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Cooking Off the Cuff: With Nearly Nothing in the Fridge, a Great Dessert

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As the date of our departure for a three-week vacation approached, Jackie and I were careful about shopping, so the refrigerator, while not exactly empty, wasn't its usual cornucopia of farmers' market bounty and mysterious leftovers in unmarked containers.

On the other hand, we'd recently done something we ought to do more often: clean the fridge and go through its contents. There were several surprises, one of which was actually pleasant: a pint container half filled with raisins that had been soaking (for who knows how long) in a mixture of booze and water. They were soft and delicious, and the liquid, now somewhat viscous and deeply colored from the fruit, was sweet and grapey.

This was a happy discovery that a couple of days later solved the problem of what to serve our friend for dessert when there really wasn't much in the house. Considering the inventory with an eye to unearthing ingredients that could be associated with sweets, I found one solitary egg; milk; and the somewhat dried-out remains of a loaf of brioche. Jackie noted that this meant French toast. And she was right: Having managed to get three inch-and-a-half slices out of that brioche, discarding the end piece and the crusts, I whisked together the egg, some nutmeg, vanilla extract and a tablespoon of sugar, added 2/3 cup of milk and put the brioche slices to soak in this custard base, basting frequently until they were well sodden, at which point I put the dish in the refrigerator, where there was plenty of room since its clean-out. (This could easily have been made from good white bread if that's what we'd had in the house.)

But what would make this nice but ordinary French toast into a dessert worthy of company? If Jackie and I had been on our own, we'd have eaten it with maple syrup and licked the plates. But our guest merited something new, and I thought about some sort of caramel sauce; a good start. My mind then turned to those raisins. On their own, they were very good but they lacked a certain edge; caramelized sugar would add bitter-sweetness to them and they in turn would add a more rounded fruit flavor to the caramel.

I put 2/3 cup of sugar into a small, heavy pan with a tablespoon of water and cooked it over medium heat, swirling it frequently, until it began to turn golden. From that moment, I kept the pan moving constantly and monitored progress with an eagle eye: there is a very fine line between dark caramel and burnt caramel. When it had turned a dark, appetizing red-brown and had JUST begun to smell on the edge of ruination, I removed it from the heat and immediately -- and carefully, at arm's length -- added a quarter cup of water. Returning the pan to the stove over low heat, I stirred with a small whisk until the caramel had dissolved, forming a basic sauce.

Off the heat, I added four good tablespoons of the soaked raisins and some of their liquid (you could use ones you'd put to soak a couple of hours beforehand in warm water and rum, cognac or other flavorful liquor). When this was cool enough to taste, I did, and found it lacking in perfume. This was easily supplied with the addition of a generous tablespoonful of cognac.

Now I had a beautiful translucent sauce with a well-rounded flavor and a boozy, fruity aroma. I transferred it to a bowl, covered it and set it aside.

Just before we sat down to eat, I took the dish of soaked brioche out of the fridge, basted the slices with custard once more and let it sit on the counter to come to room temperature. At dessert time, I cooked the French toast in butter, slowly enough that it didn't finish browning before the custard had softly set throughout each slice.

One slice of French toast and a third of the raisin-caramel-cognac sauce per person made a luxuriously delicious dessert.

The sauce would have been great on ice cream, too, and I think that's the destiny of the remainder of our raisin mixture -- or it will be once we get back from vacation and refill the freezer.

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