by Chef Tara Davis


It seems that once the humidity subsides and the air becomes crisper, the entertaining commitments begin to stack up. We’ve all been there. You’ve been invited to a friend’s house for dinner far too many times, and now it’s time to reciprocate. But you’re tired, busy and are at a complete loss as to what to make.


Most of us have certain foolproof dishes to turn to when company is coming, yet often it’s the other required courses — namely dessert and appetizers — that leave us feeling overwhelmed.


In an effort to relieve some of this stress — and, dare I say, let you actually enjoy the cooking process as well as your guests — I’ve come up with a few dessert options that capture the flavors of the season and a super-easy appetizer that literally never disappoints.


Fall fare wouldn’t be complete without apples and pumpkins. In fact, I rarely cook with them other than this time of year. I’ve always loved apple crisp, in large part due to its irresistible buttery, crunchy streusel topping. It’s a brilliant contrast of texture with the softened apples and hits some of the salty-sweet flavor profile that I continually strive for in my cooking.


When I was younger, I used to make an apple-almond crisp — or should I say many of them — during fall months. A few years ago, I started making it into a pie instead. I know what you’re thinking: Why complicate things? But if you use a refrigerated pie crust, it makes putting this together a lot easier than making one from scratch, and you still get the benefits of both a pie and a crisp. To me, this is a match made in heaven.


I’m a big proponent of almonds and try to sneak them into different recipes. They’re rich in protein and omega 3s and are a good source of fat, and a little goes along way. I love how they complement the apples in this pie. Serve it warm à la mode with vanilla ice cream, and your guests will be reminded of the family dinners of their childhoods.


I also like to use almonds as a well-placed garnish for baked brie with apricots and honey. This is a quick, delicious appetizer that can be assembled ahead of time or à la minute, and it never fails to delight. You also can make a few at a time and give them out to friends or take to the next potluck. Simply layer phyllo dough sheets with melted butter, place a small wheel of brie in the center, top with apricot preserves, seal it up, and bake until golden brown and flaky. Then drizzle it with good-quality honey and sliced almonds. It’s wonderful served with whole-grain crackers and a sliced baguette. If you’re not a big fan of apricots, then you also can make this with fig preserves — both are equally delectable.


My cousin is a big fan of pumpkins, so each year I like to come up with new ways to surprise her. This year, I made a parfait. I start out with crushed gingersnaps, then make a pumpkin filling with whipped cream cheese and the standard pumpkin pie spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger. I layer it with the cookies and a fresh cinnamon-scented whipped cream and let it sit overnight. It becomes a cool, creamy, almost cheesecake-like dessert with lots of pumpkin spice flavor. This makes a perfect end to a fall meal. It looks lovely and sophisticated served individually, yet it also gives that familiar taste of comfort that we’re all looking for this time of year.


I’m always searching for ways to cut down on day-of cooking time. These three recipes can be prepared ahead, leaving you with less to do before guests arrive — and hopefully enough time to do your hair.


Tara Davis is a personal chef and cooking instructor based in Chapel Hill. An active member of the Slow Foods USA/Triangle and a supporter of the local farm-to-table movement, she frequently offers group cooking demonstrations through her company, The Studious Chef. To learn more, visit



Fall recipes

Recipes by Chef Tara Davis  |  Photography by Flint Davis


baked brieHoneyed Baked Brie With Apricots and Almonds

(serves six)


12 sheets phyllo dough, thawed

1/3-cup apricot preserves

1/4-cup sliced almonds

3-4 tablespoons honey

1 small wheel brie cheese (about 8 ounces)

1/4-cup butter, melted


Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Lay one sheet of phyllo vertically on the baking sheet, and brush with melted butter. Place another sheet of dough on top and brush with butter. Do this with six sheets. Then place the seventh through 12th sheets horizontally so that you have a cross of dough.


Place the brie in the center. Spread the apricot preserves on top.


Gently lift one end of the phyllo dough and bring it to the center. Holding it with your thumb and forefinger, fold and cinch the dough around the brie to make a bundle. Brush with remaining butter and bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown and flaky.


Drizzle with honey and sprinkle with almonds. Serve with crackers or a sliced baguette.

Pumpkin ParfaitPumpkin Gingersnap Parfaits

(serves six)


For the Parfaits and Pumpkin Filling:

1 cup gingersnap cookies, crushed

12 ounces whipped cream cheese

3/4-cup pumpkin puree

3 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4-teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4-teaspoon ground cloves

1/2-teaspoon ground ginger

Pinch of salt


For the Cinnamon Whipped Cream:

1 cup heavy cream

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon



In a mixing bowl, combine cream cheese, pumpkin puree, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger and salt, and beat with an electric mixer until smooth. Set aside. In a separate bowl, beat the heavy cream, sugar, cinnamon and vanilla extract until stiff peaks form.


To assemble, line up six parfait glasses or custard cups and sprinkle the bottoms of each with 1 to 2 tablespoons of gingersnap cookies, then cover with a large spoonful of the pumpkin mixture. Sprinkle each with more gingersnaps, then a large spoonful of whipped cream. Repeat, layering until all ingredients have been used. End with a layer of whipped cream and garnish with remaining gingersnaps. Refrigerate at least four hours or overnight.

apple pieApple Almond Streusel Pie

(serves eight)


For the Streusel Topping:

1/2-cup unsalted butter, diced

1/4-cup all-purpose flour

3/4-cup brown sugar

1/2-cup oats

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4-cup sliced almonds

Pinch of salt


For the Pie:

1 refrigerated pie crust

5 Braeburn, Gala or Jonagold apples, peeled, cored,
and sliced 1/4-inch thick

1/4-cup all-purpose flour

1/4-cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3/4-teaspoon almond extract

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon


Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Prepare the streusel by combining all topping ingredients a bowl. Mix with your hands or a pastry cutter until the mixture forms small, pea-sized clumps. Set aside.


In a large mixing bowl, toss apples with flour, sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla and almond extracts until evenly coated.


Press pie crust into a 9-inch-deep pie plate and crimp the edges. Add apples to pie plate and sprinkle topping in an even layer over apples. Bake for 25 minutes, then place aluminum foil over the pie to prevent overbrowning. Continue to bake for another 25 minutes or until the top is golden and juices are bubbling.