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Originally published Wednesday, November 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Variety is the spice of Christmas cookies

Christmas cookies are part of the holiday tradition in many households, and it's important to have a variety of textures, shapes and colors on the cookie plate.

Special to The Seattle Times

In the weeks leading up to the holidays, I intuitively stock the pantry with butter and flour, and find myself stashing nuts like a squirrel. When I'm rolling through the aisles of my favorite warehouse store, I grab bags of almonds and walnuts and twice as many pounds of butter as I really need, and if I see any of those thick aluminum baking sheets with a half-inch rim, the "half sheet pans" that professional bakers use, I grab an extra pair of those.

It's not that I'm planning any specific baking project, it's just that in my family, cookies are as much a part of Christmas as the tree, and when the days grow short, I can't help baking. And just like ornaments on the tree, a variety of textures, shapes and colors is essential.

"You have to think about how they're all going to look together on a platter or a tray if we give some away," says my wife.

I like soft and chewy cookies, so I hang on to a few formulas for those. We also like varying levels of spiciness, sweetness and tartness, prompting memories of holidays past and prompting us to think of cookies we'd like to try in years to come.

In the house where I grew up, the Betty Crocker "Cooky Book" was the source of most of our favorite cookie recipes. Russian Teacakes, Chocolate Crinkles and so-called Bon Bon Cookies were among our favorites at Christmastime. But as the years went by and I was exposed to more and more ways of combining pantry staples into delicate little works of edible art, my tastes broadened.

One year, my wife and I had the good fortune to spend Christmas in Europe. We drove through Northern Italy into Switzerland and ended up in Paris. In Italy, we nibbled at biscotti, redolent of anise, and in Switzerland, we found tiny zimtsterne, flourless, star-shaped cinnamon cookies, and Basler brunsli, another nut-based cookie packed with ground chocolate. By the time we reached Paris, we were almost but not quite immune to the temptation of the macaroons featured in almost every bakeshop window display.

Over the years, our cookie recipe collection has grown and morphed. Friends have shared recipes that we wonder how we ever lived without, and ingredients we knew nothing about as children have become staples in our pantry.

We have adopted a recipe for lemon bars shared by a co-worker as if it were handed down from one of our own grandmothers. Favorite additions and alterations to those tried-and-true formulas from the old Cooky Book have become new standards; the Russian Teacakes don't taste complete anymore without the punch of lime zest in the dough, and chocolate crinkles now always get a generous dose of delicately crunchy and slightly bitter cocoa nibs.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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