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Early December means it's cookie season

It's early December, and in the kitchen that means one thing: It's time to bake cookies.

Whether you're planning a cookie exchange with friends or baking a couple of batches to share with neighbors, co-workers, your newspaper carrier and Santa, it's important to start with fresh, high-quality ingredients.

Butter, organic eggs, pure vanilla extract, a variety of nuts and types of chocolate, and beautiful colored sugars will get you started.

And don't forget the non-stick cookie sheets and parchment paper to make cleanup easier.

Variety also is important. Why just make iced sugar cookies when coffee toffee sandies, caramel peanut melt bars and Mexican spiced macaroons are available?

Use the recipes on page B3 to kick off the cookie baking season. For other recipes, go to www.foodnetwork.com; www.christmas-cookies.com and www.joyofbaking.com/ChristmasCookies.html.Coffee and toffee: together at last. For a more intense blast of coffee, use instant espresso powder instead of instant coffee.

RECIPES

Coffee toffee sandies

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

3/4 cup light-brown sugar

1/4 cup granulated sugar

2 teaspoons instant coffee granules

1 tablespoon hot water

11/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 cup toffee pieces

In a large bowl, beat butter and both sugars with an electric mixer until light and creamy.

In a small bowl, combine coffee and hot water, stirring until dissolved. Add coffee to butter and sugar mixture, beating until well combined. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda and salt. Add flour mixture to butter mixture, and mix just until all the flour is blended. Do not overmix. It should be crumbly.

Add toffee pieces and mix using a wooden spoon or silicone spatula. Divide dough in half, placing each piece onto a sheet of plastic wrap. Squeeze it together into a log using the plastic wrap to help shape it. Wrap the logs in the plastic wrap and refrigerate several hours, or until well chilled.

When ready to bake, heat oven to 325 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Slice each log into rounds about 3⁄8 inch thick. Squeeze any crumbles back together. Arrange cookies 1 inch apart on baking sheet; they do not spread. Bake 12 to 15 minutes, or until cookies just begin to tan on the bottom and start to set. Makes 30 cookies. Cool on baking sheet and store in airtight container.

We've all seen salt-crusted caramel candies. Now you can have them as a cookie. Although peanuts are delicious, any salty nut would work, including chopped almonds, cashews or pistachios, or try a blend.

Caramel peanut melt bars

For the dough:

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened

1 cup sugar

1 egg

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

22⁄3 cups all-purpose flour

For the caramel:

2 cups sugar

1/2 cup water

1 cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon lemon juice

Pinch salt

11/2 cups lightly salted shelled peanuts

For the chocolate sauce:

1 cup heavy cream

8 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Coat a 9-by-9-inch baking pan with baking or cooking spray.

To make dough: In a large bowl, using an electric mixer on medium, beat butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat in egg, salt and vanilla. Add flour and mix until just incorporated.

Press dough into prepared pan. Bake until golden and firm, about 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool in the pan.

To make caramel: In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine sugar and water, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Bring to a gentle boil and cook until sugar is medium brown, occasionally swirling the pan to prevent burning at the edges.

While sugar cooks, in a small saucepan over medium-low, heat cream until just warm. Once sugar is medium brown, add lemon juice and salt, then gradually whisk in warm cream. The mixture will bubble vigorously.

Scatter peanuts evenly over cookie crust, then pour caramel sauce over them. Let cool 10 minutes, or until the caramel sets.

To make chocolate sauce: In a medium microwave-safe bowl, heat cream until boiling. Add chocolate and let sit 1 minute. Stir with wooden spoon until completely smooth and glossy, then pour over caramel and peanuts.

Refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour. Cut into 16 bars. Store bars in a single layer in the refrigerator.

These cookies, which are inspired by rugelach, wrap a flaky pastry dough around a warmly spiced filling of dried cranberries. If the cutting-and-folding technique seems too bothersome, just spread the filling over rounds of dough, then cut each round into triangles. Each triangle then can be rolled up and baked, as in traditional rugelach recipes.

