Cheers to creative pastry chefs, especially those who elevate ordinary desserts to the realm of the ethereal.

When it comes to a dream dessert, do you crave something lighter than air or creamy and rich, perhaps lavished with chocolate? Do you like a crunchy sweetness, a little zest and a lot of bliss? Certainly you want intense flavor and the finest, freshest ingredients.  Perhaps you’d prefer a touch of the exotic with some decadence thrown in for good measure.

Arnaud’s, one of New Orleans’s legendary restaurants, serves a sweet ending that sparkles.  No!  Make that dazzles. Order the special version of the establishment’s signature dessert, Strawberries Arnaud.  Watch white-gloved waiters pour rare port from a $24,850 Charles X crystal cave liqueur set while a jazz ensemble sets the mood. Then savor succulent Louisiana strawberries, marinated in fine port, and served with fresh mint and cream. Oh, and did we mention the crowning touch: a 4.7carat lavender-pink diamond ring? Once the property of Sir Ernest Cassel, a British merchant banker, this stunning piece brings the cost to a cool $1.4 million – the world’s most expensive dessert.

Arnaud’s dates back to 1918 and serves up a sampler of history along with superb Creole cuisine. Either before or after your jazz-enhanced dining experience, take a spin around the premises.  Go see Germaine’s gorgeous French-made Carnival court gowns plus other Mardi Gras memorabilia. Visit www.arnaud’s.com for more background.

By the way, if you’re contemplating diamond-enriched Strawberries Arnaud, call ahead. And what if some other dessert aficionado beats you to the prize? “It will be replaced with another spectacular one-of-a-kind item,” said a restaurant spokesperson.

Prefer your desserts without jewels? Then consider a perennial French favorite, the macaroon, a layer of butter cream between two meringue puffs. Pierre Hermé, one of the world’s finest pastry chefs, puts passion into each delectable masterpiece at his French and Japanese boutiques.  He will customize your macaroon with a monogram or family coat of arms. Also, you can select special fillings from his Parisian palette of preferred ingredients like chocolate with red wine, white truffles, raspberries, red peppers, and more. An individualized confection can run $7,414 and up.

Here’s another idea if you don’t want to wait in line at a patisserie. Maximize your dollar du jour with an overall luxury-filled experience in Paris at Hotel Fouquet’s Barriere (www.fouquets-barriere.com), a new five-star-plus property on the Champs Elysees. Here, pastry chef Jean-Luc Labat interprets the Macaron millefeuille tradition with a seductive combination of crunchy macaroons.  They are sprinkled with nougat praline and filled with a delicate bourbon vanilla cream and butter caramel center. The tasty treats (about $5.00 each) have proven so popular with guests that Labat promises to keep them on the menu through 2008.

If you have a special occasion coming up and are in the mood for something exotic, consider the Sultan’s Golden Cake.  Its just the sort of dessert you’d expect to be served in the breathtaking luxury of an Ottoman palace. This regal culinary creation requires 72 hours to prepare (if you don’t count the two-year marination period for the fruit). Laced with apricots, pears, quince and figs saturated in Jamaican rum, this exquisite cake features a topping of 24-carat gold leaf and shaved, caramelized, black truffles. This shimmering gilded dessert, available by special request, comes with a $1,000 price tag. The culinary staff at Ciragon Palace Kempinski, a five-star hotel in Istanbul, presents this delicacy in a sterling silver handcrafted cake box with a golden seal. Visit www.kempinski-istanbul.com for more information.

But what about chocolate lovers you ask? Brulée: The Dessert Experience in Atlantic City has the answer: Brownie Extraordinaire. Not your average version, this brownie contains hazelnuts imported from Italy and comes dusted with gold instead of powdered sugar. The dessert presentation showcases an exquisite St. Louis crystal atomizer loaded with a shot of 1996 Quinta do Noval Nacional port. A mist of the vintage port, sprayed in the mouth after each luscious chocolate bite, produces a magical combination of flavors with lingering aftertaste. The Brownie Extraordinaire costs $1000 and includes the $750 keepsake crystal atomizer.

Another chocolate fantasy, the celebrated Madeleine Truffle, awaits at Knipschildt Chocolatier in Norwalk, Connecticut. According to Forbes Magazine, this celestial sweet is made with the world’s most expensive chocolate. The staff starts with a 70% Valrhona dark chocolate and combines it with heavy cream, sugar, pure truffle oil and vanilla to make a base for the rich ganache. A French Perigord truffle (a rare mushroom) is then coated by the creamy ganache, dipped in Valrhona dark chocolate and rolled in fine cocoa powder.

How much does this indulgence cost? That depends on how big your chocolate craving is.  Prices range from $250 per truffle to $6,000 for a pound. Check out www.knipschildt.net and anticipate the arrival of your truffle resting on a bed of sugar pearls in a silver box tied with a satin ribbon.

Remember, save room for dessert — and make it sumptuous.

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