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Present Perfect

Remember When You Used to Make Your Own Gifts? Be a Kid Again--Only With Grown-Up Tastes in Mind

November 11, 2001|ANN HEROLD

In junior high school, I took a series of after-school classes at the local museum of natural history that, along with a thorough grounding in local birds and wildflowers (making me, to some friends, either a tedious hiking companion or a sort of Gerald Durrell in running shoes), had a fair share of crafts-making. I remember a good many bad ashtrays in the shapes of leaves, forgettable jewelry fashioned from rocks we had tumbled ourselves and some really nice paperweights of seeds and feathers suspended in clear plastic that I have to this day.

If you can ignore childhood flashbacks and their attendant poverty, there is something alluring about presents so personal they bear no taint of the exasperated shopper experience. Instead, they are created at home (No parking stress! No credit card mess!) and they can be of such widespread appeal that they avert one of the true pitfalls of holiday shopping--ignorance. Does Lisa already have the new John Irving? Is this the sort of necklace Julia would wear? Is Katie too old for 'N Sync? are questions that won't fry your synaptic processes anymore.

In the years since she turned from chef to writer, Sally Schneider has touched often on how sharing food can be a gift. From her articles for Saveur magazine to her columns in Food & Wine to her latest book, "A New Way to Cook," she has marveled at how even though we are now several degrees removed from growing our own food, there's still honest work in its preparation. In "A New Way to Cook," out this month from Artisan, she walks readers through the fundamentals of cooking while altering processes or ingredients in ways that can make dishes less girth enhancing.

And at a time when people are trying to reconnect with lost innocence, making cookies and flavored oils and cheese crisps as gifts is almost as good as being a child again. There are just a few grown-up things you need to know, as Schneider explains in these recipes from "A New Way to Cook."

Earl Grey tea wafers

(makes about 6 dozen cookies)

These paper-thin, buttery wafers have a delicate fragrance of bergamot from the Earl Grey tea. Around Christmastime, I make big batches of them to give as gifts.

5 teaspoons Earl Grey tea (or the tea from 4 teabags)

3/4 cup boiling water

1/3 cup packed light brown sugar

5 1/3 tablespoons plus 1 1/2 teaspoons unsalted butter, softened

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1 large egg

1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

In a measuring cup, steep 1 1/4 teaspoons of the tea in the boiling water for 5 minutes. Strain and discard the tea leaves. Place the tea in the refrigerator to cool. In a blender, combine the remaining 3 3/4 teaspoons tea and the brown sugar and blend to a fine powder. In a medium bowl, using a handheld electric mixer, beat together 5 1/3 tablespoons of the butter, the granulated sugar and the tea at high speed until the mixture is pale yellow and fluffy. Beat in the egg, 3 tablespoons of the brewed tea (use the remainder for iced tea), the vanilla extract, salt and flour. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 30 minutes to let the tea flavor develop.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease two large nonstick or heavy regular cookie sheets with a little of the remaining butter. Drop scant teaspoonfuls of the batter onto one of the prepared sheets, spacing them 2 inches apart. Using the back of a spoon or your finger, spread the cookies out to make 2-inch circles. Bake for 9 to 10 minutes, until the edges are just beginning to brown. While the cookies are baking, drop the batter onto a second lightly buttered baking sheet. Place in the oven when you remove the first pan. Let the cookies cool on the pan for 1 minute to firm them up. Using a thin metal spatula, carefully transfer the cookies to wire racks. Wipe the sheet clean and repeat using the remaining butter and batter. Store the cookies for up to 3 weeks in an airtight tin.

Ginger and "Yuzu" wafers

The combination of lemon and tangerine closely approximates the lovely complex flavor of yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit that is difficult to come by in this country. These cookies are wonderful with jasmine tea. Follow the recipe for the tea wafers, omitting the tea and boiling water. Omit the brown sugar and use 2/3 cup white sugar. Beat the butter and sugar with 1 1/4 teaspoons grated lemon zest, 1 1/4 teaspoons grated tangerine, tangelo or clementine zest, and 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger. When you beat in the egg, add 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh tangerine, tangelo or clementine juice and 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, along with the remaining ingredients.

Prunes in Armagnac

(makes 3 cups)

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