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New Year brings sweet relief Dessert: Pumpkin cheesecake and a decadent tart drop in as dieting rules take a holiday.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Cooks with some measure of food interest pull out all the stops during the holidays. They pore over tattered and stained recipes to pull together dishes that family and guests will enjoy eating until they topple over. What they spend the most time and energy over, however, is the final flourish -- dessert -- because this is the crowning glory, the showstopper, the star attraction. No matter how awful a dinner, a sublime dessert can make everybody forget what preceded it and still make it an affair to remember.

This year should hold an even greater treasury of sweet delights. On my own holiday rounds, when the dessert platters come my way, I don't expect to be stunned silly by a hostess who says, "Here, have some fat," but I do expect some belly-busters because, finally, we've been given permission.

For several years now, health-conscious adults have been trying to follow the American Heart Association's guidelines aimed at reducing fat and cholesterol. We tuned into "25 delicious ways to cut fat" and zeroed in on nutritional jargon, all to avoid clogged arteries and flabby abs. But there was some frustration -- and lots of guilt -- if we occasionally messed up the allotment for the day.

Recently, the AHA reduced our collective guilt. The new guidelines allow us to eat something "bad" occasionally, and not feel like moral failures, as long as the fat levels are not exceeded over a week's time.

And just in time, I say. With New Year's celebrations soon upon us, we can lighten up and take a short break from fake fat in a jar, butter substitutes, carton "eggs" and other food defatters, and still survive the fat season if we use a little restraint and some common sense.

On the plus side for busy people, two of the desserts, pumpkin cheesecake and English trifle, can be prepared ahead of party time -- welcome news for those who don't want to stagger out of bed at the crack of dawn to start rattling all those required pots and pans. In addition, pumpkin cheesecake makes a welcome change from traditional pumpkin pie and is a flawless way to complete a celebration.

For frazzled cooks with time at a premium, store-bought angel food cake works well for the English trifle, which will benefit from overnight refrigeration.

Bejeweled nut mosaic tart indulges the eye as well as the appetite, and is best served the day it is made, when crust and nuts are at their best.

Pumpkin cheesecake

Makes 12 servings

CRUST:

1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs

1/3 cup ground almonds

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/3 cup butter, melted

FILLING:

4 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened

1 1/4 cups sugar

3 tablespoons maple syrup

3 tablespoons Cognac

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

4 eggs, at room temperature

1/4 cup whipping cream

1 cup canned pumpkin

TOPPING:

2 cups sour cream

1/4 cup sugar

1 tablespoon maple syrup

1 tablespoon Cognac

1/4 cup slivered almonds, toasted

To prepare crust: Stir together crumbs, almonds, ginger and cinnamon in medium bowl. Stir in melted butter and mix well. Press mixture in even layer on bottom of 10-inch springform pan. Bake at 425 degrees 10 minutes. Remove pan from oven. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees.

To prepare filling: beat cream cheese with mixer until smooth. Gradually add sugar, beating until fluffy and light. Add maple syrup, Cognac, ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg, blending well. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Add cream and pumpkin and mix well.

Pour filling into prepared crust. Bake 45 minutes. Turn off oven. Do not open oven door during baking time or for 1 hour after oven is turned off. Remove cake from oven.

To prepare topping: blend sour cream, sugar, maple syrup and Cognac. Spread over cake. Bake at 425 degrees for 10 minutes. Allow cheesecake to cool at room temperature about 1 hour. Cover and chill at least 3 hours or overnight before removing sides of pan. Just before serving, sprinkle almonds in ring around perimeter of cake. (This cake freezes well.)

Note: For a holiday touch, instead of almonds, cut green glazed cherries into slivers. Place red glazed cherries in ring around cake and arrange 2 green slivers on sides of each as leaves. Or cut tiny stars, using hors d'oeuvre cutter, out of slices of candied ginger as garnish.

Makes 10 servings

3 cups nonfat milk

4 eggs (2 whole, 1 egg yolk, 2 egg whites)

1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

1/3 cup water

1/4 cup cornstarch

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 small (10-ounce) angel food cake

1/3 cup raspberry preserves

1/3 cup medium-dry sherry

4 cups fresh fruit (oranges, grapes, strawberries, raspberries and/or kiwis)

1/4 cup slivered almonds, toasted

additional fresh fruit for garnish

Whisk together 1/4 cup milk, 2 whole eggs, 1 egg yolk, 2 tablespoons sugar and cornstarch.

Heat remaining 2 3/4 cups milk in heavy saucepan until steaming. Gradually whisk milk into egg mixture. Return to saucepan and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until custard boils and thickens, 4 to 6 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in vanilla and transfer to clean bowl. Place piece of wax paper or plastic wrap directly on surface of custard to prevent skin from forming and set aside. Do not refrigerate.

Combine remaining 1/3 cup sugar in small saucepan along with 1/3 cup water. Bring to boil, stirring occasionally. Continue cooking over medium-high heat without stirring about 5 minutes or until syrup registers 234 degrees and is at soft-ball stage (when bit of syrup dropped into ice water forms into pliable ball). Remove syrup from heat. Set aside.

With electric mixer, beat remaining 2 egg whites just until soft peaks form. Return syrup to heat until it boils. Gradually pour hot syrup into egg whites but not directly onto beaters, beating constantly. Continue beating until egg whites are cool and very stiff, about 5 minutes. Whisk 1/4 of beaten egg whites into warm custard. Fold in remaining egg whites. Cover and refrigerate 40 minutes or until chilled through.

Cut cake into 2-inch-thick slices and then cut slices into 1-by-4-inch strips. Spread preserves over 1 side of each strip. Arrange half of cake slices, jam side up, in bottom of 12-cup serving bowl. Sprinkle with half of sherry. Arrange 2 cups fruit over cake layer and spoon half of custard over fruit.

Repeat with remaining cake, sherry, fruit and custard. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight.

Just before serving, sprinkle almonds over top and arrange fresh fruit decoratively in center.

Note: Be sure to cook the sugar syrup to the recommended temperature and follow directions precisely when adding it to the egg whites so they will be properly cooked. Makes 10 to 12 servings

3 cups whole or halved nuts (almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, macadamias, pistachios and/or pecans)

butter pastry (recipe follows)

3 large eggs

1 cup honey

1/2 teaspoon grated orange peel

1 teaspoon pure vanilla

1/4 cup butter or margarine, melted

whipped sweetened cream, optional

Place nuts, if unroasted, in 10-by-15-inch rimmed baking pan. Bake at 350 degrees until lightly toasted (break nuts open to check, if necessary), 8 to 15 minutes. Let cool.

Prepare butter pastry and press evenly over bottom and up sides of 11-inch tart pan with removable bottom. Combine eggs, honey, orange peel, vanilla and butter in bowl. Beat until well blended. Stir in toasted nuts. Pour into pastry shell. Bake at 350 degrees on lowest rack until top is golden brown all over, about 40 minutes. Let cool on rack.

To serve, remove pan sides. Cut into wedges and serve with fluff of whipped cream on top.

Note: Light up your celebration by decorating the nut tart with small red candles or sparklers.

Butter pastry

1 1/3 cups flour

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup butter or margarine, cut into small pieces

1 large egg yolk

Combine flour and sugar in food processor bowl and pulse to mix. Add butter and process until fine crumbs form. Add egg yolk and mix only until dough holds together.

Pub Date: 12/25/96

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