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

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.

Remove from oven to rack and cool in pie plate away from draft. Puff will fall in center, forming bowl as it cools. When used to serve salads, pastry bowl should be completely cooled. When used for hot fillings, serve warm.

Variations: Flavor basic batter with any of the following:

Add 1/4 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

Add 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil

Add 1 teaspoon fresh dill weed

Add 1 teaspoon Chinese 5-spice powder

Add 1 tablespoon chopped onion and 1 tablespoon canned diced green chile

HAM-VEGETABLE

SALAD IN CHEESY

PUDDING PUFF

1/3 cup oil

1/3 cup Champagne vinegar

1 teaspoon crushed rosemary

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 (6-ounce) package cooked ham, julienned

1 red onion, sliced in thin rings

1/2 cup chopped celery

Basic Pudding Puff

1/4 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

1 small head Belgian endive, optional

1 bunch spinach leaves, washed, dried and stems removed

12 cherry tomatoes, halved

Salt, pepper

Combine oil, vinegar, rosemary, sugar and garlic in large bowl. Add ham, onion and celery and toss to coat well. Let stand about 30 minutes.

Prepare Basic Pudding Puff, adding cheese to batter. Bake as directed, remove from oven and cool in pie plate on rack. At serving time, place on serving platter.

Toss endive leaves, spinach and cherry tomatoes with ham mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Just before serving, drain well. Spoon into pudding puff. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

VEGETABLE PUDDING PUFF

Basic Pudding Puff

1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons chopped basil leaves

2 cups broccoli florets

2 cups cauliflorets

2 cups sliced carrots

1 cup pearl onions

3 tablespoons melted butter or margarine

1 tablespoon parsley

Salt, pepper

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, cut up

1/2 cup milk, about

2 tablespoons minced green onion

Prepare Basic Pudding Puff, adding 1/4 cup chopped basil to batter. While puff is baking, cook broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and onions separately in boiling salted water just until tender. Drain.

Toss vegetables together with butter, parsley, remaining 2 teaspoons basil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep vegetables warm.

Heat together cream cheese and milk until smooth. If sauce seems too thick, stir in additional milk. Stir in green onion. Spoon vegetables into Baked Pudding Puff. Spoon sauce over vegetables and serve at once. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

SAUCY SHRIMP AND PEAS IN A PUFF

Basic Pudding Puff

1 teaspoon chopped fresh dill weed

1 1/2 pounds shrimp, peeled, deveined and cut in halves lengthwise

6 tablespoons butter or margarine

1/4 cup flour

3 cups milk or half and half

1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon peel

1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice

Salt, white pepper

1 (10-ounce) package frozen peas, cooked according to package directions and drained

Prepare Basic Pudding Puff, adding dill weed to batter.

While puff is baking, saute shrimp in butter until shrimp turn pink. Stir in flour until blended. Gradually stir in milk until smooth. Heat to boiling, stirring constantly. Boil until thickened, about 1 minute. Stir in lemon peel, lemon juice and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Stir in 1 cup hot peas. Spoon into puff. Spoon remaining peas into center of puff. Garnish with lemon rose and fresh dill, if desired. Makes 6 servings.

SWEET 'N SOUR CHICKEN IN A PUFF

Basic Pudding Puff

1 teaspoon Chinese 5-spice powder

1 pound boneless skinless chicken breasts, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

4 green onions, cut into 2-inch lengths

1 teaspoon minced ginger

2 tablespoons peanut oil

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1/4 cup water

1/4 cup rice vinegar

1/2 cup sugar

2 tablespoons catsup

Salt

Dash crushed red chiles

1 cup green seedless grapes

4 tangerines, peeled and separated into sections

1 (8-ounce) can sliced water chestnuts, drained

Prepare Basic Pudding Puff batter, adding Chinese 5-spice powder to batter. (If serving in individual puff bowls, double amount of batter and 5-spice powder. Filling will fill 1 large puff or 6 small ones.)

While puff is baking, stir-fry chicken, garlic, green onions and ginger in peanut oil until chicken is almost cooked through. Blend together cornstarch and water until smooth. Stir in vinegar, sugar, catsup, salt to taste and chiles.

Add to chicken mixture. Heat, stirring constantly, to boiling. Boil, stirring, about 1 minute or until thickened and clear. Stir in grapes, tangerine sections and water chestnuts. Heat through. Spoon into hot pudding puff or puffs. Makes 6 servings.

MEXICAN-STYLE PUDDING PUFF

1 cup chopped onions

1 (7-ounce) can diced green chiles

1/2 cup chopped sweet red pepper

1/2 cup chopped green pepper

1 tablespoon butter or margarine

2 pounds lean ground beef

1 (15-ounce) can tomato paste

Dash hot pepper sauce

Salt, pepper

Basic Pudding Puff

1/2 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

Fresh Tomato Salsa

Sour cream

Sliced black olives

Set aside 1 tablespoon each of onion and chiles. In large skillet, saute remaining onion, red pepper and green pepper in butter until soft but not browned. Stir in 1/4 cup green chiles. (Reserve rest of chiles for Fresh Tomato Salsa.) Add beef and cook, stirring to break up meat, until beef is browned and cooked through.

Pour off fat and return skillet to heat. Stir in tomato paste. Season to taste with hot pepper sauce, salt and pepper. Prepare and bake Basic Pudding Puff, adding reserved onion and chiles to batter.

Spoon hot filling into hot puff and quickly sprinkle cheese over meat. Serve with Fresh Tomato Salsa, sour cream and black olives on side. Makes about 8 servings.

Fresh Tomato Salsa

1 cup peeled, seeded and chopped tomatoes

1/2 cup chopped onion

Reserved canned diced green chiles

Combine tomatoes, onion and chiles, mixing well. Cover and refrigerate at least 30 minutes. Makes about 1 3/4 cups salsa.

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