Novice cooks for years have been able to make a cake and eat it too. Now, they can do the same thing with polenta, beef bourguignon -- even sourdough bread. Prefab, do-it-yourself food has come a long way from Betty Crocker, Hamburger Helper and Chun King chow mein entrees. Today, cooks can whip up gourmet dishes -- from risotto and Tuscan herb fish to chicken provenc al and cre`me caramel -- with only modest effort and time.

These ready-to-mix meals are epitomized in the cooking-by-the-numbers kit found in specialty stores around the country. Called Vivian's Home Gourmet, these "easy as 1,2,3" kits contain separately wrapped and premeasured flour, cornstarch, spices, etc. -- all the basic dry ingredients for such dishes as Sichuan shrimp, mesquite grilled fish with gingered salsa, walnut chicken, marinated stir-fry lamb and beef bourguignon.

Also included are plastic bottles of sherry, seasoned brandy, soy sauce or whatever liquid needed to complete the detailed step-by-step recipe that also is enclosed in the nattily designed box. And for those easily intimidated cooks who may find the ingredients and/or the recipe too confusing, each ingredient has been numbered both on the package and on the recipe to make, as the package says, "a gourmet chef out of anyone."

Of course this cooking-by-the-numbers scheme comes with a price -- and a hefty one at that. The kit, designed to serve four to six people, sells for about $18; about $10 more is required for the poultry, meat or fish and a handful of fresh vegetables.

Home Gourmet is not alone in trying to make simple those dishes that have long been perceived as difficult and time consuming. Although not as creatively packaged, there are scores of other quick-fix mixes available that enable the greenest of chefs to make gourmet goodies -- and in the process make them feel like they are doing some downright, down-home cooking.

Add a can of beer to a smartly packaged mix of flour, leavenings and spices, stir, bake and flash! Sourdough rye bread is created.

Stir boiling water into precooked cornmeal and abracadabra! Polenta is ready to eat. No more hovering over a pot, stirring and stirring to prepare this Italian delight, all the while worrying that it will result in a lumpy mess.

Just add some milk, turn on the electric mixer and presto! Chocolate mousse appears.

These packaged products are the ultimate "mother's helpers," says Ted Koryn, a consultant to the specialty-food industry. "Mother will be thought of as an extraordinary cook whereas all she did was just add water... . More products are coming on all the time; people want to be outstanding cooks but they want all the work cut out."

For the most part, these products are a logical extension of the cake and pudding mixes, prerolled pie dough and increasingly upscale spaghetti and barbecue sauces now in the market. In many cases, products such as Asian noodle sauce and herbed peppercorn sauce are merely new flavors, designed to satisfy Americans' increasing demand for exotic food. After all, what is instant risotto if not upscale Rice-A-Roni?. But these new mixes are considered gourmet because of their ethnic origins, packaging and price.

Gourmet or not, these mixes and sauces are filling an increasing need for the time-pressed food preparers who want good food for their families but don't have the time to make it.

"American consumers have become very sophisticated about food," says Nina Henderson, president of Knorr Special Products. "Regardless of where they are on the economic grid -- whether they are factory workers, school teachers or fashion designers -- Americans are more interested in what they eat. They are very selective and they want good taste." However, she adds, their "lives are so full that they don't have the time. Still, they are not willing to sacrifice what they put on the table."

So instead, they turn to the quick fixes. In many cases that means carry-out or frozen foods. But for cooks who want to have the smell and feel of home-cooked food without the effort, the mixes and jars have the greatest appeal. That is readily apparent to Henderson, who notes that Knorr's business has grown by more than 10 percent a year for the past four years -- thanks in large part to the vast number of new short-order products the company has introduced in the past two years. First it was instant chocolate mousse and cre`me caramel mixes (just add milk and cook for a minute -- the custard is made; the caramel, in a separate bag, needs only to be poured on top of the set custard; no more burned fingers).

Then there is the year-old line of powdered pasta sauces, including Alfredo (just add milk) and pesto (just add water). Now, Knorr is about to launch three more styles of quick-cooking sauces that don't even require the cook to add milk or water. Just open the bottle and pour herbed peppercorn sauce on saute'ed chicken and simmer or brush tequila lime sauce on fish and grill. Voila`, dinner is ready. In the works is a line of instant souffle's -- just add water, whip and bake.

