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NOT JUST PUFFERY : Light and easy-to-make pudding puff pastry cases make festive, versatile containers for great-looking, elegant and tasty entrees for holiday entertaining

December 26, 1986|BETSY BALSLEY | Times Food Editor

The holiday season may be nearing the end, but there's still time to invite a few friends to drop around for a holiday brunch or Bowl-watching party. Just an informal get together, maybe, but one you want remembered. Forget the platters of ham and turkey and the usual fish mousses and dips. Instead, offer your guests something decidedly different. Serve them a fancy feast in something they certainly won't come across every day . . . an edible bowl.

Visually, this type of entree is offbeat enough to cause considerable comment. And the fact that it tastes as good as it looks is a real plus. Best of all, it can be served warm or cooled, and it's almost unbelievably easy to make.

Puff pancakes are nothing new. They've been the basis of popular desserts for years. But our pudding puffs are really more like Yorkshire pudding than puff pancakes; they are sturdier and more bread-like than their softer, more delicate counterparts. That fact alone takes them out of the dessert category and makes them an ideal base for a whole array of delicious main-dish fillings.

These easy and elegant puffs can be made ahead and cooled to act as a bowl for a hearty meal-in-one salad, or they can be served directly from the oven with a hot and fragrant Chinese stir-fry filling.

When we experimented with these edible shells, we had two real concerns. Would they become soggy and too mushy to serve when moist fillings were added? Would they toughen up or shrink if we cooled them? Our worries were groundless. Once cooked, the pastry shells held up beautifully. The small amount of liquid they absorbed from whatever fillings we chose just enhanced the overall flavor of the individual dishes. The pastry took on the character of pizza crust, except for being lighter and more eggy in texture. If you plan to use a pudding puff cold, it is better not to refrigerate it. Instead, simply make it an hour or so before you'll need it, allow it to cool in the pie plate on a rack, then set it aside in a cool spot in the kitchen. It doesn't take long to cool down.

Once we found how to handle our pudding puffs, we found we were all muttering "what ifs." What if we added some cheese to the pastry batter? It was marvelous! What if we added some Chinese 5-spice powder to the batter and then served the hot puff filled with a quick sweet-and-sour chicken stir-fry? Perfect! And so it went. We tried adding various herbs and spices to the pudding puffs and then filling them with mixtures that provided complementary flavors. Occasionally, we came across a loser, but most were delicious main dishes.

When served cool, the puffs have a wonderful chewy texture that goes well with anything crisp. Thus, they are excellent filled with crisp salads. If using them in this manner, it is, however, advisable to toss the salad with whatever dressing you use in a separate bowl and then transfer it with a slotted spoon to the pudding puff just before serving.

Serving pudding puffs is easy if you cut them into wedges as one does a pie. Then heap the filling on the individual wedge as you serve it. Be sure the serving plate you use is deep enough to hold any liquid that might run out after the wall of the shell is cut.

And one final tip: Puffy doughs of this type are just plain arbitrary in the way they bake. Sometimes they puff up around the edges in a remarkably even manner. But there are times when one side will turn out to be three inches higher than the other. If your oven is out of calibration or has hot spots here and there, you are likely to get an uneven product.

If you consistently find your puffs have one low side, it may be possible to even things out by turning the baking dish halfway through the cooking period. After the puff has been in the oven at least 20 minutes, it is generally all right to open the door and quickly give the baking dish a 180-degree turn. Often this will produce a more even result, but not always. And, truth to tell, it really doesn't matter if the sides of your bowl dip here and there. It just lends character to the end product. There is also the possibility that, at times, the puff will balloon up in the center as well as around the sides. Don't let that bother you. The filling will cover all discrepancies when it is added.

Lastly, don't overlook the possibilities of pudding puffs as a way of disguising leftovers. Few will complain about recycled ham or turkey or anything else when it is served in one of these classy edible bowls.

BASIC PUDDING PUFF

2 eggs

1/2 cup flour

1/2 cup milk

2 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted

Dash salt

Beat eggs until frothy. Gradually beat in flour until smooth. Add milk, butter and salt and blend well.

Pour batter into well-greased 9-inch glass pie plate or divide among 3 well-greased 4-inch glass baking dishes. Bake at 425 degrees 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake until puff is golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes longer for large puff or 5 to 10 minutes longer for smaller ones.

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