Simply Delicious Desserts

These modern riffs on classic recipes will elevate any meal. 

Thompson Italian Restaurant, Arlington, VA

Pavlova with Raspberry Cream and Fresh Berries.  Photography by Scott Suchman

For desserts that taste divine but don’t take all day, try these updated classics from chef Katherine Thompson. Thompson’s mother inspired the pavlova, while the flourless chocolate cake, figgy pudding, and pineapple upside down cake will feel familiar but fresh with accents like candied macadamia nuts and mascarpone mousse.

Thompson trained at the Culinary Institute of America and co-owned several popular restaurants in New York before returning to her hometown of Arlington to open Thompson Italian. Last year she was a James Beard Award semi-finalist and was nominated for a RAMMY (presented by the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington). In addition to co-authoring the book Downtown Italian, Thompson has been featured in Food and Wine and the New York Times, and has appeared on The Martha Stewart Show and Bravo’s Best New Restaurant. Here she shares several of her trademark homey-but-delicious desserts. ThompsonItalian.com

For an interview with Katherine Thompson, click here.


Pavlova with Raspberry Cream and Fresh Berries
  • 1 ½ cups sugar
  • 6 egg whites, room temperature
  • 1 ½ tablespoons cornstarch
  • 2 teaspoons white vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • raspberry whipped cream (see recipe)
  • 2 pints mixed fresh berries (strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, or blueberries)
  • confectioners sugar, sifted

Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Line a sheet tray with parchment paper. Place the ring of a 9-inch springform pan, without the bottom, on the sheet tray. Place the sugar in a food processor and blend until it is superfine in texture.

In the bowl of a mixer with a whisk attachment, whisk the egg whites on medium-high speed until frothy. Gradually add the superfine sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time. Do this very slowly. Whisk until the whites form stiff peaks. Adjust the speed to low. One by one, add the cornstarch, then the vinegar, and then the vanilla. Increase the speed to medium-high and blend for a few seconds to combine. 

Pile all of the meringue into the springform pan ring. Smooth the top. Use a paring knife to cut between the meringue and the ring. Then, pull the ring upward to release. Immediately place the pavlova in the oven. Reduce the oven heat to 250 degrees. Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Turn the oven off. Let the pavlova sit in the off oven until cool, about 2 hours or overnight. Using a large spatula, transfer the pavlova to a large serving platter. If serving later, wrap well in plastic wrap and store in a cool, dry place. The pavlova can be made two to three days ahead of time.

Before serving, dollop the raspberry whipped cream on top of the pavlova. Place a generous amount of fresh berries all over the pavlova. Sprinkle it with sifted confectioners sugar. Cut into wedges. 

Serves 8

Raspberry Whipped Cream

  • 8 ounces mascarpone cheese
  • 1 ½ cups heavy cream
  • 3 tablespoons seedless raspberry jam 
  • 1 tablespoon sugar

In a bowl, whisk together the mascarpone, cream, jam, and sugar until the mixture is thick (medium-stiff peaks). If made ahead, store refrigerated in an airtight container. Best served the day it is made.


Pineapple Upside Down Cake with Candied Macadamia Nuts

Thompson Italian Restaurant, Arlington, VA

  • 7 ounces unsalted butter at room temperature, divided
  • 6 ounces light brown sugar
  • poached pineapple (see recipe) OR 2 20-ounce cans pineapple slices 
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 1/3 cups all purpose flour
  • ¾ teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup créme fraîche or sour cream
  • 1 ½ tablespoons pineapple juice or orange juice
  • candied macadamia nuts (see recipe)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-by-9-inch pan with cooking spray, line with parchment paper, and spray the paper.

Melt 3 ounces of butter with the brown sugar over low heat. The mixture might not emulsify; that is OK. Pour into the cake pan and spread evenly. Top with overlapping slices of pineapple.

In a mixer bowl with a paddle attachment, cream together the remaining butter and sugar at medium speed for 5 minutes. Add the eggs, scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition. Add the vanilla extract. Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt, and set aside. Add the créme fraîche and juice, and mix to combine. Add the flour mixture, and mix on low speed until just combined. Pour the cake batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean.

While the cake is still warm, cut around the edges with a paring knife. Release the pan upside down onto a serving platter. Garnish with candied macadamia nuts and serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Serves 8

Poached Pineapple Slices

  • 1 pineapple
  • 3 cups water
  • 3 cups sugar 
  • 1 vanilla bean, split

Remove the sides of the pineapple. Cut into ¼-inch-thick slices. Use a round cutter to remove the core of each slice. Bring the water, sugar, and vanilla bean to a boil in a saucepan. Lower the heat to a simmer. Add the pineapple slices and cover with a round piece of parchment paper to keep them submerged. Simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool. Pineapple can be stored in the liquid in an airtight container and refrigerated for up to a week.

Candied Macadamia Nuts

  • 1 ½ cups sugar
  • 1 ½ cups water
  • 1 ½ cups macadamia nuts
  • kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bring the sugar and water to a boil. Place the nuts in a bowl. Pour the sugar syrup over the nuts. Let sit for 30 minutes. Strain off the liquid, then spread the nuts on a baking sheet. Bake until lightly toasted, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with salt, and let cool completely. Roughly chop the nuts and store at room temperature. 


