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Winter perfect time for baking delicious chocolate desserts

WILTON, Conn. - It seems like it was just yesterday, but here we go again. This is that mouthwatering time of the year when the holidays line up, and the urge to bake grabs hold.

The call may be for just one dessert, or perhaps for a whole party piece to be assembled, a cookie-brownie-cupcake platter, or for sweet gifts. Then there are always the birthday parties and other baking occasions that arrive in any season.

So, here's a report from the dessert cookbook front, a few favorite recipes gleaned from browsing through and testing from recent publications.

Baking is much more precise than other cooking and more scientific, which can give some cooks pause. For those who approach baking with some trepidation, several of the baking all-stars have written books this year that carefully describe each step of the way.

So, some of the following recipes may appear long, but that's because they are VERY thorough in their descriptions - the advantage being it's almost as if you have the pro in the kitchen with you.

Here are three books from which I worked very happily:

•Judith Sutton's book, ''Sweet Gratitude: Bake a Thank-You'' (Artisan, 2005, $19.95) is based on recipes she has baked to thank people. She says this practice started with the cookies and other treats she made for her veterinarian at a period when she and her cat were making frequent visits to the ''Cat Doctor's'' office.

''Head to the kitchen, not the mall,'' she advises, when you are looking for a special thank-you. Her recipe for Devil's Food Cupcakes includes a choice of two frostings, and a regular-size cake variation; her helpful tip on decorating a birthday cake using cookie cutters is one you may find yourself using again and again.

•The award-winning cookbook author Nancy Baggett has a hefty new tome, ''The All-American Dessert Book'' (Houghton-Mifflin, 2005, $35). It's packed full of definitive recipes for dessert favorites, including a great recipe for brownies, to enjoy as is or with a glaze or frosting. Pay close attention to her test for doneness: Brownies are much better if they are not overbaked and she tells you how to judge precisely.

•Another award-winning author and chocolate expert, Alice Medrich, offers delicious chocolate ideas for every occasion in her book, ''Chocolate Holidays: Unforgettable Desserts for Every Season'' (Artisan, 2005, $21.95 paperback). This is a revised edition of her out-of-print 2001 hardcover ''A Year in Chocolate: Four Seasons of Unforgettable Desserts'' (Warner).''

Devil's Food

Cupcakes

13⁄4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1⁄4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted

11⁄2 teaspoons baking soda

1⁄4 teaspoon salt

10 tablespoons (11⁄4 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup granulated sugar

1⁄2 cup packed light brown sugar

2 large eggs

11⁄2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1 and 1⁄3 cups buttermilk

For the Chocolate Frosting:

4 ounces semisweet, bittersweet, or milk chocolate, coarsely chopped

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

21⁄2 cups confectioners' sugar

4 to 6 tablespoons whole milk

11⁄2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Put a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 F. Line 22 muffin cups with foil or paper-cupcake liners.

Whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl. In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugars with a mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla. On low speed, beat in the flour in three additions, alternating with the buttermilk in two additions and beating just until incorporated.

Spoon the batter into the muffin cups, filling each one about two-thirds full. Bake for 16 to 18 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out clean. Let the cupcakes cool in the pans for 10 minutes, then carefully transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely. (The cupcakes can be baked up to one day ahead and stored in an airtight container at room temperature.)

To make the Chocolate Frosting: Melt the chocolate in a metal bowl set over a saucepan of hot, not simmering water (or melt in the top of a double boiler), stirring until smooth. Remove the pan from the heat and let cool.

In a large bowl, beat the butter until creamy, about 30 seconds. Gradually beat in 1 cup of the confectioners' sugar. Beat in 1⁄4 cup of the milk and the vanilla. Beat in the chocolate. Gradually beat in the remaining 11⁄2 cups confectioners' sugar and continue to beat until the frosting reaches a spreadable consistency, adding up to 2 tablespoons more milk if necessary.

Spread the frosting generously over the cupcakes. Or transfer the frosting to a pastry bag fitted with a large star tip and pipe a generous swirl of frosting onto each cupcake. (The frosted cupcakes can be stored in an airtight container for up to 2 days.)

Makes 22 cupcakes.

Recipes from ''Sweet Gratitude: Bake a Thank-You'' by Judith Sutton, Artisan, 2005, $19.95

Fudge Brownies

13⁄4 cups all-purpose flour

1⁄2 teaspoon salt

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into chunks

2 cups sugar

1⁄4 cup brewed coffee or water

11 ounces bittersweet (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate, broken up or coarsely chopped

2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, broken up or coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

4 large eggs

2 cups chopped walnuts (optional)

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 F. If you are not adding the fudge glaze or frosting, line a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with aluminum foil, allowing the foil to overhang the two sides of the pan by 2 inches. Coat the foil with nonstick spray (or use nonstick foil). If adding a topping, omit the foil lining and grease the pan or coat with nonstick spray.

In a medium bowl, thoroughly stir together the flour and salt; set aside. In a large saucepan, bring the butter, sugar and coffee just to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring. Remove from the heat. Stir the chocolates into the sugar mixture until completely melted. Let cool to warm (if the mixture is hot, the eggs may curdle when added). Stir the vanilla into the chocolate mixture, then add the eggs and mix thoroughly. Stir the dry ingredients into the chocolate mixture just until the batter is evenly blended. Stir in the nuts, if using. Turn out the batter into the pan, spreading it evenly to the edges.

Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the center is barely firm when tapped and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean except for the bottom 1⁄8-inch which should have wet crumbs clinging to it. Transfer the pan to a wire rack. Let cool to warm, about 20 minutes.

Makes 32 21⁄4-by-21⁄4-inch brownies.

Cook's tip: For these brownies, the baking time depends greatly on the pan used, so check frequently for signs of doneness. In a dull metal pan that absorbs and holds heat readily, the brownies bake through in only about 20 minutes. In a glass or shiny metal pan, they make take 5 to 10 minutes longer.

To cut brownies: To prepare brownies for cutting, cover and refrigerate until well chilled and firm, at least 30 minutes. Using the overhanging foil as handles, carefully transfer the brownie slab to a cutting board. If desired, trim away the uneven edges using a large sharp knife. Cut the slab in half crosswise, cutting through the foil. Carefully peel off and discard the foil.

The slabs will keep, stored airtight, in the freezer for up to 1 month. Let thaw partially before cutting into bars. Cut the brownies into 2 and 1⁄8-by-21⁄4-inch bars (or as desired), wiping the knife clean between cuts.

The brownies will keep, stored airtight, at room temperature for 2 to 3 days.

Recipes from ''The All-American Dessert Book'' by Nancy Baggett, Houghton-Mifflin, 2005, $35