In pursuit of the perfect popover. When everything works well, good ones can rival VW Beetles in size

I'VE taken an oath recently, in front of those regulars who gather at my house for dinner, that I'll refrain from making popovers. At least for a while.

For the past months I've been accused of playing popover-roulette with my guests.

It started a little over a year ago after dinner at a local restaurant.

An awe-inspiring basket of popovers was passed around by a smiling waitress in a stiff white apron and blue-and-white gingham dress.

They looked like Henry Moore sculptures, not much smaller than a Volkswagen Beetle, and when pierced with a fork billowed with steam like Mt. St. Helens.

Surely I could do as well.

I became immediately suspicious when every popover recipe I looked up boasted of being ``failproof.''

Beware of ``failproof'' recipes. They, like luxury liners called ``unsinkable,'' are usually fraught with a history of trouble.

As well as their being failproof, all recipes warned that you treat the oven as you would Pandora's Box. Do not, under any conditions, open it and peek!

I never did. I didn't have to as, I baked them in an oven with a glass door.

Beyond that suggestion, though, the recipes were filled with contradictions.

Some recipes suggested baking them in individual Pyrex cups. Others, in stick-proof aluminum muffin pans or heavy cast-iron pans.

There were those suggesting that baking be started in a hot oven. Others said no, start them in a cold oven.

Some started at a high temperature for the first 20 minutes, then turning the oven to a cooler temperature.

I heated the pans before greasing them, I greased them before heating them. Some popovers rose triumphantly, only to fall faster than a rock.

Others stuck to the pan or cups and had to be chiseled out with a screwdriver.

``That's because you didn't flour the pans after you buttered them,'' a friend sniffed.

Friends were willing victims at first, but grew increasingly impatient with my failures.

``Pop-unders, again, John?'' they would jab.

Success - for me - was finally obtained using the hot-oven method with individual custard cups. Greasing them with shortening rather than butter prevented them from burning. And flouring them lightly kept the popovers from sticking.

What I learned was patience and perseverance. If you don't succeed with one ``failproof'' recipe, try another ... and another.

If popovers look glorious, then collapse after being removed from oven, increase the baking time. And don't fill up cups or pans just to use up the batter. Too much in a cup can turn a popover into a muffin.

Dust popover pan or cups with sugar or grated Parmesan cheese for different flavoring.

Keep trying. Find the method that works for you. Success, when it comes, will be applauded.

Remember, popovers are a wonderful vehicle as serving cups. They become an absolute throne for a mundane Chicken `a la King, and a Triton's Trumpet filled with creamy seafood newburg.

Sweetened with sugar or fruit-flavored, popovers may be filled with ice cream and topped with chocolate or fruit sauces.

`Failproof' Popovers 1 2 large eggs at room temperature 1 cup whole milk at room temperature 1 cup all-purpose white flour, sifted 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon melted shortening Additional flour for dusting.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.

Combine eggs, milk, flour, and salt in bowl or food processor. Beat or process until smooth. Do not overbeat. Grease eight or nine individual oven-proof custard cups lightly with melted shortening. Dust lightly with flour.

Pour mixture into cups to three-quarters full. Do not overfill. Place cups in pan for easy handling. Bake for 15 minutes, reduce heat to 350 degrees F., and continue baking for 20 to 25 minutes more. Remove from oven and serve immediately.

`Failproof' Popovers 2 2 large eggs 1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted 1/2 teaspoon salt 3/4 cup milk 1/4 cup cold water

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.

Beat all ingredients in bowl with rotary beater until thickness of heavy cream, scraping sides occasionally with rubber spatula.

Pour into well-greased six-cup muffin tin, filling each cup to two-thirds full.

Bake 40 minutes. Remove from oven. Pierce with knife to let steam escape.

Return to oven for another 5 or 10 minutes.

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