Figgy Sticky Pudding with Caramel Sauce and Whipped Cream

Thompson Italian Restaurant, Arlington, VA

  • 6 ounces dried mission figs, stems removed, cut in half
  • ¼ teaspoon espresso powder
  • zest of half of a lemon
  • zest of half of an orange
  • 1 ½ cups boiling water
  • 3 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 3 ¾ ounces dark brown sugar
  • 3 eggs, room temperature
  • 1 tablespoons vanilla extract
  • 6 ounces all purpose flour
  • ¼ teaspoons baking soda
  • caramel sauce (see recipe)
  • whipped cream (see recipe)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a standard muffin tin generously with nonstick spray. Place the figs, espresso powder, and zests in a medium-sized bowl. Pour the boiling water over the fig mixture. Let sit for 20 to 30 minutes or until the mixture is no longer hot (room temperature). In a blender, blend the figs with all of the liquid until the mixture is smooth but the fig seeds are still visible. Set aside.

In the bowl of a mixer with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and brown sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Gradually add the eggs and vanilla to the butter mixture, scraping the bowl frequently. Whisk together the flour and baking soda. On low speed, add the flour mixture and the fig mixture to the butter mixture, alternating between the two. Scrape the bowl between each addition. Blend on low speed until the mixture is emulsified.

Portion the batter between the muffin cups. The batter will generously fill the cups. It does not rise much during baking. Bake at 350 degrees until a wooden skewer comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes. Use a paring knife to loosen the sides of each pudding. Unmold onto a baking sheet or rack. 

Thompson Italian Restaurant, Arlington, VA

Heat the caramel sauce in a saucepan or microwave. Once the sauce is warm, dip each pudding into the caramel sauce to coat completely. Remove the pudding and place on a baking sheet or plate. Repeat with all of the sticky puddings. To serve, drizzle a little extra warm caramel sauce on each pudding. Garnish with a dollop of whipped cream.

To make ahead of time, place the dipped puddings in an airtight container and refrigerate for two to three days; store the extra sauce separately. To serve, reheat the puddings and the extra sauce in the microwave until warm. 

Serves 12

Caramel Sauce

  • ½ cup water
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 4 ounces cold unsalted butter, diced
  • 1 ½ tablespoons sea salt (preferably Maldon)

Heat the water and sugar over medium-low heat in a medium saucepan; do not stir the contents of the pan. Cook until the sugar starts to turn a light caramel color. Slowly swirl the contents of the pan to distribute the caramel color, wiping down the sides of the pan with a wet pastry brush to dissolve any sugar crystals. Continue cooking the caramel until the color is very dark amber (if unsure, keep cooking longer). Slowly add the cream to the caramel. Be careful, as the contents of the pan will bubble up ferociously. Whisk the cream and the caramel together. Gradually whisk in the butter, 1 cube at a time. Then, whisk in the sea salt. The caramel sauce can be made several days ahead of time and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. To serve warm, reheat the sauce in a small saucepan over low heat or in the microwave on high for about 40 seconds. Yield: 2 ½ cups

Whipped Cream

  • 1 ½ cups heavy cream
  • 1 ½ tablespoons sugar
  • 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract

Whisk ingredients in a bowl until slightly stiff (medium-stiff peaks). Store refrigerated in an airtight container. Serve the day the whipped cream is made.


Flourless Chocolate Cake with Mascarpone Mousse

Thompson Italian Restaurant, Arlington, VA

  • 7 ounces 70 percent bittersweet chocolate
  • 7 ounces unsalted butter
  • 5 eggs, room temperature
  • 1 ½ tablespoons vanilla extract
  • ¾ cups sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • mascarpone mousse (see recipe)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Spray a 9-inch springform pan generously with nonstick spray. Line the bottom with parchment paper, and spray the parchment paper. In a double boiler, melt the chocolate and butter. Stir frequently to emulsify. (Alternatively, melt in a microwave on 50 percent power). Set aside at room temperature.

Place the eggs and vanilla extract in the bowl of a mixer with a whisk attachment, Whisk at medium-high speed until doubled in volume and light in color, 12 to 15 minutes. Separately, whisk together the sugar, cocoa powder, and salt. With the mixer on low, slowly add the sugar mixture to the eggs. Adjust the mixer to medium-high and mix together until incorporated, about 1 minute. Remove the bowl from the mixer and use a whisk to fold in the chocolate and butter mixture. Once incorporated, pour the batter into the springform pan. Place in the oven and bake for 30 to 35 minutes. The cake is done when the sides are set but there is a slight jiggle in the middle. Remove from the oven and cool completely. Use a paring knife to cut around the cake between the cake and the pan. Remove the sides. 

To serve, dollop the mascarpone mousse on top of the cake. Slice into wedges and serve. The cake is best served at room temperature.

Serves 8

Mascarpone Mousse

  • 1 ½ cups heavy cream
  • 8 ounces mascarpone cheese
  • 2½ tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Place cream, mascarpone, sugar, and vanilla in a bowl. Whisk until thick (medium-stiff peaks). Store refrigerated in an airtight container.


For an interview with Katherine Thompson, click hereThis article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue.

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