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For these tartlets, a rich pastry crust holds layers of ham, pickles and Swiss cheese baked in a creamy custard and crowned with a bright red cranberry. Photo by Sue Doeden

It's the cranberries: Tartlets can keep nibblers at bay

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Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

Pudgy, glossy and scarlet red. There they were, bright and fresh, in plastic bags piled one on top of the other in the produce department of the grocery store, reminding me the holiday season is quickly approaching.

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Images of Thanksgivings of the past appeared in my mind. I pictured our family gathered around the dinner table, nearly finished with a big turkey meal, when suddenly my mom yelled out, "The cranberries!" The roll of jellied cranberries pushed from a can (I know, I can hardly believe it, either) into a long, narrow crystal bowl had been forgotten in the refrigerator.

Those who don't care for cranberry sauce may be familiar with only the canned varieties. Nothing beats the flavor of firm, fresh, deep red cranberries that have been cooked with water and syrup until they pop, pop, pop.

These little red jewels are so lovable. They are easy to store, they're versatile and they're so good for you. Refrigerated in their original packaging, they can last as long as two months. Put the original bag inside of a freezer bag, and you can store them frozen for about nine months. This is good news for all cranberry lovers, since the season is short.

Their tart flavor pairs well with both sweet and savory ingredients.

Fresh cranberries are an incredible source of antioxidants and vitamin C.

From salad to sauce to chutney to quick bread and cheesecake, they're so full of flavor and nutrients, they can make every day a holiday of well-being.

Sweet Surprise Holiday Tartlets take advantage of the beauty and flavor of fresh cranberries. A rich pastry crust holds layers of ham, pickles and Swiss cheese baked in a creamy custard and crowned with a bright red cranberry.

Don't let the pastry crust scare you. This cream cheese dough is a remarkable "cheater" dough. It can be overhandled and reworked, yet it rolls out easily and bakes light and flaky. Mix the three ingredients at least 30 minutes before rolling it out to give it time to rest and chill in the refrigerator. It can be stored in the refrigerator for a couple of days.

The smoky flavor of tiny bits of ham, sweet pickle relish and the nutty taste of Swiss cheese can only get better with a tart cranberry. Rich, smooth custard of cream and eggs results in a tiny quiche-like appetizer that you'll want to keep eating.

Make these tartlets now, and if you can stop kitchen visitors from eating them all up, freeze the baked and cooled appetizers on a tray. When they are totally frozen, put them in plastic freezer bags and store them in the freezer. To serve, simply reheat in a 350-degree oven for about 15 minutes.

Sweet Surprise Holiday Tartlets will keep hunger pangs at bay while Thanksgiving dinner is being prepared. And you'll want to keep the recipe handy for all of your holiday entertaining.

Sweet Surprise Holiday Tartlets

Pastry:

1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, chilled, cut into small chunks

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, chilled, cut into small chunks

Filling:

1 very full cup of whole, fresh cranberries

1/3 cup water

1/3 cup sugar

1/3 cup finely chopped ham

1/2 cup sweet pickle relish, drained

1/2 cup finely grated Swiss cheese

1 cup heavy whipping cream

1 large egg plus one egg yolk

Make pastry by placing flour in bowl of food processor. Add small chunks of cream cheese and butter. Pulse the ingredients until the dough starts to hold together. Remove the dough from the work bowl and use your hands to form it into a disk. Wrap the disk of dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Place the cranberries, water and sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil and stir until sugar is dissolved and cranberries pop open. Set mixture aside to cool.

To make the tartlets, divide the chilled dough into 3 equal pieces. Keep one piece out and return the other two pieces to the refrigerator.

Move oven rack to high level in oven. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Roll the dough out on a lightly floured work surface to 1/8-inch thick. Cut 12 rounds from the dough with a 3-inch round cookie cutter or drinking glass. Line miniature muffin tins with each round. Place muffin tin in refrigerator while repeating the process with the other two refrigerated pieces of dough, making a total of 36 tartlet shells.

Put the egg and egg yolk in a 4-cup glass measure. Use a fork or whisk to blend. Add heavy whipping cream and stir the mixture until it is well blended.

In each chilled tartlet shell, layer some ham, pickle relish and cheese. Place one cooked cranberry (no sauce) on top. Use a spoon to add cream mixture to tartlet shells, filling them about 2/3 full.

Put the tins on the top rack of the preheated oven and bake until the pastry is golden brown and the filling is puffed, about 20 to 25 minutes. Let the tartlets rest for 10 minutes before gently nudging them out of the pan with a table knife. Serve warm. Makes 36 tartlets.

Tips from the cook

--A mixing bowl and a pastry cutter can be used to mix the dough if you don't have a food processor.

--I like to pat the drained pickle relish dry with paper towels to remove most of the moisture.

--These tartlets are a wonderful addition to a holiday brunch buffet.

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