While others spend their spare time in this busy holiday season seeking deals on electronics or the perfect cashmere sweater, I'm up to my elbows in cookie dough.

Pressing almond-flavored batter through my tin cookie press, rolling out rounds of cream cheese pastry to fill and roll, shaping dough into fans, balls, and bells, I'm a veritable one-person baking machine churning out hundreds of fancy butter cookies each December.

In my house, it's not Christmas without cookies.

The same is true for the friends and family lucky enough to be on the receiving end of the tins of cookies I distribute each year, shipping them across country and delivering them to neighbors, and giving them as housewarming gifts at holiday gatherings. I search for tins at garage sales throughout the year, but the cookie-baking doesn't begin in earnest until after Thanksgiving, with the goal of producing a dozen varieties in a few weeks.

This tradition of baking Christmas cookies dates to my youth. Having grown up in a mixed-religion household where the more secular holiday activities held sway, cookie-baking was always a clear favorite. In truth, my mother was never much of a baker, limiting her holiday output to shortbread, which she learned to make from her Scottish mother, and to cutting out sugar cookies that we were allowed to help decorate.

Seeking to expand the scope with my own daughters, it soon became clear the baking gene was also missing in my older daughter, Grace, though she did enjoy smearing icing and sprinkles on the cutout stars, deer, and gingerbread men. My younger daughter, Julia, turned into quite a talented baker, and continued to help with the holiday cookie production until going away to college four years ago. (She still asks me to save one or two batches for her to make when she comes home for Christmas, though these often don't make it into the tins.)

I'm no perfectionist, but I am a purist. You'll find no store-bought slice-and-bakes in my assortment, or even chocolate-chip cookies. Those are for other times of the year. I use only butter - no margarine or shortening - and the best of other ingredients as well, like Madagascar pure vanilla extract, Dutch process cocoa powder, unsulfured blackstrap molasses, European jams, and high-quality chocolate.

My sister Laurie says the arrival of the tin of cookies on her California doorstep is a highlight of her holiday season. As a cookie connoisseur, she says one ingredient is key.

"The thing that makes them so good is the butter," she says. "I go to Christmas events, and they might have cookies, even homemade cookies, but they don't use butter. It makes all the difference."

For the most part, I don't cut corners. That means sifting the flour and confectioners' sugar, it means toasting the nuts before adding them to the batter (but trying not to burn them.) It means chilling the dough between mixing and forming it into whatever shape the cookies will take. And, until recently, it meant mixing the dough by hand, though I've discovered that my KitchenAid does as good, if not a better, job than me.

I cherish my collection of baking books and torn-out and handwritten recipes, and no matter how much I like to try something new, there are certain cookies that have earned permanent status on the annual list, due to popular demand: spritz, Mexican wedding cookies, checkerboards, and raspberry ribbons with lemon glaze.

The spritz recipe comes from a Pillsbury Best Butter Cookie pamphlet that dates to 1955, before I was born. The checkerboards are from a 1984 book on chocolate desserts by master baker Maida Heatter, and the raspberry strips are from a Woman's Day magazine insert from the mid-1990s.

I added rugelach to the regular rotation some years back as a nod to my Jewish father, who was always a good sport about our choosing Christmas over Hanukkah. He was thrilled to find these traditional Jewish crescents on the cookie plate.

Others that make frequent appearances include lace cookies, biscotti, and cutout cookies, if I have the time.

Each year, I try a few new recipes, with mixed results. This year's rookies include a delicious chocolate gingerbread, which is richer and chewier than the typical dried cardboard consistency of cutout gingerbread, and also peanut butter shortbread, a new twist to one of my mother's standards. A third experiment, almond bars with a shortbread base, was a complete bust, requiring a late-game substitution of pecan pie bars, which came out perfect.

Almost as important as what's inside are the tins themselves. The best ones come from England, where companies like Peek Frean, Walker's, and Elkes have been packaging their biscuits, (what the Brits call cookies) in beautiful tins since the 19th century. I have a few cherished tins I won't fill with cookies, like the 1950s Elkes box with an image of Winston Churchill, a Peek Frean from the 1940s with a Gainsborough boy and his dog, and a recent Walker's tin with Queen Elizabeth, commemorating her diamond jubilee. I was loath to part with a 1960s tin depicting five mod-looking cats I picked up last year, but I knew my cat-crazy sister Lisa would love it.

Happily, she brought the tin back to me over Thanksgiving, with just one condition: that I return it to her, full of cookies this Christmas.

Here are tips to ensure your cookies arrive intact:

1.   Store cookies in the freezer until you are ready to ship or deliver them.

2.   Line each tin with foil (though it sounds redundant, it adds an extra cushion to keep cookies from shifting within the tin).

3.   Pack cookies fairly tightly, layering the more substantial on the bottom.

4.   Add an extra layer of foil or waxed paper across the top of the cookies, which overlaps the sides of the tin. This keeps the cookies fresher and helps hold the lid in place.

5.   Place the tin in a box (with whatever other items you might be shipping), filling in the gaps around the tin with crumpled newspaper or packing material.

