Four-star desserts from France

Two enticing desserts that deserve a drum roll and a flag are a Paris-Brest and a dacquoise. What these four-star palatal gems don't deserve is their fussy reputations that tend to intimidate everyday home kitchen cooks.

A traditional Paris-Brest is a large circular pastry made of pate a chou (cream puff pastry), filled with sweetened whipped cream, sprinkled with almonds , and dusted with confectioners' sugar.A dacquoise is a cake of meringue layers made with ground almonds, filled and iced with buttercream, and usually dusted with confectioners' sugar. Variations on these themes, as in the following recipes, are up to you. For example, you may wish to fill the Paris-Brest with a richer egg-based custard cream or the dacquoise with a lightly flavored maple buttercream.

In any case the first rule of baking fancy desserts is to stop debating and plunge ahead, all excuses barred.Nobody need be a master French pastry chef to make decent home versions of these ambrosis. Nor does anybody need be a graduate of a cooking schoold or an appreciate in a Paris restaurant. The unclosed secret of success is this: Just do it.

Practice makes better, but even the first baking of these desserts produces a sigh from lucky families and guests. Paris-Brest Pastry: 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour 1/8 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon sugar 1 cup milk 1/9 cup sweet butter, in pieces 4 extra large eggs, room temperature 6 almonds, blanced, chopped Filling: 1 cup sweetened apricot puree 1 1/2 cups all-purpose cream, whipped 3 tablespoons confectioners' sugar Glaze: 3 tablespoons apricot jam

For the cake, mix flour, salt, and sugar. Set aside. In a large heavy saucepan, bring the milk and butter to a boil. Immediately, pour all the flour mixture into the milk, remove from heat, and mix fast and thoroughly. The pastry dough (pate a chou) will form a ball. Cool for 2 to 3 minutes. With a wooden spoon, vigorously beat in eggs one at a time.

To form, prepare flat baking sheet by sprinkling lightly with flour. Turn over a 9- inch pie plate onto the flour and trace the plate rim with your finger to mark a circle. Remove the plate. Fill a pastry bag fitted with a large plain end with half the pate a chou. Pipe the paste inside the circle in loose 1/2-inch thick overlapping spirals, leaving a 3-4 inch diameter empty hub. Pipe the rest of the paste in the same pattern on top of the first layer. Sprinkle the top with almonds. Bake at 425 degrees F. for 10 minutes, reduce heat to 325 degrees F., and bake for 30 minutes more or until sides and top are brown and ring is very firm to the touch. Cool.

To fill, place the cooked pastry ring on a serving platter. Carefully slice the ring horizontally in half. Spread the apricot puree evenly on the inside of the bottom ring. Whip the cream, adding the sugar toward the end of the whipping. Spread the cream lightly over the puree. Place the top layer on the cream.

For the glaze, heat the jam and brush onto the top layer. Chill.Serves 10 to 12. Dacquoise with Chestnut Buttercream Meringues: 3/4 cup almonds, blanched, toasted, ground 4 extra large egg whites 1/2 cup sugar 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar Buttercream: 2 egg yolks 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar 1/4 cup hot milk 1/4 cup sweet butter, softened

1 cup all-purpose cream, whipped well 1 cup sweetened chestnut puree Topping: Confectioners' sugar

For the meringues, very generously butter the bottoms and sides of two 8-inch cake pans before lightly flouring them. Combine almonds and both sugars; set aside. Beat egg whites until stiff. Fold in almond mixture. Spread half of mixture in each pan and smooth top. Bake at 275 degrees F. for 1 hour 15 minutes or until set and moderately toasted. Remove from pans and cool.

For buttercream, blend egg yolks and sugar in heavy saucepan. Stir in milk and heat only to threshold of boiling. Remove from heat and beat in butter. Cool. Fold in whipped cream. Fold in chestnut puree (which may be found in specialty shops if you can't make your own conveniently). Chill.

To form, place a meringue on serving platter. Spread top with buttercream. Place second meringue onto buttercream filling. Spread buttercream on the side only of meringues.

For topping, sprinkle confectioners' sugar thickly over top. Chill. Serves 6 to 8.

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