May 2013

Line in the Sand: Appetizer vs. Dessert?

Author: Frank Dunne, Jr. & Courtney Hampson | Photographer: Photography by Anne

Frank Dunne, Jr.
I should apologize in advance. If you read this column with any regularity, you know that Courtney and I sometimes spar over some fairly weighty issues. Other times…not so much. Arguing over which is better, the hamburger or the hot dog, or what is the funniest word in the English language come to mind. Unfortunately, this month’s topic falls into that “not so much” bucket. Frankly, I think it soars to new heights of ridiculousness.

I’ll take the fall, because Miss C did propose an immediately relevant subject of the sociopolitical variety that most certainly would have pushed a lot of buttons, but I opted out. I just wasn’t in the mood to pick fights with some of my more misguided friends who might read the column. Also, our allotted space is inadequate to give some of these issues their due attention. In those cases, more often than not, I end up more frustrated than satisfied with the end result, because I can’t put everything on the table.

That will not be a problem with this month’s “issue,” a discussion of which is the better component of a fine meal, appetizer or dessert, which explains this rambling preamble—pre-ramble, if you will. 600 words about appetizers? I’ll be lucky to come up with 100. Here we go anyway.

Come on, this is a no-brainer. The appetizer is obviously the meal’s more critical component. When I take my seat at the table, I haven’t eaten yet. I’m hungry! Give me something right now while you’re cooking my dinner so I don’t starve to death before it arrives at the table.

Dessert? What for? I just had dinner. I’m full. I don’t need any more food. Bring me the check so we can get out of here.

See what I mean? That’s it. What else do you need?

Oh, here’s something. Appetizers are better for your health. They’re made out of things like vegetables and meat, the stuff that you need. What’s in dessert? Empty calories that make you fat. Sure some desserts contain fruit, but it’s usually prepared in a way or smothered in something that effectively nullifies the fruit’s nutritional value.

I’m not saying that I never eat dessert. The thing is, I’m just not a big consumer of sweets in general, and those that I do like fall into a very narrow range. That would be the chocolate range. Never mind the cheesecake, never mind the key lime pie, never mind the crème brûlée (okay, I can make an exception for the ice sculpture at Trattoria Divina), but other than that, on the rare occasions when I do eat dessert, I usually follow this rule of thumb: it’s chocolate or it’s a waste of time. Frankly, I’d prefer a shot of espresso or, better yet, a good single malt.

That said, I do recognize that I harbor this attitude toward dessert at my own peril. Case in point, one evening while on a date with a fine lady our waiter presented the dessert menu. “What are you having?” asked my lovely guest. “I’ll pass on dessert, but get whatever you’d like,” said I. With that, she also ultimately declined. Later, as we sat on the beach gazing at the stars and talking about life and whatnot, I received a slightly-more-than-half-joking elbow to the ribs, “Geez, a girl doesn’t even get a chance to order dessert?” Needless to say, there wasn’t a whole lot of whatnot after that. No third date either. Ouch. Next time, bring on the chocolate.

Courtney Hampson

In 1992, when Vanessa Williams topped the Billboard charts with “Save the Best for Last,” she was clearly singing about dessert. With lyrics like, “Sometimes the snow comes down in June …” she was certainly giving a shout out to all things shaved coconut. Right?

Vanessa isn’t the only singer in recent history to croon about the grand finale of any meal. Granted, in some cases the sugary saweet lyrics suggest a double entendre. But hey, what happens after dinner could all be considered dessert, right? (Cue cymbal.) Warrant had “Cherry Pie”; Echo and the Bunnymen sang “Lips Like Sugar”; and the Rolling Stones took “Brown Sugar” all the way to the bank. Not to mention “Lollipop,” sung by the Chordettes (subsequently by Lil’ Wayne), “Candy Girl,” belted out by The Four Seasons and “Sugar, Sugar” by The Archies.

We love our sweet treats. I mean even Hasbro rolled out “Candy Land” eons ago. There is no “Chips and Dips” board game, Frank. Just saying.

Dessert wins hands down. In fact, why don’t we start every meal with dessert? Why do we gorge ourselves on appetizers, salads, and a main course and then try to save room for the dessert? Let’s lead with dessert and save salad for last. Then, if we don’t have room, who cares? Who’s with me?

My love affair with sweets is nothing new. But, as my palate sophisticates—i.e. I no longer consider a row of Fig Newtons dessert—so does my drive to test some of these babies in the kitchen.

Just last week I took my first stab at scratch-made cheesecake. I was actually a tad shocked when I jotted down my grocery list to tackle the task. Two cups sugar, seven eggs, five eight-ounce packages of cream cheese, two cups of ginger snap cookies. I actually chuckled out loud thinking, “Even if I screw this up, it will still taste great.

With those ingredients, how can this not taste great?” I was surprised once again when I realized that cheesecake bakes in a warm bath (it sits in water!) in the oven. The agonizing two-and-a-half-hour process ended successfully. And damn, I nailed it. (I’m less impressed with Paula Deen now, in case anyone is wondering.)

For my mother’s birthday last fall, I tackled chocolate hazelnut crunch cake: twenty-six ingredients, three hours, two extra trips to the grocery store, four-stage process—and worth all 820 calories per slice.

In November, Palmetto Bluff (shameless plug for my day job) hosts the Music to Your Mouth Festival, and last year we unveiled our masterpiece: The Bacon Forest. Oh yes, your pork dreams have just come true. You, too, can make bacon into dessert with the dust of a little brown sugar. We strung it, and hung it… from tree limbs (iron live oak sculptures), nested nicely next to delicate cups of bourbon bacon mousse. Top that!

Okay. I’ll try.

1. Tiramisu. Four syllables of pure pleasure. Ladyfingers soaked in espresso, layered with mascarpone cheese. Even an Irish chick knows this can’t be ignored. Michael Anthony’s on Hilton Head Island does it right.

2. Red Velvet Cake. Up until a few years ago, the only red velvet this Jersey girl had seen was in the movies (think Miss Weezer). But today, top it with cream cheese icing and I’m all in. I do, however, remain slightly agitated by the conspiracy for layman bakers who have to buy the four pack of food coloring to make one batch of red velvet cake and now have seven bottles of yellow, blue, and green in their pantry.

3. Ally’s Fresh Desserts—anything that Ally at Pour Richards puts on the menu.

4. Brownie batter. Yup, despite the surgeon general’s warnings, I actually prefer the batter over the finished product. (And rarely do I wait until after dinner to indulge. And, I rarely even do it. Anymore. Really.)

5. Macaroons. Like Vanessa said, sometimes the snow comes down in June…

6. Reese’s Pieces. Are these considered dessert? If not, stick them on a cupcake and we’ll call it even.

7. Pistachio gelato. (No explanation needed.)

8. Soft serve Kohrs vanilla and chocolate swirl ice cream from the Point Pleasant, N.J. boardwalk.

9. Apple crack. Dubbed as such by my brother-in-law and based on its addicting quality. Apple crack is a medley of peanuts, cream cheese and brown sugar, mixed velvety smooth and slathered on apple chunks (almost healthy, definitely heavenly).

10. Apple pie. From a box. Courtesy of Mrs. Smith. That’s just how we roll on Thanksgiving at the Hampson house.

Before I sign off, let me assure you that I haven’t had a cavity in 20 years, and I do exercise every day, making all of the above possible.

Sorry Frank, but beat that, sweet cheeks.

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