DESSERTS should add a little topography to your table,'' says Barbara Wheaton, culinary historian and authority on food of the Victorian period. ``Most of our food is served in flat containers and except for the occasional roast, it doesn't add much interest to the dining table.
``A tower of ice cream makes a happy ending to a meal, especially if it's ice cream decorated with fresh raspberries or candied rosettes or mounds of whipped cream,'' she says. In Victorian days, spun sugar was a favorite decoration. But that was a lot of work, and today's dessertmakers tend to garnish in simpler ways with fruits, nuts, and candies.
While packing chocolate ice cream into a bombe-shaped mold that's already been lined with chocolate cake, Mrs. Wheaton adds that she will later fill the center with Wild Strawberry or maybe Butter Pecan ice cream to finish this colorful dessert.
Mrs. Wheaton demonstrated the procedure for making ice cream desserts to newspaper food editors at a luncheon in the Mark Twain carriage house. The occasion was the introduction of nine flavors of ice cream, a new line for Pepperidge Farm, a company known for its bakery products.
Mrs. Wheaton talked about Victorian desserts and menus, including those served in Victorian days at the home of Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain.
She explained that the Victorians, with their predilection for highly ornamental embellishment and design, set a style that has lasted long since Queen Victoria's reign, which ended in 190l. Today's revival of Victoriana includes food along with flowers, fashion, architecture, and furniture.
The handsome dining room of the Mark Twain House is an authentic example of the Victorian penchant for extravagant details. Designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, the room often was the scene of splendid and lively dinners hosted by Samuel Clemens and his wife, Livy.
According to the memoirs of their maid Katy Leary, ice cream was a favorite dessert. ``We always had our ice cream put up in wonderful shapes, like flowers or cherubs, little angels -- all different kinds and different shapes and flavors and colors,'' she wrote.
As Mrs. Wheaton continued dipping ice cream and packing it into several kinds of molds, she told how to make unusual ice cream desserts, explaining why certain ones are called bombes.
``Ice cream bombes were originally round balls of frozen ice cream, shaped like military bombs,'' she said. ``Today a bombe is made of two different kinds of ice cream frozen in most any shape, but usually round, oval, or conical. My children like the ice cream molds with animals on top,'' she said indicating a mold with an incumbent lion on a rounded platform.
``This is an antique mold, but there's no need to buy special molds. There are undiscovered molds in every kitchen. Deep serving dishes such as casseroles, and mixing bowls can be used as well as old standbys like loaf pans.
``But consider the materials of your containers. For example, if using ceramic or tempered glass containers, be sure they can go from freezer to refrigerator to a basin of hot water. Copper molds, if well tinned, are excellent. Plastic is also good and inexpensive and can go from cold to hot temperatures.
``Don't be fooled by the mold measurement,'' she adds. ``If using a 1-quart mold, buy half as much again of the ice cream. You push out air as you pack in the ice cream and the texture changes.
Mrs. Wheaton's molds vary from the whimsical lion to spectacular towers. Most interesting were some contemporary molds of flowers, a lily and a rose, about five inches across that opened up in sections to make unmolding easy. These she made in vanilla ice cream, then placed them on a bed of fresh red raspberries.
``As for decorating, you really shouldn't think about good taste when you're doing something like this,'' she said as she lavishly embellished an already frozen ice cream lion. ``And don't worry about any little crack or crumble when removing the mold.
``If a molded dessert comes out looking a little untidy, there are a number of remedies. Discreet smoothing with a spatula, the use of whipped cream, candied fruit and flowers, siftings of unsweetened cocoa, chopped nuts, powdered peanut brittle -- all work wonders.
Mrs. Wheaton edited and wrote the introduction and glossary for the 1984 facsimile edition of Agnes B. Marshall's ``Book of Ices'' (London 1885), reissued by the Metropolitan Museum of Art as ``Victorian Ices and Ice Cream.''
It is a delightful compendium of unusual recipes, period photographs, and engravings of 19th-century kitchen equipment and dessert molds.
The book has recipes for ices with flavors such as spinach and cucumber curry, rice, brown bread, asparagus -- plus more ``likable'' flavors such as ginger, elderflower, cranberry, and Nesslerode Pudding.
Mrs. Wheaton's most recent book is ``Savoring the Past'': The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789'' (University of Pennsylvania Press).
Here are some of Mrs. Wheaton's recipes and some basic rules for making molded ice cream desserts. Notes on molding ice cream
When making multilayer bombes, allow one layer to set for an hour before adding the next. The ice cream should be fairly soft but not too soft.
Freeze at least 2 to 3 hours, depending on size. Prepare a day or two in advance if convenient. Half an hour or an hour before serving, depending on size, remove bombe from freezer to refrigerator.
A mold with cake will take a little longer to thaw; frozen cake has no charm at all.
Have ready a towel and a bowl somewhat deeper than the mold, with hot but not boiling water in it. Be sure there is not too much water in the bowl. Dip bombe into warm water, briefly at first, again if necessary.
Serving platters and individual plates should be chilled half an hour before using. If plates are chilled, the molded ice cream will not slide around and it will keep its shape longer. Victorian Ice Cream Bombes
1. For a bombe made with ordinary kitchen equipment, make three layers of ice cream in a metal mixing bowl. Use 1 quart Chocolate Chip for the outer layer, 1 quart French Vanilla for the second layer, and 1 pint Brownie Nut Cookies for the inner layer.
Serve on vine leaves or a doily on a china dish and use Victorian decorations such as crystallized rose petals and maidenhair fern, or use whipped cream, fresh fruit, nuts, or tiny candies.
2. Make a classic bombe in a tall fluted mold with an outer layer of 3 pints Mint Chocolate Chip and fill with 1 quart of Chocolate. Serve decorated with candied mint leaves and violets on a pewter dish.
3. Fill an animal mold with 1 pint French Vanilla. Use a plain rectangular mold for a base, and fill with 1 quart Peanut Butter Swirl to look like a marble plinth base.
Unmold on a china platter. Sprinkle with Peanut Brittle Powder and add candies or crystallized violets for eyes.
4. For a bombe with sauce use a tall mold and make an outer layer with 1 quart Butter Pecan and a filling of 1 pint French Vanilla and serve with Caramel Sauce. Peanut Brittle Powder
Break up a box of peanut brittle into 1-inch chunks. In small batches, powder them in a blender or food processor. Store in a tightly closed box. It will keep in the freezer for a month or more, to be used as needed. Caramel Sauce 1 cup granulated sugar 1 teaspoon vinegar 1 1/4 cups water
Combine sugar, vinegar, and 1/2 cup water in heavy metal saucepan over gentle heat. Stir occasionally to dissolve sugar. Do not let mixture boil until sugar has dissolved completely.
When it has, add a tight cover and bring mixture to boil for 2 minutes, or until remaining sugar crystals on pan sides have dissolved. Remove lid and cook until syrup begins to color, a few minutes. Watch closely so it won't get too dark.
When syrup is the color of honey, remove from heat and cool a few minutes. Cautiously pour remaining water into hot syrup, being careful of any steam.
Return pan to heat. Cook, stirring until water is incorporated.
If sauce is too sticky add another tablespoon of water. Sauce should be thin so it will be runny when chilled by ice cream. Hot sauces should not be used on bombes because they spoil the shape.