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PULLING A FAST ONE Using chef's shortcuts, you can fool guests into thinking you slaved for hours.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Company is coming over in an hour and you have suddenly entered the panic zone. Dessert somehow was left out of otherwise well-thought-out plans. And now there seems to be no way to beat the clock.

When your stomach is turning, would-be host or hostess, where do you turn?

A.Commit hara-kiri because you are going to lose face.

B.Pay the kid next door to go to the bakery.

C.Call your guests and confess, asking them to pick up something sweet on their way over.

D.None of the above.

The correct answer is "D." Look into your pantry and relax. All you need is heavy cream, milk, a package of instant vanilla pudding, apricot preserves and the store-bought pound cake that you originally bought for tea with your sister. Whip them all together and you'll come up with gateau Claudine, a delicious cake that tastes as good as homemade. It takes only minutes and tastes like you spent hours.

All you skeptics are wincing. You aren't going to serve your guests some yucky thing that was developed by Becky Home-ecky for a high school cooking class. Your guests are too important for second best. No convenience food in your kitchen. You're too sophisticated, too urbane, frankly too chicken to have your friends find out how easy it was to make dessert.

Well, Jacques Pepin, once personal chef to three presidents of France and gourmet cooking guru to millions of loyal fans, doesn't feel too sophisticated or urbane. And if it's good enough for him, why shouldn't it be good enough for you?

But, really, instant pudding? Escoffier must be flipping in his grave.

Chef Pepin says he has already been criticized by food writers and chefs about the use of convenience foods in his new book, "The Short-Cut Cook" (William Morrow and Co., $19.95), but he declares that he isn't a food snob. After many years of teaching real people how to cook, he says he knows what they want.

"The proof of the pudding is in the pudding and it's really good," he says without apology for his gateau Claudine, named after his year-old daughter because she prefers the quick version to his elaborate multilayered cakes with homemade buttercream icing.

In fact, a major premise of his new book is that Americans, who tend to overdo everything, have become food snobs and have elevated the term "homemade" to a religion. And homemade, he adds, is only "best" when it is superior in taste and quality to what you can buy.

"In France," he adds, "people don't fight it. That's not to say that people should never make their own bread. But if the store-bought is good quality, you should buy it rather than try to make it yourself."

Whether it's boneless, skinless chicken breasts or store-bought pound cake, Jacques Pepin says the object is to make life as easy as possible for the busy home cook for after-work meals or for a weekend dinner party. His shortcut cooking style combines fresh foods with the best of supermarket convenience foods.

But don't be misled. You won't find every kind of convenience food in the Pepin cupboard.

"Some are good and some are bad," he says. "Fresh is always better. But if you a house in the country and were out skiing all day and suddenly four guests show up, there's nothing wrong with using frozen bread dough and frozen corn to make dinner."

Here are some of his convenience food dos and don'ts:

*He prefers fresh vegetables first, then frozen. He rarely uses canned because he doesn't like the taste and texture. His pick of the frozens includes corn and peas, considering the tiny frozen peas as better than fresh. And frozen asparagus works well in cream of asparagus soup. But canned peas and canned asparagus rate thumbs down.

*Canned chicken and beef broth are acceptable, but read the label to make sure the brand you buy doesn't have too much salt. Remember, ingredients are listed in order of predominance.

*Frozen bread dough can be a great timesaver to make bread, pizza or calzones, but look for those with simple ingredients, such as bread flour, yeast and salt.

Unlike the majority of other fast-cooking books, his shortcut cooking has no 30- or 60-minute deadline.

"Basically, the focus of the book is not to have to cook everything in five minutes," he says. "It's more a question of making life easier. Coincidentally, many of the recipes are very fast, but I did not want to be limited."

The recipes that take more time are intended to be company meals or to be prepared on weekends when we have more time. So how does this shortcut cooking fit in when you're entertaining?

First, he says, determine how much time you have to shop and prepare the meal and then pick the menu. Then, you must start to look at the supermarket as your personal sous-chef -- to help with everything from chopping vegetables to preparing sauces and dips.

"The idea," he says, "is to take stuff from the supermarket and give it your own signature. . . . The point is not to buy prepared food. What you do is buy partially prepared food and finish it yourself to make it your own food with your own taste."

Mustard-broiled shrimp

Makes 4 servings.

The following recipe should take only 5 minutes to prepare if the shrimp are shelled.

1 pound large shrimp (26 to 30 per pound), preferably shelled

3 tablespoons honey mustard, see note

2 tablespoons dark soy sauce

1/4 teaspoon Tabasco sauce

If the shrimp are not already shelled, shell them and rinse thoroughly under cool water; pat dry with paper towels.

