Sweet And Simple
These beautiful and tasty valentine desserts are as easy as 1-2-3

By Rebecca Broida Gart
Photos by Rita Maas

With Valentine's Day fast approaching, thoughts turn to love—and sweets. But if the idea of making an elegant dessert seems too complicated and time-consuming, these five recipes are for you. Each offers the pleasure of a beautiful, homemade confection, and each goes together in only three basic steps.

To some, simple desserts is an oxymoron (my mother-in-law says that if a dessert is easy to make, it can't be any good). But I've found this isn't true. In fact, many professional chefs encourage home cooks to keep it simple by paring down the ingredient list and cooking methods, letting the true flavors of the food—whether fresh fruit, top-quality chocolate, or aromatic spices—come through.

Even if, like me, you're not a natural-born baker and your specialty has never been sweets, making brilliant desserts can be easy. With super-fresh, premium foods and a little imagination, you can transform a basic recipe into a sensational masterpiece. My all-time favorite is the Raspberry Cream Cheese Pie, which looks like it belongs in a pastry case at a gourmet market. I actually feel sheepish when my dinner guests ask me for the recipe and see how easy it is to make.

So invite your paramour over for a romantic Valentine's Day dinner and smile when he or she oohs and aahs over the fabulous dessert. When asked if it was incredibly complicated to make, just say, as I do, "It was simple, my sweet."

Orange Spiced Bread Pudding

Serves 8 / Although traditional bread pudding can be quite heavy, the eggs in this lighter version are the only source of fat.

6 cups cubed French bread (day-old is preferable)
3/4 cup dried cherries, divided
2-1/2 cups hot water
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 14-ounce can fat-free sweetened condensed milk
1 tablespoon freshly grated orange zest (requires about two medium oranges)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt

Orange Sauce:
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup fresh orange juice (requires about three medium oranges)

1. Heat oven to 350°F. Coat a 9-inch square pan or 10-inch round baking dish with cooking spray; fill with bread cubes mixed with half the cherries. Sprinkle remaining cherries on top.

2. Combine water, eggs, condensed milk, orange zest, vanilla, spices, and salt in a bowl. Mix well and pour over bread. Bake for 45 minutes.

3. For sauce, combine sugar and cornstarch in a small saucepan. Add orange juice and cook over medium heat until thickened, stirring occasionally. Serve warm over bread pudding.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 341 calories % fat calories: 7 Fat: 3g Saturated Fat: 1g Cholesterol: 80mg Carbohydrate: 70g Protein: 9g Fiber: 2g Sodium: 261mg

Banana Crepes with Chocolate Sauce

Serves 6 / You can buy premade crepes to cut down on the time and effort, but homemade crepes are surprisingly simple to make. Don't worry if your first couple crepes are less than perfect; by the third one, you'll be a master.

1/2 cup flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup 2 percent reduced-fat milk
2 egg whites
1 egg
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
4-6 medium-large bananas, cut into 1-inch slices
2 tablespoons sugar
Bottled fat-free chocolate sauce, to taste

1. Combine flour and salt in a medium bowl. In another bowl, whisk milk, egg whites, and egg. Add to flour mixture, stirring well with whisk until smooth.

2. Coat an 8- or 10-inch frying pan with cooking spray and place over medium-high heat. Pour 1/4 cup batter into pan and quickly tilt pan so that batter covers its entire bottom. When crepe can be shaken loose and is lightly browned (about 1-2 minutes), turn over and cook on the other side for 30 seconds. Set aside crepes between layers of paper towel.

3. Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Sauté bananas until lightly browned on edges. Spoon into crepes, sprinkle with sugar, and roll up. Drizzle warmed chocolate sauce on top.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 221 calories % fat calories: 14 Fat: 4g Saturated Fat: 2g Cholesterol: 42mg Carbohydrate: 44g Protein: 5g Fiber: 2g Sodium: 97mg

Almond Yogurt Parfaits

Serves 4 / Serve these for a light but elegant ending to a special meal. If you prefer, you can replace the almonds with pecans or walnuts—or use a mixture of all three.

1 quart plain nonfat or regular yogurt
3 tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup sliced almonds
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 tablespoons honey, divided
Mint leaves, for garnish

1. Spoon yogurt into a sieve lined with a paper towel or cheesecloth and set over a bowl. Refrigerate and let drain for 2 hours.

2. Place sugar in a medium nonstick saucepan over medium-high heat until liquefied (watch carefully to avoid burning). Add almonds and sauté until light brown, stirring constantly. Spread out almonds on a piece of foil to cool. Dust with cinnamon and chop coarsely.

3. Blend almond extract, vanilla extract, and 1 tablespoon honey into yogurt. Divide yogurt into four parfait glasses. Drizzle with remaining honey and sprinkle with candied almonds. Garnish with mint.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 255 calories % fat calories: 15 Fat: 5g Saturated Fat: 1g Cholesterol: 4mg Carbohydrate: 47g Protein: 11g Fiber: 1g Sodium: 149mg

Raspberry Cream Cheese Pie

Serves 8 / A showstopper. If raspberries aren't available, you can substitute strawberries, peaches, blueberries, or even canned, drained cherries. Just make sure to use the corresponding fruit jam.

8 whole honey graham crackers
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup melted butter

2/3 cup (6 ounces) reduced-fat cream cheese
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup reduced-fat sour cream
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pint raspberries
1/4 cup seedless raspberry jam

1. Preheat oven to 375°F. In a food processor, grind graham crackers and brown sugar until coarse. Add butter and blend well. Press into a removable-bottom tart pan. Bake for 8 minutes. Cool.

2. Beat cream cheese and sugar with an electric mixer until smooth. Beat in sour cream, lemon juice, and vanilla. Spread on cooled crust. Chill until firm, about 1 hour.

3. Arrange berries in a circular pattern over filling. Whisk jam until its consistency is loose and drizzle over tart. Chill up to 3 hours.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 244 calories % fat calories: 41 Fat: 12g Saturated Fat: 6g Cholesterol: 25mg Carbohydrate: 33g Protein: 4g Fiber: 2g Sodium: 186mg

Pear Tart

Serves 6 / This dessert comes from my friend Louise, who recently made five of these tarts for a dinner party of 40—they're that easy to make. You can use fresh Bosc pears if they are in season, but the dish turns out just as well with canned pears.

1 10-inch-square puff pastry
3 teaspoons butter
5 pears, peeled, halved, and cored
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon nonfat milk
Nonfat vanilla frozen yogurt

1. Defrost pastry according to package directions (about 20 minutes). Preheat oven to 425°F. Heat butter in oven-proof sauté pan (cast iron works beautifully). Over medium heat, cook pears on both sides until well-browned, 12-15 minutes. Turn pear halves cut-side up.

2. Sprinkle sugar onto pears and continue browning, turning once or twice, until caramelized, 2 minutes. Pour in milk, which stops caramelization, and remove from heat.

3. Place puff pastry on top of pears. Bake in preheated oven for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350°F and bake 20 minutes longer. Serve tart topped with vanilla frozen yogurt.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 303 calories % fat calories: 40 Fat: 14g Saturated Fat: 1g Cholesterol: 5mg Carbohydrate: 44g Protein: 3g Fiber: 4g Sodium: 212mg