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One of my earliest childhood memories is of being in the kitchen with my mother in Akron, Ohio and watching her make Christmas cookies.  I would push my nose up to the edge of the counter, or stand at the kitchen table, and watcher her roll out dough, pressing cookie cutters into the lightly anise-scented mixture.  She’d make little bon bons with all kinds of treasures inside.  Her favorites were maraschino cherries, baked and then dipped in cherry-flavored pink icing with sprinkles.  But there were also butterscotch-walnuts, raisin-chocolates, coconut-white chocolate, and other treats buried in the cookies.  She made nut puffs, thumbprints with jam or almond-accented frosting in the center, a cinnamon-walnut twist called a Sweet Marie, a little mini-fruitcake called Lizzies, several types of bar cookies – some with icing and some just baked with all kinds of delicious things in the middle.

Frequently there would be ten or twelve kinds of cookies.  In later years Mom made Heavenly Hash, fudge, or other chocolate delicacies to add to the cookies.  Many of them would appear at her holiday parties, and people went crazy over the cookie displays.  It was the hit of every event, and I wanted to get involved. As I got older, I was finally allowed to participate,  so I learned how to craft the cookies, and then, I started looking for others to add to the collection.  As a teen I found a meringe/mini-chocolate chip puff, a mini-tart filled with frangipane and fruit, and a chocolate-marzipan pretzel.  I disliked fruitcake, but my friend Margy had a fabulous Christmas Cake recipe that translated well into mini-cakes, baked in colorful Christmas papers, so they joined the cookie party, too.

As an adult I acquired a delectable pecan tartlet recipe, learned how to make truffles and French-style chocolate bark (thank you, Ina), and a white chocolate-peppermint bark.  I dipped dried mango, apricots, and ginger in dark chocolate.  I made little chocolate-cranberry wreaths and holly leaves.  I froze the cookies, in covered, air-tight packages, and they kept for a year, so that I could stockpile one type for a second year, and each year have to make only half the number of cookies.

And so it has gone, through the years.  I’ve tried to involve my daughters in the tradition as well, and have acquired enough of a reputation that my best friend from college, Connie, who lives in Montana, waits for my large Christmas box to arrive.  There will be other gifts in it, but Connie and John – for decades – have waited for the cookies.  They tell me that when the box arrives, it is opened and immediately devoured, down to the crumbs – mostly in one fell swoop.  It’s a lot to live up to — but I’m delighted that they enjoy my homemade gift so much.

This year, not only because money’s tight but also because I love to make homemade gifts, many of my friends and family members will be getting the fruits of my labor, made with my hands and my heart.  The cookies, the blackberry-rosemary vinegar I put up as the summer ended, the pickles and cranberry conserve, along with the wooden crafted items Ben makes during the holiday season — these are the gifts we love to give.

I hope that you’re taking some time to let your hands and your spirit bring hand-crafted items to life in this holiday season.  And in case you are looking for a new cookie recipe, here’s one of my favorites, given to me when I was working in Connecticut in professional theatre, by our production manager and his wife.  Enjoy!

Pecan Tartlets with Cream Cheese Crust
Makes 4 dozen
350 F oven
Note:  you will need mini-cupcake/muffin tins.

For the Dough:
2-3 oz. pkgs. cream cheese
2 sticks butter
2 c. flour
Mix with pastry blender or electric mixer.  Chill for 1 hour.

For the Filling:
3 eggs, beaten
2 C. brown sugar
3 T. melted butter
2 T. vanilla extract
pinch of salt

1/2 c. raisins
1/2 c. roughly-chopped pecans
Mix the eggs, butter, brown sugar, salt, and vanilla together.

To make tartlets:
Spray mini-muffin tins with non-stick cooking spray.  Roll a small ball of dough and place in tin.  Fill each tin similarly (you should get about 4 dozen).  Lightly push dough into the tin, including sides of each tin.  Drop a few raisins and a few pieces of nut in each tin.  Scoop the wet filling in (I use a Tablespoon measure to do this).  Finish with another nut piece on top.  Bake at 350 for about 25 minutes.  Let the tartlets set for at least ten minutes before gently loosening the edges.  Lift out and finish cooling on a rack before you pack them or serve them.

Enjoy!

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