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Cookie lessons ... and more

The comforting aroma of holiday cookies baking in the oven will soon be wafting through many homes. Once again, as I gather pounds of butter, measure out coconut, chopped nuts, sugar and cinnamon, and fill my large flour jar, I will think of all ...

The comforting aroma of holiday cookies baking in the oven will soon be wafting through many homes. Once again, as I gather pounds of butter, measure out coconut, chopped nuts, sugar and cinnamon, and fill my large flour jar, I will think of all the years I did my holiday baking with my mom.

As I roll each little ball of dough I will remember her words, "Now remember, each ball of dough should be the size of a walnut." She was very particular about her holiday cookies and uniformity of size was essential to achieve beautiful cookie platters that would elicit an eruption of delight from each person who received one of her gifts of sweet treats.

There are some lessons I learned from my mom as we baked cookies together. First of all, take your time. Don't try to hurry through the process, because sure enough, something will go wrong. Secondly, use the best quality ingredients you can get. The cookies we made for the holidays were made only once a year. My mom was always proud that the flavor of her cookies stood way out from all the rest. That was also due to the fact that she put her heart into each cookie. Holiday baking was something she enjoyed. And anyone who ate her cookies could feel her love. The most important thing I learned from my mom is that creating holiday treats should always be done with someone you love. I'm lucky now to share the joy of holiday cookie making with my daughter-in-law and granddaughters. We have great fun making our own memories. And great cookies.

There also are some practical things to keep in mind as you prepare for holiday cookie baking. In "Baking Basics and Beyond," Twin Cities-based cookbook author Pat Sinclair offers some suggestions. She stresses the importance of creaming the butter and sugar together until light in color, as this incorporates air and adds lightness to the final product. And, after adding the flour, mix just until it is combined with other ingredients and not a bit longer, or gluten will develop and the cookies will not be tender.

During a recent conversation I had with Sinclair, she shared another tip: When a recipe calls for butter to be at room temperature or softened, it doesn't mean that you should allow the butter to sit out on the counter for hours before using. "For best results, says Sinclair, the butter should be out at room temperature for only about 45 minutes. Any longer than that, the butter may get too soft, resulting in very flat cookies."

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One kind of cookie on my mom's lengthy "to do" list each year was Brown-Eyed Susans. She would mix up a simple, rich almond-flavored dough, roll it into little balls (the size of a walnut, of course), and then bake them. When they were cool, she would spoon chocolate glaze over the center of each cookie and nestle a whole almond right in the middle. They were very tasty and made quite a name for themselves among the many who ate them.

My Peanut Butter Brown-Eyed Susans are a twist on my mom's tradition. They don't really look much like the cute little flower of summer, but a platter of these melt-in-your mouth cookies will bring just as many smiles as a bunch of fresh-picked blooms from the garden. With just a few ingredients, it means only sweet, pure butter and pure vanilla extract are in order. These are the ingredients that will give the cookie dough its delectable flavor. Each little ball of dough receives a faint kiss of sugar before going into the oven to bake. A miniature peanut butter cup is tucked into the center of each cookie for a warm hug. A sprinkling of finely chopped peanuts gives the final touch to each little blossom. The final reward lies in eating the cookie and the imbedded candy simultaneously.

With lessons from my mom and tips from a baking expert I am ready for the holiday baking to begin!

Peanut Butter Brown-Eyed Susans
1 cup butter
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
ยฝ teaspoon salt
Extra sugar for tops of cookies
1 (12-ounce) bag Reese's Peanut Butter Cups Miniatures
3 tablespoons finely chopped cocktail peanuts

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Using an electric hand mixer, beat butter and 3 tablespoons sugar together until light in color and fluffy in texture. If you are using an electric stand mixer, use the paddle attachment.

Add pure vanilla extract and blend well. Add flour and salt and mix just until the dry ingredients are fully blended with the butter-sugar mixture.

Roll level half tablespoons (1ยฝ teaspoons) of the dough into balls. Place dough balls on lightly greased or parchment-lined baking sheets, spacing about 2 inches apart. Cover the bottom of a glass with a damp piece of cheesecloth. Dip the cheesecloth-covered glass bottom into granulated sugar. Lightly press each cookie dough ball with the glass to flatten slightly.

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Place baking sheet on rack positioned in the middle of the oven. Bake at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes.

Remove from oven and immediately top each cookie with a peanut butter cup, pressing down gently so the cup is positioned about halfway into the cookie and creates cracks around the edges (it now resembles a flower blossom). Let cool for a bit on the baking sheet. Use a metal spatula to carefully transfer cookies to a cooling rack or a piece of waxed paper on a flat work surface. When the top of the peanut butter cups become soft, sprinkle each one with finely chopped peanuts. Allow cookies to cool completely before storing in a tightly sealed tin or plastic container. Makes about 3ยฝ dozen cookies.

Tips from the cook

--Whenever you bake cookies, be sure baking sheets are completely cool before putting another batch of cookies on the sheet. During holiday cookie baking, I've been known to set the warm baking sheets out on top of the grill on the deck. It's a quick chill.

--You won't need the whole bag of peanut butter cups. Chop up those left in the bag and stir them into chocolate ice cream.

--The dough for Peanut Butter Brown-Eyed Susans can be mixed up a couple of days before baking and stored in the refrigerator.

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