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Let the holiday baking begin

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The day after Thanksgiving, when many people have shopping in mind, I enjoy a relaxing day of holiday baking. I sleep in that morning. As I sip my first mug of hot, dark coffee, I chuckle about the silly people who wake up before the crack of dawn to be sure to get in on all the bargains of the day as they wait in long lines and fight their way through crowds.

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I gather ingredients, mixing bowls and my favorite wooden spoon for stirring up cookie dough. I turn on the Christmas music. The season I look forward to all year has begun - holiday baking season.

Maybe it's the memories that are stirred up when I get busy with measuring, mixing, rolling and dipping that make it such a meditative activity for me. Or maybe it's because the cookies on my baking list are created only this time of year, making them a special treat.

The baking day after Thanksgiving is a day I prepare for ahead of time.

I keep my favorite holiday recipes printed out, each recipe held in a plastic page protector in a notebook. This keeps the recipes clean and all in one place. I make notes on the recipes about where to buy special ingredients and specific brands.

A few months before Thanksgiving, I begin watching for sales on things I will need for holiday baking. I buy butter and store it in the freezer. The price of sugar and flour has risen considerably, so I buy extra bags when they are at reduced prices. I stock up on parchment paper that I use for lining my baking sheets and I buy sprinkles and other cookie adornments as soon as I see them in the store.

Other helpful tips I've learned that keep holiday baking enjoyable:

--Figure out how much coconut, nuts and chocolate you will need and buy them all at the same time. Nuts and coconut can be stored in the freezer to stay fresh.

--Small portion scoopers make it easy for bakers to produce dainty little cookies all the same size. I use my No. 100 scooper the most. It holds a level 2 teaspoons of dough, forming baked cookies that can be eaten in one or two bites. Portion scoopers can often be found in grocery stores and stores that sell kitchenware.

--A good pizza cutter is an efficient tool for cutting dough that must be rolled out and cut into wedges or squares.

--A pastry cloth keeps dough from sticking to your work surface and prevents a stressful cookie-making experience. I use a round lefse board with its pastry cloth cover. It even has markings for 10-, 12- and 14-inch rounds.

--A pastry bag or two with metal tips work well for piping frosting onto cookies. A freezer-strength plastic storage bag works well, too. Just squeeze the frosting or filling down to one corner of the bag and snip off a little piece. Start piping.

--Pretty plates and small shallow bowls from second-hand stores are inexpensive. Load them up with homemade Christmas goodies. Your gift recipients will think of you each time they use the dish.

Throughout the year, I save recipes that sound like they might be a good addition to the holiday cookie gifts. Each year I prepare one new recipe. Sometimes it makes it to the holiday notebook. Sometimes it gets tossed out.

Peanut Butter Thumbprints is a recipe that comes from "Food in the Fast Lane," an old Beta Sigma Phi cookbook that I've had on my shelf for years. I've gotten several good recipes from it. In the book, the cookies, made with oats and peanut butter chips, are filled with jelly. I prefer chocolate.

A mixture of semisweet and milk chocolate is a perfect blend to satisfy dark chocolate aficionados, yet has just the right amount of sweetness to make those who prefer milk chocolate happy. I've piped the chocolate mixture into my traditional thumbprint cookies for the last couple of years. It marries perfectly with peanut butter.

This cookie makes the cut and will be added to my holiday notebook of family-favorite recipes.

Happy baking season!

Peanut Butter and Chocolate Thumbprints

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 cup butter, room temperature

1 3/4 cup packed light brown sugar

2 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups quick-cooking oats

1 1/2 cups peanut butter chips

Chocolate Filling:

1/2 cup milk chocolate morsels

1/4 cup semisweet chocolate morsels

1 tablespoon solid shortening

2 tablespoons light corn syrup

1 tablespoon half-and-half

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Sift flour, salt and baking powder into a bowl and set aside. Cream butter and brown sugar in a large mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs and vanilla. Add sifted dry ingredients and mix well. Stir in oats and peanut butter chips. Cover and chill for several hours.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Shape chilled cookie dough into 1-inch balls. Place on ungreased or parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Press thumb gently into center of each cookie. Bake for 7 to 9 minutes or until light brown. Cool slightly on baking sheet. Lightly press indentations again. Transfer cookies to wire rack to cool completely. Fill centers with Chocolate Filling. Makes about 6 dozen cookies.

To make Chocolate Filling, combine chocolate morsels and shortening in a small heavy saucepan. Stir over low heat until chocolate melts. Remove from heat and stir in corn syrup, half-and-half and vanilla extract. Makes 3/4 cup. Make 2 batches to fill 6 dozen Peanut Butter and Chocolate Thumbprints.

Tips from the cook

--I've discovered the end of my Swedish wooden butter knife is just the right size to make uniform "thumbprints" in my cookies. Maybe you have something in your kitchen that will make "thumbprints."

--I wouldn't bake cookies without first lining my baking sheets with parchment paper. No sticking and no scrubbing!

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