It's not just the novices using the mixes, notes Rick Raunswinder, store manager of Alexandria's Fern Street Gourmet -- a shop that sells so many convenience gourmet mixes that Raunswinder calls the store a "yuppie 7-Eleven."

"Even good cooks use them," he notes. "If they are making an elaborate dinner, they don't want to spend another hour making a fancy sauce." He says he has seen many good cooks buy powdered sauce mixes for $1.50, add water, milk or whatever is called for and have a sauce in minutes.

Raunswider's findings illustrate how people cook today, says Ann Brody, senior vice president of Sutton Place Gourmet. "They work on one course, put all their energy into it, and everything else has to be quick. There's no thrill, after all, in chopping their own celery and green onions. Still, they want the finished product to come from their own hands." So they turn to mixes -- instant bread mix, for example, that will yield Italian yeast bread in a little more than an hour.

These mixes can be even more enticing to the novice, says Mark Bonebrake, one of the owners of Northwest Specialty Bakers, which makes Dassa nt beer breads. Bonebrake admits that it doesn't take much more time or effort to make beer bread from scratch. "It's only a matter of a few minutes more," he acknowledges. But even that simple process could be intimidating to some cooks. "They have to get out a bowl, measuring spoons, measuring cups, and make sure they have enough of each different ingredient. With our mix, you just add a can of beer; you don't even need to measure."

Just how much work is required to turn the mixes and sauces into gourmet delicacies varies greatly. In some, it's simply a matter of opening the bottle. Maggie Gin's just-released line of noodle sauces merely needs to be opened and poured on pasta to create sharp tasting oriental noodles. Vegetables and nuts can be added to enhance the dish, but they are not a prerequisite.

Similarly, there is little involved in making curry with Geetha's Gourmet Madras Herb sauce. Just saute' the meat, add the jar of sauce, some water and simmer until the meat is done. Even simpler are the new "Gourmet-on-the Gallop" sauces created by the Baltimore-based Hunt Cup Ltd. Just open and use as a glaze or serve as a sauce on the side.

But other mixes require far more effort and ingredients. The Brass Ladle Carrot Cake mix, for example, sell for $4.95. At that price, cooks may have thought the hard work -- grating the carrots -- already would have been done for them. But, alas, cooks must grate the carrots and add the eggs, oil and raisins as well.

Similarly the ever popular prepackaged bean mixes -- that include varieties of beans and flavorings -- require the same amount of cooking time and effort as traditional bean soups.

Home Gourmet also requires just as much effort as making a dish from scratch. The only advantage of the kits is that they contain the recipe and most of the ingredients that are required, says Home Gourmet's creator, Vivian Hobbs.

Hobbs designed the product after spending three days of shopping and $70 buying all the necessary ingredients for beef bourguignon. "The result was fabulous but I felt there had to be an easier way ... The idea behind the kit was that it saves you time and money, a good $15 to $20, if you had to buy the ingredients individually."

Hobbs acknowledges that experienced and even average cooks may well have many of the ingredients in their kitchen, making the kit unnecessary. But, she says, the kit was designed for people who don't cook all the time -- "the people who want to cook and entertain occasionally without taking everyone out to dinner. They don't have everything they need in the kitchen."

Although the cooking time has not been cut down in the Home Gourmet kits, "there is something to be said for the convenience of not having to shop," says Emily Crumpacker, food buyer for the Norm Thompson catalogue, which is selling the kits this year for $19.95. "It's pricey, but I think it is going to sell," she says.

Still, the high price of some of these convenient combos and speedy sauces may deter many shoppers.

Beer bread mixes for instance cost about $5; the box of instant polenta sells for $2.29 for 13 ounces. Making a beer bread from scratch would cost far less (about $1.50 for the dry ingredients) and would not take much longer either; it is among the simplest of bread recipes. Considerably more effort would have to be spent to make polenta from regular cornmeal, but the cost would be less than half of the instant mix.

As a result, says Kent Kurtz, gourmet buyer for Giant Food Inc., "we will have to educate the consumer. When shoppers pay $3 to $4 for a sauce, you have to show them what to use it for or creative ways to use it." Otherwise, the on-the-run products will not even walk off the shelves, he says.

Even so, food industry officials are confident that these presto products will find increasing acceptance, particularly as more Americans entertain at home.

"For those who like home and hearth with little effort, these items are appealing," says Brody of Sutton Place Gourmet. "They certainly aremore romantic than pizza.