6.   Unless you are pressing right up against the holiday, you don't need to ship overnight. They'll stay fresh on their regular delivery journey - and will probably be eaten before they have a chance to get stale anyway.

RECIPES

Spritz

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Makes 4-5 dozen cookies

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2½ cups flour

½ teaspoon salt

1 cup butter

¾ cup sugar

1 unbeaten egg

¾ teaspoon almond extract

Food coloring (optional)

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1. Sift flour and salt together. Cream butter and sugar together. Add egg and almond extract and blend. Add food coloring at this stage. Gradually add dry ingredients and mix thoroughly.

2. Chill dough for an hour, or overnight. Using Christmas tree, flower, or animal shapes, press dough through cookie press onto an ungreased baking sheet. Decorate with sprinkles, colored sugar, and silver and gold dragees.

3. Bake at 400 degrees for 8-10 minutes until edges are lightly browned.

- From: The Pillsbury Best Butter Cookie Cookbook, Vol. III, 1955

Per cookie (based on 60): 57 calories; 1 gram protein; 7 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams sugar; 3 grams fat; 11 milligrams cholesterol; 42 milligrams sodium; no dietary fiber.

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Mexican Wedding Cookies

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Makes about 4 dozen cookies

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1 cup butter

½ cup confectioners' sugar, sifted, plus another ½ to 3/4 cup for coating

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¼ teaspoon salt

2 cups flour

1 cup finely chopped walnuts or pecans, toasted

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1. Cream butter, ½ cup confectioners' sugar, salt, and vanilla until fluffy. Slowly add flour until well blended, then stir in nuts.

2. Chill dough 30 minutes to 1 hour. Roll into one-inch balls and place one inch apart on ungreased cookie sheet.

3. Bake at 375 degrees until golden, about 12-15 minutes. Remove from sheet and, while still hot, roll in remaining confectioners' sugar.

- From: The Woman's Day Great American Cookie Book, 1980

Per serving: 79 calories; 1 gram protein; 7 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams sugar; 5 grams fat; 10 milligrams cholesterol; 39 milligrams sodium; no dietary fiber.EndText

Raspberry Ribbons

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Makes about 4 dozen cookies

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For the dough:

1 cup butter

½ cup confectioners' sugar

Yolk of one large egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2½ cups flour

For the filling and topping:

½ cup raspberry jam

½ cup confectioners' sugar

Juice from ½ lemon

1 to 2 teaspoons cream, milk, or water

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1. Cream butter and confectioners' sugar until well blended. Beat in yolk and vanilla and beat until pale yellow. Add flour until just blended.

2. Divide dough into four rolled logs, each about 10 inches long. Place 2 logs on each cookie sheet, and create a groove down the center of each log using your finger or a spoon, running the length of the log. Chill the logs for 1 hour.

3. Bake the empty logs at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. Remove logs from oven and fill with a channel of raspberry jam. Return to oven and cook for 5-10 more minutes until cookies are golden and jam is bubbling.

4. Combine confectioners' sugar and liquids to create a glaze that you will drizzle over the cookie logs while they are still hot. After they cool, cut the logs into half-wedges, slicing on the diagonal.

- From a Woman's Day "Cookies and more cookies" magazine insert, 1994

Per cookie (with water): 77 calories; 1 gram protein; 10 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams sugar; 4 grams fat; 14 milligrams cholesterol; 28 milligrams sodium; no dietary fiber.EndText

Rugelach

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Makes about 3 dozen rugelach

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For the pastry:

1 cup butter

8 ounces cream cheese

½ teaspoon salt

2 cups sifted flour

For the filling:

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

3 teaspoons cinnamon

3 tablespoons butter, melted

¾ cup currants

1¼ cup walnuts, toasted and finely chopped

For the glaze:

1 egg yolk

1 teaspoon water

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1. Cream butter and cream cheese until blended. Add flour and salt.

2. When dough is smooth, flour your hands and divide dough into three parts, forming each into a round, 1-inch-thick disk.

3. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate overnight. Roll each disk out into a larger round, about 10 inches across.

4. Mix together sugar and cinnamon. Brush each disk with one third of the melted butter. Spread one third of sugar mixture, then one third of the chopped nuts and one third of the currants on each round.

5. Run a rolling pin across the tops to press topping into dough. Slice the rounds in 12 pie-shaped wedges, and beginning at the wide end, roll each wedge up to its point, forming a crescent horn. Place each horn with its point down onto a cookie sheet covered in tin foil. Brush each horn with mix of yolk and water.

6. Cook at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, until golden brown.

- From: Maida Heatter's Book of Great Cookies, 1977

Per serving: 144 calories; 2 grams protein; 10 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams sugar; 11 grams fat; 29 milligrams cholesterol; 93 milligrams sodium; 1 gram dietary fiber.EndText

Brown Sugar Peanut Butter Shortbread

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Makes 8 large wedges or 16 medium-size squares

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1½ cups flour

¼ teaspoon salt

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

 cup packed light brown sugar

 cup crunchy peanut butter (optional)

2 tablespoons Hawaiian (or other) coarse brown sugar crystals for topping

Semisweet, milk, or white chocolate, melted for dipping (optional)

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1. Lightly butter 9-inch round cake pan or 9-by-9-inch square cake pan. (8-by-8-inch will also work). Sift together flour and salt and set aside. Beat butter with sugar. Add peanut butter to butter-sugar mixture until just blended. Fold in flour and salt mixture and blend until the dough just sticks together.

