, and if necessary turn down the heat.
Now, add your judicious amount of wine of choice. Don't entirely cover the fruit and sugar, as then you'll be turning your stewed berries into souped berries. About halfway ought to do it. Raise the heat. And then watch. Don't leave at this point! You could wreck all the fun work you've put into your fancy finale.
When the berry/wine mixture begins to boil (this is 212 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level, or 100 degrees Celsius, for those who want real science and thermometers in their desserts), turn it down to simmer. Simmering is a little mysterious. It's when a liquid is heated enough to begin to release energy in the form of bubbles. The liquid vaporises (becomes a gas) and rises to the top. Wine is mostly water and alcohol, so the simmering and boiling points will be marginally lower, but you are hoping for just a couple of bubbles - this would mean roughly 180 degrees F (I can't calculate off the top of my head what it is in C... sorry!).
Once we are simmering (gosh, that attractive person in the other room is beginning to miss you, don't you think?), you have roughly 10 minutes or so if you are using berries. More if you have been brave and used apples or pears or firmer fruit.
Step 5: Bakin' Your Bottom
If you have payed attention, you will have pre-heated your oven. Make sure you don't put your dessert-holding base layer in for too long. You don't want it crispy and dehydrated if it's the twinkie-like angel food cup that I used this time. Just warm and cozy and loosened up.
Here, I sprayed a bit of tin-foil with canola pan release, so as to keep the cups safe from sticking. Three at a time, onto the foil, into the oven.
Give it about 4 minutes or so, depending upon the heat you have in your cooking-box.
Also, don't microwave this step in an attempt to rush things. Microwaves do weird things to bread and pastries. If you must (as in, wolves are running up behind you in the kitchen), only go about 10 seconds. More, and you risk unpleasant chewiness. Nobody wants that, even wolves.
Step 6: Ding! Your Cups Are Ready!
Remove pastry related objects.
Place onto plate of choice (the sexier the better).
Spoon a little of the stewed fruit juice on to the pastry. Let it soak for a moment or two.
Using a slotted spoon, remove the stewed fruits. Gosh, don't they smell delectable? Apply them to the top. If you are nervous or clumsy, that's okay. Most people don't mind (even in fancy restaurants) when a perky little blueberry rushes across the plate and leaves a charming streak of blue syrup behind it. It's natural and beautiful. Wabi-sabi, man. Wipe off the rim of the plate of any huge glops, as most people DON'T prefer giant splatters on their plate. That shows a rushed job, and sexy and clever people like you and your company don't rush stuff. A little mindfulness pays off.
Spoon out a single tablespoon (the kind you eat with, not the measuring kind) of ice cream, or what-have-you. If you are REALLY hoping to impress someone, you may use another same-sized spoon to make a quenelle. A spoon shaped mass of ice cream that looks sort of like an egg. Don't worry about this, though, as it's still tasty and handsome with the standard ice-cream scoop shape.
Drizzle a little berry juice from your pot on top. The sprig of optional mint would go stem side down into the ice cream. I hate mint but admit it is pretty on desserts. Your mileage may vary.
Step 7: Make With the Eating and Other Fun Stuff
Present your creation and good vibes to your friends.
You are the best. They love you. It helps that you make them dessert.
If you've made it all the way to the end of this Instructable, then you already have the patience to accomplish this feat in spades. I am sure your knife is sharp, you heart is large and your evening will unfold from this point in the most friendly (or alluring, depending upon your company) manner possible.
If you've got questions or ideas, please tack them on to the bottom. This thing is a simple template and is immensely variable and will probably be a success provided you don't stew your kiwies in a salted cooking wine and pop it all on top of rye bread with mint chocolate chip ice cream. Then again, I don't know you - if that works, then I'd love to hear about it, but I will politely decline invitation for dessert.
You're the best. Keep it up, champ!