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Angels and devils conspire for dessert Contrasts: Peppers give a kick to sweet treats. The combination is 'like a dance all over your tongue,' says cookbook author.

At first it sounds preposterous. Who on earth would think of pairing chili peppers and cheesecake? Or chili peppers and carrot cake? Or chili peppers and chocolate?

Chili peppers and chocolate?

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But it's not as odd as it sounds. After all, all peppers, from bell to habanero, have an element of sweetness in their taste. And there's something about a little blast of heat that gives dessert a whole new dimension.

"It can be very stimulating to the palate to have something sweet and hot, or something icy cold and hot," said Janet Hazan, a California cookbook author and food writer who has done a series of three hot-foods cookbooks. "I think that contrast is very compelling, be it textural or temperature or flavor. Too much contrast can be overpowering, but just enough is challenging, and it's physiologically challenging as well -- it's like a dance all over your tongue."

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"Sweet and heat makes a whole lot of sense," said Melissa Stock, managing editor of Chile Pepper magazine, based in Santa Fe, N.M., and half the writing team of the new book "Sweet Heat" (Ten-Speed Press, $16.95). Her partner is Chile Pepper's editor-in-chief, Dave DeWitt. "On the sly, Dave and I have been adding chilies to [unexpected] things for years."

For Stock, the idea of doing a whole cookbook on chili desserts began with a pie: A prize winner in the magazine's annual recipe contest in 1994. It was a hot chocolate pecan pie, which had New Mexican red chili pepper in the filling.

"I was going over to Dave's house for Thanksgiving, so I thought I would take that pie," Stock said. One of the guests, a militant nonfat consumer and chili lover, forgot all his principles when he tasted dessert, and nearly ate the whole pie. Stock thought they were onto something, so she casually mentioned the idea to her publisher. "What do you think about sweet heat?" she asked.

"I'll buy it," was the instant reply.

To come up with recipes, Stock first raided her collection of recipes from her grandmother. "Candy was her thing, and I just started adding chilies to her recipes," Stock said. The results, revealed in a chapter called "Incandescent Candies," include habanero truffles and devilish divinity.

Stock expanded her experiments to other family recipes, such as one for a pumpkin cheesecake. She tried using some green chilies and other peppers in it, but finally confined the heat to New Mexico chili powder in the crust and topping. "I finally decided it needed a burst of heat at the end," she said.

The cheesecake (we at The Sun tested it) is a revelation. The flavors are amazingly complex, and at first all you get is the rich, luscious taste of cream and pumpkin. Then the maple syrup kicks in, and then the cinnamon and allspice -- and then, just as you're swallowing the bite, the pepper gives you a little kick. Even people who thought the whole idea insane were enthralled.

Janet Hazen said she didn't have to include sweets in her cookbooks, "but I wanted to include desserts that were healthful and stimulating and culinarily smart."

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Among her recipes are jalapeno-lime ice, chocolate coffee brownies with chipotle chilies -- "that haunting smoky flavor of the chilies is really compatible with chocolate -- and frozen chocolate silk with ancho chilies.

If heat-and-sweet still sounds like a crazy concept, start out slowly. "Like training wheels," Stock said. "Start with a quarter-teaspoon [of chili powder] and if you like it, the next time use more."

Here is Melissa Stock's pumpkin cheesecake recipe from "Sweet Heat." Don't be daunted by the list of ingredients; all the steps go together easily.

Pungent praline pumpkin cheesecake

Serves 16

FOR THE CRUST:

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1 1/2 cups finely ground gingersnap cookies

3/4 cup macadamia nuts (see note)

3 tablespoons firmly packed brown sugar

1 tablespoon New Mexican red chili powder (see note)

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled

FOR THE FILLING:

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1 1/2 pounds cream cheese (three 8-ounce packages)

1 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1 1/2 cups solid-pack pumpkin

1/2 cup whipping cream

1/3 cup pure maple syrup

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

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3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

1/8 teaspoon ground ginger

4 large eggs

FOR THE PRALINES:

2 tablespoons butter

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1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

6 tablespoons water

2 teaspoons New Mexican red chili powder

1 cup chopped, toasted macadamia nuts

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Mix the gingersnaps, macadamia nuts, brown sugar and chili powder in a bowl. Add the butter and stir until well combined. Press the crumb mixture onto the bottom and 2 inches up the sides of a 9-inch springform pan with 2 3/4 -inch sides. Bake for 8 minutes, then set aside to cool.

Using an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese and brown sugar in a bowl until fluffy. Beat in pumpkin. Add the whipping cream, maple syrup, vanilla, cinnamon, allspice and ginger and mix until TTC smooth. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until just combined.

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Pour batter into the prepared crust and bake for about 1 1/2 hours, until the cheesecake is puffed and the center is set (cheesecake will rise slightly above sides of pan). Transfer the cake to a rack and cool for 30 minutes. Run a small, sharp knife around the edge of cheesecake to loosen. Cool completely. Cover and refrigerate overnight. (Can be prepared two days ahead.)

To make the pralines, line a baking sheet with foil. Butter the foil. Combine the sugar and the water in a heavy saucepan over low heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat and boil without stirring, until syrup turns a deep golden brown.

Brush down the sides of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in water and occasionally swirl the syrup. When syrup is ready, stir in the red chili powder and the macadamia nuts. Immediately pour the praline mixture onto the prepared baking sheet, spreading with the back of a spoon to a thickness of about 1/4 inch. Cool completely. Break the praline into jagged 2-inch pieces, then place in a food processor and grind into a chunky powder. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Refrigerate in airtight container.)

Transfer the cheesecake to a platter and release the pan sides. Arrange the praline mixture atop the cheesecake. Cut the cheesecake into wedges and serve.

Note: Stock used macadamias because she had some from a trip to Hawaii. They are expensive in stores, however, and you might want to substitute hazelnuts, which cost less. Also, if you can't find New Mexican red chili pepper, you can substitute cayenne. Cayenne is marginally hotter, so you might want to use a bit less. The cheesecake we tested used a straight 1-for-1 substitution.

Pub Date: 7/07/96


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