30 Make-Ahead Desserts to Save Time

Chocolate and Hazelnut Nanaimo Bars
Photo: Victor Protasio

Whether you're planning a party or just readying yourself for the week ahead, it's a smart idea to anticipate sweet moments. Desserts can have a graceful ability to punctuate a beautiful dinner, connect family and friends, and simply spark moments of pure joy. From humble treats like slice-and-bake lemon cookies to elegant plated desserts such as fruity vacherins, this collection of make-ahead recipes has all your sweet bases covered.

01 of 30

Billionaire's Shortbread

Billionaire's Shortbread

© Line Klein

To add her spin to the popular British confection known as millionaire's shortbread, pastry chef Jennifer Yee sprinkles the chocolate with flaky sea salt, then encourages bakers to add other toppings, like crushed pretzels, candied ginger, and toasted nuts.

02 of 30

Biscoff Banana Pudding

Banana Pudding
Photo by Greg DuPree / Food Styling by Rishon Hanners / Prop Styling by Christina Daley

The subtle spice of Biscoff cookies helps to balance the sweetness of each decadent layer of creamy custard and fresh bananas in this tall and impressive banana pudding for a crowd. It's inspired by one made by 2019 F&W Best New Chef Kwame Onwuachi's aunt Yolanda, of Beaumont, Texas.

03 of 30

Milk Chocolate-Frosted Layer Cake

Milk Chocolate Frosted Layer Cake

© Con Poulos

This cake from pastry chef Karina Gowing is perfection for anyone who loves frosting. The ultracreamy icing, which is almost like a milk chocolate ganache, gets spread liberally over layers of light, delicate, cocoa-flavored cake.

04 of 30

Basque Cheesecake

Basque Cheesecake Recipe
Cedric Angeles

2020 F&W Best New Chef Tavel Bristol-Joseph bakes a perfectly creamy cheesecake with a deeply caramelized exterior, without a water bath and with no risk of a cracked or sunken top, by incorporating whipped cream cheese with heavy cream to make the batter.

05 of 30

Blackberry and Mascarpone Crêpe Cake

Blackberry and Mascarpone Crepe Cake
Victor Protasio

This stunning dessert features a towering stack of French crêpes layered with rich mascarpone whipped cream, tart berries, and a little lemon zest.

06 of 30

Frozen Crème Caramel

Frozen Creme Caramel
© Christina Holmes

To make her crème caramel more refreshing, chef Amanda Hallowell serves it partially frozen, like a semifreddo.

07 of 30

Deep Dark Chocolate Coconut Cake

Deep Dark Chocolate Coconut Cake

© Julie Craig

This dense chocolate bundt cake contains a hidden ring of sweet coconut filling. To finish, it's topped with layers of cocoa glaze to lock in rich flavor and a moist texture.

08 of 30

Sour Cherry Tart with Almond Frangipane

Cherry Tart
Photo by Jennifer Causey / Food Styling by Melissa Gray / Prop Styling by Heather Chadduck Hillegas

This irresistible tart takes full advantage of the affinity between tangy sour cherries and rich, nutty frangipane. A sprinkle of toasted almonds on top adds a welcome dose of crunch. It's essential to seek out sour cherries for this tart, whether they're fresh, frozen, or jarred.

09 of 30

Alfajores de Maizena (Sandwich Cookies Filled with Dulce de Leche)

Alfajores de Maizena (Sandwich Cookies Filled with Dulce de Leche)
Photo by Jennifer Causey / Food Styling by Torie Cox / Prop Styling by Lydia Pursell

Extra-thick dulce de leche layered between two buttery cookies and rolled in shredded coconut adds up to the perfect bite in these alfajores de maizena, one of the most popular cookies in Argentina. Because of the generous amount of cornstarch in the dough, they remain tender and soft after baking.

