American diners indulge in latest, greatest desserts Sweets: They're trendy, and in constant demand as restaurants frequently update their menus.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There's nothing in desserts you probably haven't tasted already. And yet sweets are surprisingly trendy -- remember when everyone "discovered" tiramisu and creme brulee? All of a sudden, a dessert will make the scene -- simultaneously -- at restaurants across town.

This season, the sweets include:

* Chocolate (of course), this time in the molten chocolate cake.

* The comeback of meringue, for people who say they want a low-fat dessert.

* And one that capitalizes on the prevailing trendiness of Mediterranean food: polenta cake.

Desserts are almost as trendy as fashion, says pastry chef Darren DeVille.

"The world is so connected with magazines, and what's happening in California or New York," he says. "I don't know of any chef that doesn't look at magazines and notice what they write about. ... It's like fashion designers."

There's a constant demand for new desserts because most upscale places update their menus frequently.

Desserts also respond to the real world, following culinary trends and even the economy.

"It all recycles," says chef DeVille. "After that whole fat-free trend, we're now hearing a lot of people say that fat's OK. The pendulum will swing back where people won't mind having fat in their diets."

And calf-length skirts are back, too.

New-fashioned sweet polenta

Polenta cake -- so upscale. So modern. So Mediterranean. So very much like corn bread.

Face it: Sometimes you need a new name to make something familiar seem fresh again. In this case, it's a name that capitalizes on the trendy personality of polenta, says DeVille.

It should be emphasized that the polenta cake is richer, denser and sweeter than plain old corn bread. Warm Polenta Cake is basically a cheesecake with cornmeal. It's quite moist and luscious.

Pastry chef Bill Hunter and assistant Karl Will modified a poundcake recipe.

"We wanted something with texture, something that was going to make it more interesting in your mouth," says Hunter. "It's relatively straightforward -- essentially we made a poundcake but omitted some of the flour and added polenta in place of it."

A key part of polenta cake's appeal is its slightly gritty texture.

"The first time I had it, it was a poundcake with cornmeal, and the thing I liked was the crunchiness -- the contrast between the soft cake and the granules of cornmeal," says DeVille.

Like many Italian desserts, polenta cake is not overly sweet. The best topping, says Hunter, is fruit. He drowns his polenta cake in a chunky blackberry puree, or whatever fresh fruit might be in season.

Chocolate cake meltdown

Chocolate is one thing. But when it's a fudgy cake that hides a secret center -- one that oozes onto the plate when you break into it with a fork -- well, what do calories mean at a time like that?

The ooze is the thing, says Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the four-star chef at New York restaurants Jean Georges, JoJo and Vong. "People like chocolate, and to have it liquid like that -- ohhh," he says.

One recipe making the circuit, Mini Chocolate Cake With White Chocolate Lava, calls for a chunk of chocolate, sometimes frozen, to be inserted into the center of the cake to guarantee it will run soft.

Savoring new meringue

Pie eaters informed of the "return" of meringue might be tempted to ask where it went in the first place. But the meringue showing up at trendy restaurants is not the pompadour riding high atop the typical home-cooking cream pie.

These are meringues that are baked to a crisp and used as a base for ice cream, fruit or luxurious mousse.

Restaurants like meringue desserts because they use leftover egg whites, says DeVille.

Warm Polenta Cake

Makes 12 servings

1/3 cup golden raisins

1/3 cup white wine

2 cups ricotta cheese

2 cups mascarpone cheese

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon powdered fennel seed

3/4 cup polenta or yellow cornmeal

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1/4 cup confectioners' sugar

In a small saucepan, cover the raisins with white wine and bring to a boil. Immediately remove from heat. Allow to soften for 20 minutes, then drain and discard wine.

In a large bowl, whisk together ricotta and mascarpone cheese, sugar, vanilla and fennel until smooth. Stir in polenta and raisins and mix until evenly blended.

Butter bottom and sides of a springform pan, pour in the polenta mix and refrigerate. The recipe can be completed to this point up to 3 hours in advance of last-minute cooking.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Bake polenta cake until set, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. The polenta should still be slightly liquid in the center. Remove from oven and cool slightly, about 15 minutes. Dust with confectioners' sugar and cut into serving portions.

Note: Serve with sliced fruit, berries or a fruit puree.

Per serving: 365 calories (44 percent fat); 18 grams fat (11 grams saturated); 2 grams fiber; 62 milligrams cholesterol; 172 milligrams sodium; 40 grams carbohydrate; 132 milligrams calcium

-- Source: Chef Hugh Carpenter

Meringue Shortcakes With Blueberries

Makes 4 servings

6 egg whites

pinch cream of tartar

1 3/4 cups sugar (divided use)

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

3 cups blueberries

1/4 cup brandy

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

3/4 cup heavy cream, whipped

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Whip egg whites in mixer bowl on high speed until foamy. Add cream of tartar and mix well. With machine running, add 1 1/4 cups sugar, about 1 tablespoon at a time. Once incorporated, continue to mix until whites are shiny and hold a stiff peak.

Place meringue in a piping bag fitted with a large star tip. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Pipe 8 (4-inch) circles onto the parchment. If you like, you can draw circles on the paper to ensure they are even. Bake about 1 hour or until meringues are dry and crisp. Turn oven off and allow meringues to cool in oven. Remove and set aside.

Heat butter in a large saute pan until bubbling. Add blueberries and saute until they start to soften, 2 to 3 minutes. Add remaining 1/2 cup sugar and brandy and cook until sugar is dissolved, about 2 minutes. Add cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger and mix with berries. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.

To assemble, place one of the meringue layers on each of 4 plates. Top with about 1/3 cup of the blueberry filling, using about half of it in all. Add a bit of the whipped cream, then top with another meringue layer. Finish with more filling, and then the last of the whipped cream. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 493 calories (10 percent fat); 6 grams fat (3 grams saturated); 3 grams fiber; 14 milligrams cholesterol; 94 milligrams ZTC sodium; 106 grams carbohydrate; 25 milligrams calcium

-- Source: "Cooking With Caprial" by Caprial Pence (Ten Speed Press)

Mini Chocolate Cakes With White Chocolate Lava

Makes 6 servings

1 cup unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cup sugar

3 eggs

3 egg yolks

1 pound bittersweet chocolate, melted, plus 2 ounces, grated (divided use)

1 cup flour

1 cup toasted, ground pecans

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

6 ounces white chocolate, in 1-ounce pieces

3/4 cup heavy cream, whipped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Using an electric mixer with a whisk attachment, cream butter and sugar on high speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add eggs and egg yolks, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Continue to mix until egg mixture is lemon-colored, about 3 minutes more. Lower mixer speed and add melted chocolate. Stop and scrape down sides and then continue to mix. Add flour, nuts and vanilla and mix just until the batter comes together.

Distribute among 6 (8-ounce) well-greased ramekins. Place on a baking sheet and bake 15 minutes. Remove from oven. Place a 1-ounce piece of white chocolate into the middle of each half-baked cake. Return to oven and bake another 8 to 15 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the side comes out clean. Do not insert knife into center or you will hit the white chocolate.

Let cool about 10 minutes, then invert onto a plate and pipe whipped cream on top of each cake. Top with grated chocolate and serve warm.

Per serving: 1,188 calories (71 percent fat); 106 grams fat (55 grams saturated); 2 grams fiber; 312 milligrams cholesterol; 77 milligrams sodium; 75 grams carbohydrate; 169 milligrams calcium

-- Source: "Cooking With Caprial" by Caprial Pence (Ten Speed Press)

Pub Date: 6/24/98

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