Baker's Choice Cookies: Holiday exchange brings out the best of festive recipes from area amateur kitchens.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Holidays are coming, heralded by carols, candles -- and, of course, cookies.

Perhaps no other season is more associated with festive platters of sweet baked goods, and most families have their traditional favorites.

When we asked home bakers to send us recipes for their favorite holiday treats for our second annual "Holiday Cookie Exchange," we got dozens, from pumpkin chocolate chip cookies to chocolate "devil dogs." Volunteer testers baked the most unusual ones, and in informal tastings, we selected a wide range of favorites.

We didn't spot any emerging cookie trends (remember a few years ago when every cookie recipe included macadamia nuts?), but we did find a few popular flavors: Pumpkin, cranberries, both fresh and dried, and nutmeg were prominent, and the usually popular chocolate mostly appeared just in the form of chips.

Cy and Shaaron Plate, a husband-and-wife cooking team from Phoenix, submitted a recipe each, and both were chosen by testers as among the best. His was rum-raisin cranberry bars, and hers was holiday surprise pumpkin cookies.

"My husband, Cy, who is retired and a great cook, and I enjoy baking," Shaaron Plate wrote.

Another husband and wife team, Nancy Assero and Douglas Murphy of Baltimore, submitted their "signature" recipe for nutmeg flats. "When we were first married," they wrote, "money was very tight and at Christmas we were looking for alternatives for gift-giving. My husband and I decided to bake cookies for family and friends. We tried all sorts of new recipes and found this great shortbread-type cookie. Over the years we became partial to this recipe perhaps because our daughter Meghan was called "Nutmeg" when she was a baby. Now, at 17, she is baking these for her friends each year."

Bars resembling KitKat candy bars from Elaine Hoffman of Baltimore were a big hit with tasters, as were oatmeal fancies from Rosanna Kazmierski, also of Baltimore.

Michael Kraft, of St. Leonard, sent a recipe for cookies made with dates and toasted Rice Krispies and shaped into "strawberries" with red sugar and green frosting leaves. "I put them in mini paper cups, because they are so special," Kraft wrote.

Magdalena Reissig of Baltimore sent in several recipes, and the testers liked her brutti ma buoni ("ugly but good") cookies from Florence. "Please note," she wrote, "that the Italian cookies are .. ideal for low-cholesterol diets: no egg yolk or butter. The almonds provide the fat and, of course, calories, but their oils are much healthier. And if I may say so, they are very good."

Here are some of the recipes submitted by readers. Some people remembered where the recipes came from and some just knew they had been in the family long enough to become their own. There should be something to please every palate -- and, if we may say so, all are very good.

The first recipe is from Cy Plate.

Rum-raisin cranberry bars

Makes about 2 dozen

1 cup fresh cranberries

2 tablespoons brown sugar and 1 3/4 cups brown sugar

1/3 cup raisins

1/4 cup rum (see note)

1/2 cup butter

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 3/4 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)

2/3 cup walnuts, chopped

2 eggs, lightly beaten

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 13-by-9-inch baking pan.

In a small bowl, mix cranberries with 2 tablespoons brown sugar and let stand for 15 minutes. In a small saucepan, combine rum and raisins, bring to a boil over medium heat, cover and reduce heat to simmer for 5 minutes. Let cool.

In medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter, add remaining 1 3/4 cup brown sugar, cook, stirring, until just bubbly. Pour into heat-proof bowl, cool 15 minutes.

Beat eggs and vanilla into cooled butter and sugar mixture, then gradually add flour, baking powder and salt, and stir well. Fold in the cranberry mixture, walnuts and raisins. Spread in pan and bake 35-45 minutes. Cool and cut into bars. May be frosted if desired.

Note: Dark rum is best. Rum flavoring may be substituted. The tester recommended using icing, which makes the cookies prettier.

The next recipe is from Shaaron Plate.

Holiday surprise pumpkin cookies

Makes about 2 dozen

1/2 cup butter

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 egg

1 cup canned pumpkin (unspiced)

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 1/2 cups flour

1 teaspoon soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 cup nuts, chopped (walnuts or pecans)

1 cup chocolate chips

1 cup raisins

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Cream butter and sugar in a large bowl until fluffy. Beat in egg, pumpkin and vanilla.

In separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and spices. Add the flour mixture gradually to the butter and sugar mixture, beating well after each addition. Fold in the nuts, chocolate chips and raisins. Drop dough from teaspoon onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake about 15 minutes.

The next recipe is from Nancy Assero and Douglas Murphy.

Nutmeg flats

Makes about 2 dozen

1 cup unsalted butter

1 cup sugar

2 cups unbleached flour

1 egg yolk

1 1/2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg (see note)

1 egg white

Heat the oven to 275 degrees. Grease a 10-by-15-inch baking pan. Cream butter and sugar in a large bowl until fluffy. Add egg yolk and beat well. Stir in flour and nutmeg, blending thoroughly. Turn into the pan and spread evenly with fingers.

Beat egg white and brush top of dough with it. Bake until lightly brown, about 50 minutes. Cut into bars while still warm.

Note: If you use ground nutmeg, rather than fresh, increase nutmeg to 3 teaspoons, or to taste. The tester recommended using fresh nutmeg, grated on a nutmeg grater.

The next recipe is from Rosanna Kazmierski.

Oatmeal fancies

Makes 5 dozen

1 cup butter-flavored vegetable shortening

1 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

2 tablespoons milk

2 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 10-ounce bag of chocolate-covered raisins

1/2 cup dried cranberries (see note)

3 cups quick oatmeal

1 cup chocolate chips

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Beat together shortening and sugars. Add eggs, vanilla and milk. Beat until creamy and well blended. Combine flour, salt, baking soda and cinnamon and mix well. Add to creamy mixture, blend well. Stir in oatmeal, cranberries and raisins. Mix well. Drop by rounded tablespoons onto ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake 8 to 10 minutes for chewy cookies. Cool 1 minute and remove to wire rack.

Put chocolate chips into heavy plastic bag and place bag in hot water to melt chocolate. Snip a tiny corner off bag and drizzle chocolate over cooled cookies.

Note: Dried cranberries are usually found in the produce sections of grocery stores.

The next recipe is from Elaine Hoffman.

Homemade candy bars

Makes 3 to 4 dozen

8 ounces Waverly crackers (divided use)

1 cup butter or margarine

1/2 cup milk

2 cups graham cracker crumbs

1 cup packed brown sugar

1/3 cup sugar

2/3 cup creamy peanut butter

1/2 cup milk chocolate chips

1/2 cup butterscotch chips

Place a third of the crackers (about 25) in the bottom of an ungreased 9-by-13-inch baking pan. In a saucepan over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Add milk, graham cracker crumbs and both sugars and bring to a boil. Boil, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes. Pour half the mixture over crackers, spreading carefully to cover. Place half of the remaining crackers on top. Spread with remaining sugar mixture. Top with remaining crackers.

In a saucepan over low heat, stir the peanut butter and chocolate and butterscotch chips until melted and smooth. Spread over the crackers. Chill until firm, about 1 hour. Cut into small squares.

Note: The tester found it was easy to overcook the chips and peanut butter topping; it might work better if those ingredients -- were melted in the top of a double boiler.

The next recipe is from Magdalena Reissig.

Brutti ma buoni

Makes about 3 dozen

1 1/2 cups (8 ounces) blanched almonds

1 1/4 cups powdered sugar

1/4 teaspoon almond extract (see note)

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 egg white

pinch of salt

1/3 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

3 tablespoons chopped dried apricots

Heat oven to 350 degrees and set rack in lower third of oven. Butter cookie sheets.

Grind almonds and sugar in food processor until fine but not a paste. (You will get more uniform pieces if you first process them with the shredder disk, then add the sugar and grind them with the regular blade; the sugar absorbs the almond oil and prevents the making of almond butter.) Add salt and vanilla and almond extracts and mix well. With motor running, add egg white through feed tube and process until the mixture forms a ball. Transfer to a mixing bowl and knead in walnuts and apricots.

Form dough into 1-inch balls with the help of a teaspoon or melon baller. Place on cookie sheets and pinch into irregular cones. Bake until they just begin to turn golden, about 15 minutes. Do not overbake if you want them soft.