10 of 30

Creamy Butterscotch Pudding with Toffee

Creamy Butterscotch Pudding with Toffee
© Wendell T. Webber

This decadent dessert gets its luxurious flavor from brown sugar, butter, vanilla, and a hint of bourbon. A dollop of unsweetened vanilla whipped cream and crunchy bits of toffee provide an excellent contrast to the sweet, rich pudding.

11 of 30

Chocolate and Hazelnut Nanaimo Bars

Chocolate and Hazelnut Nanaimo Bars
Victor Protasio

For these bite-sized beauties, Gail Simmons layers a chocolate and coconut crust with buttercream frosting, hazelnuts, and chocolate ganache with swirls of tahini. The result is an impossibly crave-worthy treat that's easy to share. Bars can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to three days.

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Apple Cider Cream Pie

Apple Cider Cream Pie
© Dana Gallagher

This is a delicious marriage of two classics: apple pie and cream pie. After cooking down tart apple cider, it's made into a custard and baked into a crispy pie shell. The pie gets a topping of lightly sweetened whipped cream.

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Lemon-Tahini Cookies

Lemon-Tahini Cookies Recipe
Gregory DuPree

The dough for these cookies can be made and frozen up to three weeks in advance — just let it thaw for 30 minutes first before rolling it in the sesame seeds.

14 of 30

Maple-Apple Upside-Down Cake

Maple-Apple Upside-Down Cake
© Con Poulos

This is one of the best upside-down cakes ever — the maple syrup infuses both the apples and the cake, making the dessert taste like a stack of apple pancakes.

15 of 30

Double-Chocolate Pudding

Double-Chocolate Pudding.
© Tina Rupp

This recipe from the late, great cookbook author Richard Sax has everything one could ask for in a chocolate pudding — an intense flavor and a silky texture that’s still firm enough to stand a spoon in. For the best possible pudding, use top-quality cocoa powder and chocolate.

16 of 30

Fresh Mint Stracciatella Semifreddo

Mint Stracciatella Semifreddo
Greg DuPree

Fistfuls of fresh mint are steeped in the custard base of this semifreddo; a slow simmer releases the herb's oils into the base without leeching any color.

17 of 30

Carrot and Orange Cake with Sour Cream Glaze

Carrot Cake Recipe
Antonis Achilleos

This carrot cake from cookbook author Nik Sharma is something special. "Chopped pieces of dried apricots and candied orange peels give each slice of cake a spot of unexpected fruit sweetness, while the pistachios add texture to the soft cake," he says. "Serve it with a cup of warm tea or coffee to complete the experience."

18 of 30

Piña Colada Pie

Piña Colada Pie
Photo by Greg DuPree / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey / Prop Styling by Christina Daley

In this swoon-worthy dessert, the classic tropical flavors of a piña colada cocktail are transformed into a pie featuring layers of silky coconut custard and a caramelized pineapple jam made by simmering fresh pineapple with brown sugar. Adding rum to the hot pineapple mixture burns off the harsher taste of the alcohol while leaving a pleasant kick. 

19 of 30

Mango-Basil Vacherin

Mango-Basil Vacherin. Photo © Kate Mathis
© Kate Mathis

Pastry chef Yigit Pura perfected this crisp-creamy French dessert while working at restaurant Daniel in New York City. His updated version combines little lime meringue kisses with basil ice cream and sweet mango sorbet.

20 of 30

Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

Classic Chocolate Chip Cookies Recipe
Photo by Jennifer Causey / Food Styling by Rishon Hanners / Prop Styling by Sarah Elizabeth Cleveland

Most traditional chocolate chip cookie recipes start by creaming softened butter with sugar. Here, the butter is first melted in a skillet until golden brown and nutty. This simple step does require a bit of extra time (mainly for chilling the butter), but the result is an intensely toasty butterscotch note that makes these thin, chewy cookies irresistible.

