No gift is sweeter than cookies

If ever there was a holiday season for sharing homemade treats, this is it

For years, my mother had a cottage-industry catering business, and the months and weeks leading up to the holidays meant a constant procession of baking, with the emphasis on cookies. The warm smells that surrounded us carried hints of vanilla and chocolate, and I always felt that if I wrapped myself with these lovely scents, I'd stay warm and loved forever.

Mother made cookies for her clients, she made cookies for the family, and she made cookies for gifts - for the mailman, the UPS man, and the crew that plowed our driveway. She made cookies for our neighbors and cookies for my brothers' and my teachers, and I'm sure there were people she shipped cookies to as well. She knew who wanted chocolate, who disliked nuts, and who would light up at the sight of an apricot filling or a hazelnut topping.

As I look back on these assembly-line activities, I realize it was also a labor of love.

This is a year made for cookies. We are all looking to surround ourselves with friends and family, count our blessings, and find comfort in our lives. Cookies are comfort - and they make perfect gifts.

There are two wonderful new baking books on the market this season, should you need a source of recipes, instructions, and inspiration. One is Nancy Baggett's "The All-American Cookie Book" (Houghton Mifflin Co., $35). It is a treasure-trove of more than 150 recipes gathered during her culinary journey across the United States. This collection is pure Americana, reflecting cookies not brought to this country but created in this country.

"In the Sweet Kitchen: The Definitive Baker's Companion," by Regan Daley (Artisan, $35), is also a terrific resource. Although cookies and bars make up only one chapter of this book, that chapter is loaded with tantalizing recipes, including the recipe for Maple-Pecan Buttons shown here (at right, on the facing page).

But don't neglect your own recipe box, or that of your mother or grandmother. This is a season to feel connected, and cookies transfer not only their sweetness, but a shared heritage. The Swedish dream cookies below come from a dear friend with roots in Sweden. I think of her every time I bake these ethereal white mounds. Cookies bring with them stories and memories, as well as instant gratification.

Cookies are also a way to get your friends or children into the kitchen with you. Forget about any potential mess, and think only of the fun and closeness that go hand in hand with a joint baking effort. It's a special way to connect with your children and teach them new skills. Inevitably, you will also share stories, create memories, and teach them the pleasures of giving - the epitome of what this season is all about.

Keep the cookies simple - dropped or easily hand-rolled, flattened with the heel of the hand, bathed in nuts, or dusted with sugar. They don't have to be heavily decorated to be gorgeous confections.

And save some creativity for your packaging. Go to a discount kitchen store and look for containers, such as tiny baking tins or glass containers with lids. Traditional cookie tins are not the only way to go. Use Chinese takeout containers lined with tissue paper. Let your children decorate with stickers or their own tiny drawings glued to the sides. Some red, white, and blue will surely find its way in with the red and green this year, so get lots of gold and silver stars and let the kids go to town.

Best of all, discover the shared satisfaction of cookies and comfort, in the making and the giving.

Bernice Travers's Thumbprint Cookies

These classic cookies always look pretty, taste good, and make great gifts.

1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), softened

1/3 cup sugar

1 egg yolk (reserve white)

1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract

1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 egg white, beaten

3/4 cup walnuts or pistachios, chopped

1/2 cup apricot or raspberry jam

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Prepare a cookie sheet by greasing it with butter or cooking oil spray, or lining it with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, cream butter with an electric mixer until fluffy, then beat in the sugar, egg yolk, and vanilla and almond extracts. Add flour sifted together with salt and mix well.

Form into 1-inch diameter balls (about 1/2 tablespoon dough), using palms of hand to form. Dip in slightly beaten egg white, then roll lightly in chopped nuts.

Put on prepared cookie sheets. With thumb, make a depression in the center of each cookie. Bake for about 25 minutes, until golden brown around the edges.

Let cool on cookie sheet for 3 minutes, then transfer to a rack. While still warm, fill centers with 1/2 teaspoon of jam. Store in an airtight container. Can be frozen.

Makes 36 small cookies.

Dream Cookies ('Drommar' in Swedish)

Adapted from Judith Pierce Rosenberg's forthcoming culinary memoir, 'Summers in Sweden.' These delicate cookies get their tender texture from ammonium carbonate, also known as baker's ammonium, available in specialty food stores. If necessary, you can substitute an equal amount of baking powder, but the texture and taste will not be the same.

7 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, cut into chunks

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1-1/4 cups granulated sugar

4 tablespoons canola oil

1 teaspoon baker's ammonium

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1-2/3 cups cake flour

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Prepare a cookie sheet by greasing it with butter or cooking oil spray, or lining it with parchment paper.

In large bowl, cream the butter, vanilla, and sugar together with an electric mixer until fluffy. Slowly pour the oil into the mixture and continue beating.

In a small separate bowl, mix together the baker's ammonium and one tablespoon of the all-purpose flour, rubbing it through a fine-mesh strainer to be sure no lumps remain.

In a larger bowl, sift the ammonium/flour together with the rest of the all-purpose flour and the cake flour.

Add flour mixture to the butter and sugar, one-half of it at a time, and continue mixing on medium speed until the ingredients are thoroughly incorporated.

Form the dough into two rolls, each about a foot long, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces. Using the palms of your hands, reshape each piece into a slightly flattened circle about the size of a rounded teaspoon. Chill any unused dough until ready to use.

Bake cookies for 20 to 25 minutes, until they are just beginning to turn golden. Cool on the baking sheet for a few minutes, and then remove cookies to a rack to continue cooling. Makes 45 to 50 cookies.

Maple-Pecan Buttons

This recipe is adapted from 'In the Sweet Kitchen' by Regan Daley. These perfect little rounds are a variation of snowball cookies or Mexican Wedding cakes, but made with pecans and maple syrup. They are meltingly tender.

1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/2 cup plus 1-1/2 cups confectioners' sugar

1-1/2 cups finely ground fresh pecans

3 tablespoons pure maple syrup

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Grease two heavy baking sheets or line them with parchment paper.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter until fluffy. Sift 1/2-cup confectioners' sugar over the butter and cream until light and fluffy, about 1 minute.

Add the ground nuts, maple syrup, and vanilla, and stir until well blended.

Add the salt and the flour, 1 cup at a time, stirring until thoroughly mixed. Use your hands to work in the last quantity of flour, scrunching the dough to make sure there are no pockets of flour or butter left undistributed. Scrape the dough together, wrap in plastic, and chill at least 2 hours, or up to 4 days.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Pinch off small pieces of dough and roll them into 1-inch balls. Place the balls 1 to 1-1/2 inches apart on the baking sheets. Bake the cookies, one sheet at a time, on the center rack of the oven for 18 to 20 minutes, or until the tops are just firm and the undersides of the balls are pale golden. Set the baking sheets on a wire rack and cool for 3 minutes.

Meanwhile, spread the remaining 1-1/2 cups of confectioners' sugar onto a large plate. Roll the warm cookies in the sugar, coating them well, and transfer them to a wire rack set over a tray or sheet of parchment to catch any stray sugar. Cool completely.

Roll the cooled balls in the confectioners' sugar once more before storing or serving. These cookies keep well in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days. Makes about 4-1/2 dozen cookies.

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