Remove immediately from baking sheets and cool on wire racks. Store in airtight container.

Note: The tester liked the cookies better with the almond extract increased to 1/2 teaspoon.

The next recipe is from Karen Chaconas of Baltimore.

Devil doggies

Makes about 5 dozen

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons butter or margarine

1 cup sugar

1 egg

1 cup milk

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons cocoa

1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

cream filling (recipe follows)

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Cream butter and gradually add sugar, beating well. Add egg and milk; beat well. Combine flour, cocoa, soda and salt; gradually add to creamed mixture, mixing well. Stir in vanilla.

Drop dough by 1/2 teaspoonfuls, 2 inches apart, onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake for 8 minutes, or until done. (Dough %J bounces back when pressed lightly with a finger.) Cool on wire racks.

Spread bottom side of half the cookies with cream filling; top with remaining cookies.

Cream filling

Makes about 3 cups

1 1/4 cups butter or margarine, softened

1 1/4 cups sifted powdered sugar

1 cup marshmallow cream

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Cream butter and powdered sugar in a small mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Add marshmallow cream and vanilla; mix well.

Note: The tester thought dropping the dough by 1/2 teaspoonfuls was tedious and would prefer fewer, but larger cookies, perhaps using a teaspoonful of dough.

For spicier cookies, add 1 teaspoon cinnamon to the cocoa cookies, and use orange or almond extract instead of vanilla in the filling.

The next recipe is from Michael Kraft of St. Leonard.

Strawberry cookies

Makes about 2 dozen

1/4 cup butter

1 1/3 cups (8 ounces) snipped dates

1/2 cup coconut

1/2 cup sugar

1 egg, slightly beaten

dash of salt

1 1/2 cup oven-toasted Rice Krispies

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 jars (2 1/4 ounces) red sugar crystals

1 tube green icing with leaf tip

In a skillet, melt butter, add dates, coconut, sugar, egg and salt. Heat until it thickens and bubbles, 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in cereal, walnuts and vanilla. Cool 10 minutes. Shape 1 tablespoon of the mixture into a strawberry, keeping fingers moistened with water. Roll in red sugar. Trim with green frosting leaves. Set on rack for sugar and icing to harden. Place in paper candy cups.

The next recipe is from Kathryn Lowe of Lutherville.

Frosty fruit bars

Makes about 2 dozen

1/2 cup soft shortening

1 cup sugar

1 egg

1 tablespoon grated orange rind (optional)

1/4 cup pineapple or orange juice

2 1/2 cups sifted flour

1 teaspoon soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1 cup raisins

1 cup mixed candied fruit

1 cup chopped nuts (optional)

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease cookie sheets.

In a large mixing bowl, combine shortening, sugar, egg and orange rind (if using); mix thoroughly. Stir in juice. In separate bowl, sift flour, soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg together. Stir into shortening mixture. With hands, mix in raisins, candied fruit and chopped nuts (if using).

Divide dough in half. Roll out each half on lightly floured cloth-covered board into a rectangle 7 by 12 inches. Cut into 6 2-by-7-inch strips. Bake 10 to 12 minutes. While still warm, frost with confectioners' sugar icing or prepared frosting. Decorate with bits of candied fruit if desired. Cut baked strips into bars of desired size.

Note: The tester chopped the candied fruit pieces before adding them. She also found the dough a little sticky to roll out, and added about 1/2 cup of flour.

The next recipe is from Carolyn Gyr of Finksburg.

Peach cookies

Makes about 4 dozen

1 cup sugar

4 eggs

1 cup oil

4 cups flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

apricot preserves

apricot brandy

red food coloring

granulated sugar

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease cookie sheets. Mix sugar, eggs, oil. Combine flour and baking powder and add to sugar mixture. From the dough, make 96 balls about an inch in diameter. Make all the balls at once, so you can make sure they're all a uniform size.

Bake 6 to 8 minutes, or until very lightly browned on the bottom. Immediately, while still warm, use a small, pointed knife or small spoon to scoop out a pocket in the center of the flat side of each cookie.

Fill the pockets with apricot preserves and spread a small amount of preserves on the flat sides of two cookies and press them together to form "peaches."