21 of 30

Quadruple Chocolate Brownies

Quadruple Chocolate Brownies
© Hans Gissinger

By swirling chunks of white, milk, and bittersweet chocolate into a batter made with unsweetened chocolate, then melting and drizzling more all over the top, San Francisco chocolatier Michael Recchiuti says this sweet has "all the chocolates I like in one brownie."

22 of 30

Tres Leches Cake with Strawberries

Tres Leches Cake with Strawberries
Quentin Bacon

Many versions of this dessert, made by soaking sponge cake in condensed milk, evaporated milk, and cream, are too sweet and wet. This one from chef Soledad Correa is perfect, with just a hint of cinnamon.

23 of 30

Plum Galette

Plum Galette
© Con Poulos

This tart is a favorite dessert at chef Jacques Pépin's house. You can make it with any seasonal fruit, such as rhubarb, peaches, cherries, apricots, or apples. The dough is buttery, flaky, and very forgiving; it comes together in 10 seconds in a food processor.

24 of 30

Easy Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta

Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta with berries
Photo by Adam Friedlander / Food Styling by Pearl Jones

Panna cotta — literally "cooked cream" — is a silky, eggless custard, thickened here with a touch of gelatin. Make it up to three days ahead and serve with fresh berries.

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Coconut Cake

Coconut Cake
Food & Wine

Coconut cake, a dainty dessert, was in vogue in the 1920s for ladies' gatherings. Traditionally made with marshmallow frosting, the cake was famously served to President Truman during a trip to Florida in the 1950s.

26 of 30

Oatmeal Cream Pies

Oatmeal Cream Pies

Fred Hardy / Food Styling by Melissa Gray / Prop Styling by Shell Royster

If you loved oatmeal cream pies as a kid, you need these next-level versions, created by Sarah Mispagel-Lustbader of Chicago’s Loaf Lounge. This oatmeal pie recipe features tender, chewy cookies made with oats, dark brown sugar, molasses, and toffee bits. A light, creamy vanilla filling is the perfect complement.

27 of 30

Lemon Ripple Cheesecake Bars

Lemon Ripple Cheesecake Bars
© Anna Williams

Cookbook author Elinor Klivans got her start as the "cheesecake specialist" at a restaurant in Camden, Maine. Her creamy, tangy lemon cheesecake bars can be made up to three days ahead, plus they're portable enough to bring to outdoor gatherings. For the neatest squares, slice the cheesecake into bars with a warm knife, wiping off the blade between cuts.

28 of 30

Earl Grey Ice Cream with Chocolate Toffee and Shortbread Crumble

Earl Grey Ice Cream with Chocolate Toffee
Photo by Fred Hardy II / Food Styling by Ruth Blackburn / Prop Styling by Christina Brockman

If you love nibbling on buttery shortbread cookies with a cup of tea, give this show-stopping ice cream a try. It's flavored with Earl Grey tea and vanilla bean. The crushed shortbread and pieces of chocolate-covered toffee take it to the next level. To give the dessert extra pizazz, sprinkle it with a bit of flaky sea salt and more shortbread crumbles before serving.

29 of 30

Rice Pudding with Butternut Squash and Sweet Milk Tea

Rice Pudding with Butternut Squash and Sweet Milk Tea
© Fredrika Stjärne

Inspired by the not-too-sweet rice puddings of India, chef Hugh Acheson keeps the sugar to a minimum in this version made with rice grits (broken grains of rice). In a nod to the South's favorite drink, he tops the pudding with sweetened milk that's been flavored with tea and spices. The most unexpected ingredient: butternut squash. "I think it can work really well in dessert," he says.

30 of 30

Dark Chocolate Bark with Roasted Almonds and Seeds

Dark-Chocolate Bark with Roasted Almonds and Seeds. Photo © John Kernick

© John Kernick

Chocolatier Jacques Torres says he's more hooked on chocolate than sugar. A small piece of this super-chunky dark chocolate bark staves off his intense cravings.

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