To everything there is a season, and a reason. Sephardic custom – all Spanish custom – is to finish everyday meals with a very simple but specific category of desserts: things soft, light, sweet and simple. It’s the time for puddings, custards, flans and simple fruit dishes, cold in summer, warm in winter. Cakes and more elaborate desserts – and lots of them! – are for festive occasions. This was certainly the norm in our house, and I suppose it served us well by establishing sound eating habits with room for the occasional exercise in outrageous excess (When we were growing up, large and lavish birthday or holiday meals were immediately followed by a second meal, equally large and lavish, called dessert).
My mother’s choices in all things edible were generally dominated by her Sephardic sensibility coupled with an obsession inherited from her father – who was way ahead of his time – for ‘healthful’ food; all natural, all the time. Even so, Mom used to ease the rules a bit mid-week, letting the chemical giants of the day preside over our wiggly, squiggly, squishy desserts. The lovely little delicacies of her childhood – flan, sulatch, composto – took a back seat to ersatz ice cream (in the era of Holland Hall, not Haagen Dazs), Royal Brand pudding and red Jell-O. We kids were happy as clams.
I remember an evening when Mom must have been suddenly siezed with an attack of guilt. After we’d finished dinner and gone off to play, she got busy in the kitchen and a little while later called us back for dessert. Dessert! We came charging downstairs and raced to the table, all pumped up for a chemical fix; instead, there waiting for us at the table were little bowls of natural, healthful, homemade… stewed prunes. A few looks of disappointment, then sighs of resignation, and then we ate the fruit. All of it.
Composto – fruit compote, fruit cooked in syrup, stewed fruit – is the simplest of cooked desserts, a way of making something appealing out of all that less-than-stellar winter fruit you’ve got in the house to remind you it’s still winter. It’s also a way of getting your apple a day at a time of year when just the mere thought of cold fruit can send a shiver up your spine. And it gets such a bad rap.
Stewed fruit has connotations both funny and dreary – ‘regularity’ for one, something I appreciate more and more with the passage of time. It brings to mind elderly ladies with white gloves, big brooches and way too much face powder on, eating lunch at a table for one at Schrafft’s. It’s the Automat. Or the school cafeteria, that great stronghold of culinary crimes and misdemeanors. It’s what they slap on your tray after meatloaf, gluey mashed potatoes and boiled green beans. Not a great lineup. But try get past all that. Call it poached, if you like (sounds more dignified) and forget that it’s good for you. Because Mom was right.
Stewed fruit – composto – is a warm and wonderful comfort food, easy to make, easy to love. And it’s got a place in traditional Sephardic gastronomy: fall; winter; right after the salad course. Made at home and eaten warm or at room temperature (never cold!), the textures are satisfying and the flavors delicious. Before agricultural mass-production, when fruit tasted as lush and full-flavored as it should, compostos needed no more than sugar and a dash of cinnamon to heighten their own natural spice and turn them into something special. That’s the traditional recipe. Today, fruit isn’t always exactly bursting with flavor. To say the least. If I’ve got a particularly bland batch then I compensate by adding a few more flavors to the cooking liquid, but only to enhance, never to overpower. When fruit has plenty of its own concentrated flavor, one additional note will still suffice. Apples, quince, pears, dried figs, all take perfectly to cinnamon – this is hardly news. Dried peaches with powdered ginger is a favorite of mine, and adding a splash of rosewater to prunes is a nice variation. If I’m in the mood for something with a little more body, I spoon composto over Greek yogurt with some toasted walnuts. Heaven. Suddenly I’m seeing the glint of sunlight dancing on the Med, and winter seems vulnerable to an attack of spring.