Color peach brandy with a little red food coloring and dip each side of peach in the brandy for a "blush" on the peach. Then dip "peach" in granulated sugar.

If desired, buy small plastic stems with leaves at a cake-decorating supply store and press a stem into each "peach" at the seam.

The next recipe is from Mary Somers of Towson.

Vienna chocolate bars

Makes about 30 bars

1 cup butter

2 egg yolks

1/2 cup sugar

2 1/2 cups flour

1 10-ounce jar seedless raspberry or apricot preserves

1 cup mini semisweet chocolate chips

4 egg whites

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup sugar

2 cups walnuts, finely chopped

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Cream butter, egg yolks and 1/2 cup sugar. Add flour, kneading with fingers to form a dough. Pat the dough into the greased baking pan and bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from oven. Spread with jam and top with chocolate chips. Beat egg whites with salt until stiff. Fold in 1 cup sugar and 2 cups finely chopped walnuts.

Gently spread on top of jam and chocolate chips, sealing edges.

Bake for about 25 minutes. Cut into 1-by-3-inch bars.

The next recipe is from Sue McLaughlin of Preston.

Maids of honor

Makes about 30 tarts

2 1/2 cups almonds (see note)

3 eggs

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) butter, melted

3 tablespoons almond extract

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

14 tablespoons (1 cup less 2 tablespoons) solid shortening

6 tablespoons cold water

raspberry preserves

powdered sugar

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease muffin tins.

Grind almonds to a fine paste in bowl of a food processor (see note). Cream butter and sugar, add eggs and almond extract. Add almond paste and mix thoroughly.

In separate bowl, mix flour and salt and cut in shortening until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add enough cold water, up to 6 tablespoons, to form a ball. Roll out dough to about 1/8 inch thick and cut with large, fluted cookie cutter. Reserve scraps. Put the cutout cookies in the bottoms of lightly greased muffin tins.

Spread 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of preserves in bottom of the pastry shell, just enough to cover the bottom. (Too much will cause the preserves to run out of the shell.) Top preserves with 1 teaspoon of the almond mixture.

Use pastry scraps to make narrow strips and cross each tart with the strips.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden brown.

Cool in tins, then when cool, sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Note: To use whole almonds, put them in a bowl and cover with lTC boiling water, let stand a few minutes to remove the skins. Spread on a plate to dry. Can be done a day ahead. Or use slivered almonds.

If you don't have a food processor, put the almonds in a heavy plastic bag and crush them until fine with a rolling pin.

The last recipe is from Judith Wilhide of Towson.

Hoenschoen cookies

Makes about 5 dozen

3/4 pound almonds, crushed

3/4 cup sugar

2 cups butter, softened (see note)

4 1/4 cups sifted flour

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Cream butter, add sugar and cream well. Stir in flour and almonds.

Roll out dough and cut cookies in desired shape, such as trees or snowmen.

Bake for 10 minutes or until just colored around the edges. Do not overbake.

After cookies have cooled a little, remove gently from pan and cover with powdered sugar. Store in a covered container.

Note: Do not substitute margarine. The tester notes that instead of rolling out the dough, it can be formed into balls, placed on the baking sheet and pressed with a cookie stamp.

Clever cookie packaging is in the bag

You don't have to be Martha Stewart to surprise and delight your family and friends this season with the ingenuity of your homemade gift.

An enterprising colleague who found himself low on funds one holiday decided to make cookies -- and present them in an unusual way.

He bought plain, brown, empty coffee bags, tucked the cookies inside, and turned to his computer, where he made neat, clever little labels: "Uncle Mike's Homemade Christmas Cookies." He even printed some recipes and tucked those in the bags, too.

It's a package that looks festive, and needs no further wrapping (in case that's on your list of holiday hates). Or, as he put it, "It's the presentation, not the present, stupid." Coffee bags should cost about 15 cents apiece. Locally, you can get them at Coffee Mill stores in Hampden and Belvedere Square; Coffee Cafe on York Road, Early Edition Cafe at Stevenson Village Centre.

If you're not artistic at the computer, just use different typefaces for a personal look.

Including the recipes is a good idea, this fellow says: "Next

Christmas your gift recipients might just be baking for you."

Pub Date: 12/04/96

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