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French for "water bath," a bain-marie is a method of gently cooking foods by surrounding them with simmering water. The forgiving warmth of a bain-marie keeps custards and egg-enriched sauces from curdling, melts chocolate without scorching and can eliminate that split that often mars the top of cheesecakes.

A double boiler is a stovetop bain-marie, as is the makeshift (but effective) method of setting a heatproof bowl in a saucepan of simmering water. Water should simmer rather than boil and come to a level just below the pan or bowl that holds the food to be cooked. Aside from cooking, a bain-marie can be used to keep delicate sauces like hollandaise warm until you serve them.

For oven applications, cooking vessels, such as custard dishes, ramekins and springform pans, are set in a large, shallow pan and surrounded by simmering water. Recipes for baked custards, cheesecakes and savory mousses frequently use a bain-marie, as do pates and terrines. When baking in a springform pan, wrap the bottom and sides of the closed pan in aluminum foil to keep surrounding water from seeping in.

This traditional recipe combines the sweetness of a butter sauce with the tartness of cranberries.

> Steamed Cranberry Pudding with Butter Sauce

Pudding:

1 1/2 cups fresh cranberries

1 egg

1 tablespoon sugar

1/2 cup light molasses (not blackstrap)

2 teaspoons baking soda

1/3 cup hot water

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Butter Sauce:

2 cups sugar

1 cup (2 sticks) butter

1 cup heavy cream

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

To prepare pudding, butter a 6-cup souffle dish. Set aside a large pot with a lid that will hold a water bath (bain-marie).

Place cranberries in a medium saucepan. Cover with water. Cover and cook over medium heat until cranberries begin to burst and water is absorbed, about 15 minutes.

Beat together egg, sugar and molasses. Combine baking soda and 1/3 -cup hot water; stir well. Add to egg mixture. Combine salt and flour; add to egg mixture. Do not over mix. Stir in cranberries.

Pour batter into prepared souffle dish. Cover with foil. Place dish in the large pot. Add several inches of water. Cover pot and bring water to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer 70 to 90 minutes, until firm. Unmold onto a serving platter.

To prepare sauce, combine all ingredients in a saucepan. Cook over low heat until thickened, about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Place warm sauce in a bowl or pitcher to pass with the pudding. Serves 10.

(Recipe courtesy of Tuckaway Farms, Conway, Mass.)

Per serving: 470 calories, 28g fat, 105g cholesterol, 3g protein, 58g carbohydrates, 1g fiber, 500mg sodium.

Look for Relish magazine the first Thursday of each month in The Buffalo News.