Spiced cranberry stars

For the dough:

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened

8-ounce package cream cheese, softened

21/2 cups all-purpose flour

1⁄3 cup powdered sugar

For the filling:

1/2 cup dried cranberries, plus 32 for topping

1/4 cup water

1/2 teaspoon cardamom

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

For the glaze:

1/2 cup powdered sugar

1 tablespoon water

To make dough: In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat butter and cream cheese until smooth. Add flour and powdered sugar, and mix until they produce a smooth, sticky dough.

Divide dough into 3 pieces. Form each piece into a circle, then wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 3 hours or overnight.

To make filling: In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, combine cranberries, water, cardamom, allspice and cloves. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat and let cool.

When you are ready to bake the cookies, heat the oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

On a floured surface, roll one piece of dough into a 12-by-12-inch square. Using a pizza wheel or a sharp knife, cut the square into sixteen 3-inch squares. One square at a time, cut 11/2-inch diagonal slits from each corner toward the center. The slits should not meet at the center. There should be about 1 inch of uncut cookie dough at the center of the square.

Place 1 teaspoon of the filling in the middle of the square. Working clockwise, bring one corner of each side to the middle. Once you have 4 points meeting in the middle, anchor with a dried cranberry so the cookie resembles a flower or a pinwheel. Repeat with remaining dough.

Bake 12 to 15 minutes, or until tips of stars start to color. Allow to cool on the baking sheets.

To make glaze: Mix powdered sugar and the water together and drizzle over cooled stars with a fork. Store in an airtight container for 1 week. Makes 32 cookies.

Don't be afraid of the cayenne in these macaroons. These cookies are moist, rich and chewy, with just a hint of warmth.

Mexican spiced macaroons

14-ounce package sweetened coconut flakes

3/4 cup sugar, divided

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon, divided

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

6 ounces semisweet chocolate chips

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

4 egg whites

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, mix together coconut, 1/2 cup sugar, the flour, salt, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon and the cayenne.

Place chocolate in microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on high in 15- second bursts, stirring between, until chocolate is melted and smooth. Set aside to cool.

In a small bowl, mix together remaining 1/4 cup sugar and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon. Set aside.

Add vanilla and egg whites to coconut mixture. Use your hands to mix together until all the coconut mixture is moistened. Add melted chocolate and mix thoroughly.

Drop by the tablespoonful onto prepared baking sheet. A small cookie or ice cream scoop works well if you want round balls. Alternatively, you can shape them with your fingers. Sprinkle the cookies with cinnamon-sugar blend.

Bake 15 to 18 minutes, or until the edges start to toast and cookies feel somewhat firm. Allow to cool for 10 minutes on baking sheet, then transfer to wire cooling racks to cool completely. Store in an airtight container. Makes 36 macaroons.

For a faster version of these meltaways, skip the indenting step and just dust the cookies with powdered sugar instead of frosting them.

Key lime meltaways

For the cookies:

1/2 cup powdered sugar

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1 tablespoon key lime juice

Zest of 1 lime (or 3 key limes)

11/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup cornstarch

1/4 teaspoon salt

For the frosting:

1/2 cup (4 ounces) cream cheese, softened

1/4 cup butter, softened

1/4 cup powdered sugar

1 tablespoon key lime juice

To make cookies: In a large bowl, beat sugar and butter with an electric mixer until creamy. Mix in lime juice and zest.

In a medium bowl, sift together flour, cornstarch and salt. Stir flour mixture into butter mixture. Refrigerate 1 hour.

When ready to bake, heat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Drop teaspoon-size balls of dough onto prepared baking sheet. Use your thumb to indent the tops of the cookies and create a "nest" for the frosting to sit in. Bake 10 to 12 minutes, or until set. These cookies should not brown or spread, and they will be quite fragile.

Let the cookies cool on the baking sheet before frosting.

To make frosting: In a medium bowl beat cream cheese and butter with an electric mixer, scraping the bowl several times to ensure there are no lumps. Mix in the powdered sugar and key lime juice. Frost each cookie with a dollop of the frosting. Makes 24 cookies.

Cookies can be stored for 3 days in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Associated Press

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