In a small bowl, combine the honey mustard, soy sauce and Tabasco. Stir the shrimp into the sauce and coat them well. Then remove them from the sauce (reserving what's left) and arrange in a single layer in a gratin dish or on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil.

At serving time, place the shrimp under a preheated broiler, about 5 inches from the heat. Cook about 2 minutes on one side, turn with tongs and cook on the other side for about 2 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the reserved sauce until boiling, turn down to medium and keep cooking until ready to serve.

Arrange the shrimp on a serving platter or individual plates and top with the sauce.

Note: You can make honey mustard by mixing honey into whole-grain mustard to give it a sweet-hot taste.

Lentil and sausage stew

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

The following recipe for a warm, easy-to-make lentil and sausage stew is great for cold-weather entertaining for a crowd. Any leftovers? Jacques Pepin says it will keep for up to a week in the refrigerator and weeks in the freezer. The best way to reheat the stew, he says, is in the microwave oven. Serve it with some Dijon mustard on the side and a green salad.

1 1/2 pounds hot Italian sausage

5 1/2 cups water

1 pound dried lentils

3 large cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

1 large onion (6 ounces), peeled and cut into 8 pieces

2 carrots (about 6 ounces total), peeled and cut into 1/2 -inch pieces

1 teaspoon Italian seasoning

1 jalapeno pepper, minced (optional)

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 chicken bouillon cube

Cut the sausages into 1 1/2 -inch pieces and place them in a large deep saucepan or Dutch oven. Add 1/2 cup of the water and bring to a boil over high heat. Cover and cook for 5 minutes, by which time the sausages will have released some fat. Uncover the pan and continue cooking until all the moisture has evaporated and the sausages are frying in their own fat. Fry for about 2 minutes.

Meanwhile, rinse the lentils under cold water. Add them to the pan with the remaining 5 cups water and all the other ingredients. Mix well and bring to a boil. Then cover the pan, reduce the heat to very low and boil very gently for 40 to 45 minutes, until most of the liquid has been absorbed and the lentils are cooked.

Note: The leftover stew can also be made into soup. Puree the stew in a food processor, adding water or chicken stock to thin it to the consistency of a soup. Season with salt and pepper to taste, ladle into soup bowls, sprinkle with grated Swiss cheese

and serve with crusty French bread.

Gateau Claudine

Makes 6 servings.

Although he typically makes elaborate cakes with rich buttercream icings, Mr. Pepin's daughter Claudine loves this simple cake. You can make your own cake or use a store-bought sponge or pound cake. Decorate it as elaborately as you want, using candied fruit or violets.

1 cup heavy cream

1 package (3 1/2 ounces) instant vanilla pudding

1 cup milk

1 sponge or pound cake, about 7 inches in diameter and 1 1/2

inches thick

2 tablespoons apricot preserves

Whip the cream until firm and set aside.

Mix the instant pudding with the milk according to the directions on the pudding box (but using half the milk called for on the box) until combined. Fold in the whipped cream. Set the frosting aside. It should be ready to use in 10 to 15 minutes.

Cut the cake in half horizontally and place one of the halves on a plate. Spread the jam over it and cover the jam with a layer of the frosting. Place the second cake layer on top and cover the top and sides with frosting. If desired, spoon any remaining frosting into a pastry bag fitted with a star tip and add decorative touches to the cake. Cut into wedges and serve.

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Shortcut primer

Like great-tasting meals but hate to spend too much of your free time in the kitchen? Want to entertain more, but can't seem to rev up enough energy? Get organized with some labor-saving advice from Jacques Pepin, author of "The Short-Cut Cook" (William Morrow and Co., $19.95):

*Make sure to have a well-stocked larder. Keep on hand a variety of dry products, canned goods, frozen foods and fresh $l ingredients. Your stockpile should include everything from dried beans and couscous to canned tomatoes, smoked oysters and frozen shrimp.

*Take advantage of the pressure cooker, an old-fashioned timesaver that has once again become an integral part of America's home-style cooking. A stew recipe will take half the time in a pressure cooker than it did slow cooking on top of the stove. Save more time by doubling the recipe and freezing half for later.

*Instead of peeling potatoes or carrots onto the counter, peel them directly into the garbage disposal or use a waste can on wheels so the peels drop right into the garbage.

*Line those hard-to-clean baking and broiling pans with aluminum foil to eliminate time-consuming scrubbing after dinner. When sauteing meat, cook the vegetable in the same skillet to reduce dish washing.

*Plan how you use your food processor. Process dry ingredients first so you don't have to wash the work bowl between uses.

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