In the past, I’ve found there is no more surefire way to delight your dinner guests than to bring out a homemade pie. But these days I often find that people are uninterested in dessert, or ask for “just a teeny-tiny sliver.” Maybe it’s something to do with getting older, and therefore having more friends who are concerned about their waistlines. But I’ve always thought that it’s rude not to serve both an entrée and dessert. If you can’t be bothered to at least offer some ice cream, it looks like you haven’t made an effort. But I don’t want to go to the trouble if half my guests would genuinely prefer to avoid the “empty calories.” Do most people secretly wish you would not offer dessert? Will I be a better hostess to skip it?
—Pie Is Passé
Dear Pie Is Passé,
Some people simply prefer to end a meal on a savory note, and it’s not because they’re worried about calories. When I was dining at Heirloom Café in San Francisco recently, Matt Straus, the chef, told me that another guest had ordered the burger—for dessert. In England, up until the Edwardian period, the male dinner-party guests at least often concluded the meal with a light savory course, such as anchovy toast. And as you can see from this thread, there are plenty of Chowhounds who would prefer to end a meal with cheese rather than chocolate.
Of course, there are also people who don’t feel that a meal is complete without sugar. Therefore you should always provide something sweet. It doesn’t have to be a homemade Sachertorte. I once went to a dinner party where the last course was a pear (obviously this only works if it’s quality fruit, not tasteless, out-of-season stuff). Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef at Prune in New York, scorns sweets so much that she refused to serve cake even at her wedding, and she doesn’t make dessert when she entertains. But she always provides a little something for sugar-lovers. “We always have a hunk of chocolate, and I do love the candied citrus rinds.”
But even if you offer chocolates instead of dessert, you should still serve a final course, because it’s smart dinner-party psychology. The “peak-end rule” says that how positively you remember something is largely dictated by what happens at the end of the experience. So if you want to provide a truly memorable dinner, you are thus best off serving mediocre beef stew followed by a flaming, brandy-doused pyramid of profiteroles, rather than a great stew followed by store-bought chocolate.
If you’re looking for a savory last course that has the wow factor of profiteroles, consider serving an unusual cheese. Instead of wedding cake, Hamilton offered “a burrata made in the south of Italy that we served by itself, with spoons.” Or you might finish with a homemade digestif; it’s easy to make your own. A friend of mine once served nocino liqueur made with green walnuts she had gathered herself from a tree in her mother-in-law’s garden. That was just as memorable as any cake or pie.