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For the holiday meal, surprise & please with a sweet, edible centerpiece

IF YOU'RE a person who eats dessert first, why not cut to the chase and make that sweet finale the star of your holiday table?

IF YOU'RE a person who eats dessert first, why not cut to the chase and make that sweet finale the star of your holiday table?

The idea of an edible sweets centerpiece is nothing new. The Founding Fathers were showcasing elaborate dessert centerpieces for holiday feasting back when King George was standing in for Scrooge.

"Remember that the early Colonists brought their European traditions with them to Philadelphia," said Walter Staib, chef/proprietor of City Tavern, the time-traveling restaurant on the grounds of Independence National Historical Park. Staib, who chronicles early Colonial feasting traditions in his award-winning PBS series, "A Taste of History," explained that for the very wealthy, edible centerpieces were all the rage.

"Christmas with all its decorations was only celebrated in the home, until the Victorians made it a more public display," he said. "At their home tables, the wealthy created elaborate displays of desserts and fruits, all to impress their guests. The British had rum and plum puddings, the Germans their stollen, the Huguenots buche de noel."

Fresh fruit, for those lucky enough to be able to afford it, was piled into pyramids to add color, texture and aroma to the festivities. Philadelphia's access to ships from the West Indies brought in prized tropical fruits, coconuts and citrus, delectables so rare, they deserved a star turn on the tablescape.

"It was all about calling attention to the table, making a spectacular display in special vessels and tiered dishes," said Debbie Harper, curator of education at Winterthur and coordinator of the Delaware museum's storied Yuletide display since 1997. "When you think about it, fresh food was not readily available back then, especially in all seasons. So showcasing a generous quantity of fresh fruit was rare indeed."

While we think of flowers as being a natural table centerpiece, Harper explained that, in the 18th century, they were used primarily to garnish platters of food. It wasn't until the 1800s that floral arrangements were used singularly to add focus to a holiday table.

The best parties pulled out all the dessert stops with a sumptuous spread of sweetmeats, jellied candy, pastries and puddings - de rigueur at every high-society holiday soiree. Tabletops were transformed into fantastical mountain ranges of tiered, pyramided and pedestaled dishes, often drizzled and webbed in sugar, studded with marzipan figurines and mounded into towers of mouthwatering treats.

"It was all about first impressions," said Harper. "And most of the display was meant to be eaten, with a few exceptions."

Take the pineapple, for example. So prized and rare was this Caribbean symbol of hospitality that confectioners hired out the fruit by the day, allowing the hostess to crown her table with it but not partake of its sweet fruit.

"When you think about it, you can't get more natural than an edible dessert centerpiece," said chef Christian Gatti, who, with his wife, former Daily News food editor April Lisante, owns Avril, a French BYOB in Bala Cynwyd. Gatti, who began his food career as a pastry chef at an artisan bakery in Pittsburgh, worked in the pastry kitchen at the City Tavern for four years.

Under Staib's direction, he contributed to "The City Tavern Baking and Dessert Cookbook" (Running Press, $29.95), home to 175-plus Colonial faves like Apple-Fig Crumble, Vanilla Bean Blanc-Mange and Martha Washington's Chocolate Mousse Cake.

Gatti said that there are a few ways to create a scaled-down version of the historic dessert abbondanza on today's holiday tables. "Think about using spice cookies, fresh and candied fruits as edible ornaments on a tree," he said. "You get one of those Styrofoam cones at a craft store, and just have fun with it."

Tiered cake stands filled with cupcakes, candies and fruits are an even easier way to bring eye-popping sweet appeal to your table.

For something a little more involved, Gatti creates a Bavarian cream pudding - think heavy cream, rum, vanilla - in a Bundt-type ring. The pudding is easy enough to make and can be gussied up with marzipan fruit and figures, candied citrus and fresh greens.

Being a pastry chef, Gatti might take things a step further by adding a candied croque en bouche to the display - though this tree-shaped tower of cream puffs laced together with molten sugar is an endeavor not for the faint of heart.

"Really, just have fun with it," he said. "You can use a champagne bottle as part of the centerpiece for a New Year's dessert buffet, add in fresh and marzipan grapes - just use your imagination."

Best of all, your centerpiece is so eco-friendly, you don't even have to recycle. Just put it out on the table, and watch it disappear.