Overwhelm loved ones with gifts from your oven

Despite the best efforts of the Calorie and Cholesterol Cops (CCC) to shame us, there are still those of us who really love to give gifts of goodies made by our own hands in our own kitchens. In order to be dietarily correct, however, I suppose we now have to carry on this annual culinary tradition (well, semi-annual, if you count our summertime zucchini bread orgy) with an eye to those on our gift list.

Over-indulgers are definitely out. We probably should only give our homemade love to those who have managed to retain a grip on the old saw, "Moderation in all things." And, of course, give goodies to those who can tell the difference between "from scratch," and "from a mix." Naturally, we'll eschew those who tend to get all gushy over store-bought stuff.

Whatever. There are still plenty of discerning loved ones who'll appreciate our efforts. And they're the ones who'll be the focus of our fun.

You undoubtedly have a plethora of "traditional" recipes you use for your holiday cooking stints.

Here we suggest some others — all containing chocolate — to add to your usual repertoire. You'll probably enjoy making them as much as your givees will enjoy scarfing them down (in moderate portions, naturally).

By the way, as you consider which goodies you're going to make, also keep in mind that packaging is very important. A proper presentation can make your edibles even more incredible.

Saltine toffee

We actually buy the crackers that serve as a "magical" base for this chocolate-y, nutty treat, which you can make a couple of weeks ahead, as long as you keep it in airtight containers.

You'll need some parchment paper to line the baking sheets, a pastry brush and a candy thermometer. Be sure to make a space in your freezer large enough for a baking sheet (but only for about 15 minutes).

2 cups walnut halves (about 6 ounces), sliced thin lengthwise, toasted for 6 minutes in a 350-degree oven

About 60 saltine crackers, with salt

1 1/2 cups sugar

3 sticks unsalted butter, plus more to butter the parchment paper

2 tablespoons light corn syrup

1/2 pound best quality bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened), in half-inch pieces

Line a 12-by-17-inch baking sheet (with rim) with parchment paper. Lightly butter paper.

Arrange crackers on baking sheet in a single layer and snugged up against each other so that there are no gaps.

In a medium saucepan, over low heat, cook sugar, butter and corn syrup until sugar is dissolved. Brush sides of pan with a moistened pastry brush to incorporate any undissolved sugar crystals into the butter mixture. Raise heat to medium and cook syrup, without stirring, until it begins to brown around the edges, about 5 minutes. Insert a candy thermometer into syrup and cook, stirring (use a wooden spoon), until a honey-colored caramel forms and temperature reaches 300 degrees. This stir-cooking takes about 6 minutes.

Slowly and carefully pour the caramel over crackers, covering most of them as evenly as possible. Let cool 3 minutes. Sprinkle chopped chocolate evenly on top. Let stand until chocolate is melted, about 3 minutes, then spread the chocolate evenly over the toffee. Spread walnuts evenly over chocolate. Place in freezer until toffee is set, about 15 minutes.

Remove from freezer and invert toffee on a work surface covered with wax paper. Peel the parchment paper from the toffee. Invert toffee again, then break into large pieces. Package for gifting, or place in airtight containers and refrigerate until ready to package. Makes about 2 1/2 pounds.

Mocha biscotti

A gift from the kitchen says "I love you." A gift from the kitchen with chocolate in it says "I love you lots and lots."

These tender (not dry) "biscuits" use two kinds of chocolate, plus chocolate-covered coffee beans, so you triple the yum factor. Check out a gourmet food market for the chocolate-y beans.

You can double this recipe; simply make it twice. It doesn't take that long.

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (preferably Dutch-process)

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup sugar

2 large eggs

1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

1/2 cup chocolate-covered espresso beans

1/2 cup chopped hazelnuts (or use pecans)

1 large egg white, beaten until just frothy

Heat oven to 325 degrees.

In a bowl, sift together flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a large bowl, with an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar well. Beat in eggs, 1 at a time. With mixer on low speed, gradually beat in flour mixture. Fold in chocolate chips, chocolate-covered espresso beans and hazelnuts.

Divide dough in half and form each into a 2-inch wide log. Transfer logs to a large baking sheet and brush with egg white. Bake in center of oven (at 325 degrees) for 30 minutes. Transfer baking sheet to a cooling rack and let cool (in pan) for 10 minutes.

Increase oven temperature to 350 degrees. Spread some wax paper on a work surface. Use 2 large spatulas to transfer logs to work surface. Cut each log crosswise into half-inch slices and arrange slices, cut side down, on 2 large baking sheets. Place in oven and bake for 15 minutes, until slightly dry. Cool in baking sheets before serving or packaging (in airtight containers; heavy-duty zip-top bags will do the trick) for gifting. Makes about 36 biscotti.

Rum-raisin chocolate cookies

We soak golden raisins in rum to add a boozy (don't worry, it bakes out) background for our chocolate. The espresso flavor and toothsome toasted pecans don't hurt, either.

You'll have to soak the raisins for at least 4 hours. So think ahead.

This recipe makes 2 dozen large cookies, baked in two batches of 12 each. If you want to make them smaller, try it with the second batch.

1 cup golden raisins

2/3 cup dark rum

6 cups confectioners sugar, sifted before measuring

1 1/3 cups unsweetened cocoa powder (preferably Dutch-process)

2 teaspoons instant espresso powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

6 large egg whites, at room temperature, lightly beaten

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

5 cups pecan halves, toasted, cooled, coarsely chopped

In a small bowl, combine raisins and rum. Let stand at room temperature at least 4 hours or overnight.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour 2 large baking sheets, shaking off excess flour.

In a large bowl, with electric mixer on low speed, mix confectioners sugar, cocoa and espresso powder. Add egg whites and vanilla, and continue beating until smooth.

Drain raisins in a sieve, but don't press down on them (you want to save some of that rummy flavor). Add raisins and pecans to dough. Stir until thoroughly mixed. Dough will be thick and sticky.

Working quickly, drop 1/4 cup dough for each cookie onto a prepared baking sheet, spacing about 3 inches apart. Gently pat down each mound to about 1/2 inch thick. Allow 6 cookies per sheet. Fill 2 sheets. Cover remaining dough and refrigerate until ready to bake the second dozen cookies.

Bake cookies for 16 minutes, switching sheets on racks and rotating sheets when you switch racks halfway through. Cookies are done when they appear cracked and centers are just set. Cool cookies in sheets for 1 minute. Carefully transfer to racks to cool completely.

When baking sheets are cool enough, butter and flour them again. Bake another dozen cookies as suggested above. Makes 2 dozen large cookies.

Happy baking! And "sampling."

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