The proof is in the pudding

These nearly instant homemade desserts are much better than the packaged kind, since there are no artificial flavors.

There's something so alluring about soft, creamy desserts that you eat with a spoon. They include mousses and Bavarian creams as well as their homey cousins, puddings. For beginner cooks, these easier alternatives are the first types of desserts to make before going on to their more elaborate cousins. To make a simple pudding, you need only four ingredients: milk, sugar, cornstarch and a flavoring. You cook them until the pudding thickens, which takes only a few minutes. Now comes the time to get creative. You add whatever flavoring you desire - vanilla, chocolate, instant coffee powder, ground almonds or other nuts, caramel sauce or grated orange or lemon zest. French cooks sometimes add fruit liqueur or cognac, stirring them into the cooled pudding so their alcohol won't evaporate. Such puddings are almost instant, taking only minutes to prepare. Yet these homemade desserts taste much better than those assembled from a packaged mix, which can be marred by artificial flavors. With a festive garnish like whipped cream or grated chocolate, pudding is always a welcome treat for adults as well as children. Toasted nuts or crumbled cookies are also popular embellishments. To make the most of cookies, Marie-Claude Bisson, author of La Bonne Cuisine Francaise, sprinkles her pudding with crushed macaroons sauteed in butter with vanilla sugar. To make these puddings more silky, cooks often whisk in egg yolks or butter. For a different enrichment, Mani Niall, author of Sweet!, a book devoted to the many forms of sugar, makes butterscotch pudding with light cream and muscovado or dark brown sugar, and whisks either Greek yogurt (which resembles labaneh) or sour cream into the finished pudding, along with vanilla. You can make parve versions of any creamy pudding by using nondairy milk, such as soy milk or rice milk, or fruity parve puddings by using orange juice or other fruit juice. Niall uses the basic formula to make a traditional Hawaiian pudding that happens to be parve - coconut milk pudding - and tops it with tropical fruit like mango or pineapple. My friend Linda Zimmerman, author of Puddings, Custards and Flans, makes her vanilla pudding especially flavorful by infusing a vanilla bean in the hot milk, then finishing the pudding with pure vanilla extract. For a parfait effect, she recommends swirling fresh fruit puree through the chilled pudding. Zimmerman gives chocolate pudding a triple dose of chocolate flavor by making hers with cocoa and bittersweet chocolate, then enhancing it with small chunks of white chocolate. For a more substantial polenta pudding, she uses the basic pudding technique with polenta (Italian cornmeal) instead of cornstarch and flavors it with grated orange zest. ALMOST INSTANT COFFEE PUDDING This pudding is quick and easy to make and needs no eggs. For orange or lemon variations, see the note following the recipe. Makes 4 to 6 servings 6 Tbsp. cornstarch 3 cups milk 6 Tbsp. sugar 3 Tbsp. dry instant coffee 50 gr. butter, cut in cubes Mix the cornstarch with 1⁄2 cup of the cold milk to a smooth paste. Heat the remaining milk with the sugar in a heavy saucepan, stirring, until the mixture boils. Stir the cornstarch mixture again until smooth and add it to the hot milk, stirring constantly. Return it to a boil, stirring constantly and quickly. Remove from the heat and sprinkle the pudding with instant coffee. Mix well. Taste, and add more coffee or sugar if you like. Let pudding cool for a minute or two, and add the cubes of butter. Mix well and let cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally. Spoon into dessert dishes and refrigerate. Serve cold. Note: To make orange- or lemon-flavored pudding, substitute the grated zest of 1 orange or 1 lemon for the instant coffee. TWO-IN-ONE PUDDING In this pretty chocolate and vanilla dessert, the two puddings appear side by side without blending into each other. It is made with the basic pudding formula, using flour instead of cornstarch. Serve it in a glass bowl to show the two colors. Makes 6 servings 4 cups milk 100 gr. bittersweet chocolate, cut in cubes 2 eggs 2 egg yolks 1⁄2 cup sugar 7 Tbsp. flour 30 gr. butter 2 tsp. vanilla sugar Heat milk in a heavy saucepan until it comes to a boil. Melt chocolate in a bowl set above a pan of hot water over low heat. Stir until smooth. Turn off the heat but leave the chocolate above the hot water so it remains liquid. Whisk the eggs, egg yolks and sugar in a bowl, using a whisk or hand mixer, until the mixture is smooth and its color lightens. Add the flour and mix well until smooth. Gradually whisk the hot milk into the egg mixture. Return the egg and milk mixture to the saucepan and cook over low heat, whisking constantly, until the pudding comes just to a boil. To avoid scrambling the eggs, do not use high heat. Remove from the heat, add the butter and mix well. Pour the pudding into a large, heatproof measuring cup. Slowly stir half the pudding mixture into the melted chocolate, blending well. Add the vanilla sugar to the rest of the pudding, then transfer it to another measuring cup from which it's easy to pour. In each hand, hold one container of pudding and pour them simultaneously into a serving dish, one from the left side and one from the right. The puddings will stay separate. Cover and refrigerate at least one hour before serving. Serve cold. Faye Levy is the author of Fresh from France: Dessert Creations and, in Hebrew, of Sefer Hakinuhim (the Book of Desserts), published by R. Sirkis.