2. Gather dough and press lightly into prepared pan. Flour fingertips and press dough all the way into edges of pan. Prick the top of the dough all over with a fork (spacing pricks a couple of inches apart). Score top of dough neatly with the back side of a knife blade into 8 even pie-shape wedges (if using a 9-inch round pan) or into 16 even squares (if using a 9-by-9-inch square pan). Sprinkle top of dough w/Hawaiian sugar crystals if desired (for added crunch).

3. Bake 30-35 minutes in preheated 300-degree oven until edges of shortbread are lightly browned, or longer if you prefer a crisper shortbread. Cool for 10-15 minutes before cutting into scored wedges or squares. You can dip the fan points or corners into melted semisweet, milk, or white chocolate.

Per serving (based on 8, with peanut butter): 307 calories; 5 grams protein; 28 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams sugar; 20 grams fat; 38 milligrams cholesterol; 228 milligrams sodium; 1 gram dietary fiber.EndText

Chocolate Gingerbread Cookies

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Makes 2 to 3 dozen cookies

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1½ cups and 1 tablespoon flour

1½ teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 tablespoon unsweetened Dutch process cocoa powder

8 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon peeled, freshly grated ginger

½ cup packed dark brown sugar

½ cup unsulfured molasses

1 teaspoon baking soda

1½ teaspoons boiling water

7 ounces semisweet chocolate, cut into chunks

¼ cup granulated sugar

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1. Sift flour, spices, and cocoa together and set aside. Beat butter and fresh ginger together until lightened, 3-4 minutes. Add brown sugar and beat, add molasses and continue beating.

2. In a small bowl, dissolve baking soda in boiling water. Beat half flour mixture into butter mixture. Beat in soda mixture, then beat in remaining flour mixture. Mix in chocolate.

3. Refrigerate dough 2 hours or overnight. Roll dough into 1 or 1½ inch balls, place two inches apart on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper.

4. Chill sheets for 20 minutes. Roll balls in granulated sugar, then bake in 325 degree oven for 10-12 minutes. For a chewier cookie, you can press the balls down with the bottom of a glass dipped in sugar before baking.

- From Martha Stewart's Cookies, 2008

Per cookie (based on 3 dozen): 96 calories; 1 gram protein; 15 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams sugar; 4 grams fat; 7 milligrams cholesterol; 57 milligrams sodium; trace dietary fiber.EndText

Pecan Pie Squares

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Makes 40 to 50 squares

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For the shortbread base:

12 tablespoons butter

2 cups flour

½ cup packed light brown sugar

½ teaspoon salt

For the topping:

8 ounces pecans, toasted and chopped

8 tablespoons butter

1 cup packed brown sugar (light or dark, or a mix)

 cup honey

2 tablespoons heavy cream

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1. In food processor, combine all ingredients for base, and pulse mixture until it starts to form lumps.

2. Spread mixture into a greased 13-by-9-inch baking pan, and press it firmly into place. Bake at 350 degrees until golden brown.

3. While base is baking, make topping, melting butter in a heavy saucepan and stirring in brown sugar, honey, cream and finally the nuts. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes until slightly bubbling but not boiling.

4. Pour topping over hot base and return to oven to cook for 20 more minutes, until topping is bubbling and amber colored. Let cool completely before cutting into squares. Makes about 40 to 50 cookies.

- Adapted from recipe in Gourmet Magazine, 1999

Per square (based on 50): 116 calories; 1 gram protein; 11 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams sugar; 8 grams fat; 13 milligrams cholesterol; 58 milligrams sodium; trace dietary fiber.EndText

Checkerboards

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Makes 4-5 dozen cookies

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2 sticks unsalted butter

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

¼ teaspoon almond extract

½ cup granulated sugar

¼ teaspoon salt

2¾ cup flour

2 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch process cocoa powder

1 egg, lightly beaten

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1. Cream butter, add extracts, then sugar and salt and beat well. Add flour and mix thoroughly. The mixture will be crumbly. With your hands, work dough until it holds together.

2. Divide dough into two equal amounts of 1¼ cups each. Then transfer one tablespoon from one portion to the other, so one has more. Add cocoa to smaller portion and knead until the cocoa is fully incorporated. Divide both the dark dough and the light dough into two rectangular lengths, about a half-inch deep and about 10 inches long.

3. Set all the lengths in the refrigerator to cool for 1-2 hours. After they've cooled, square off the edges of the rectangular lengths. Slice each length into thirds, and transfer the center rope from the dark dough into the middle of the two light outer ropes, and vice versa. Use egg wash to make the ropes stick together. Then layer one length of light-dark-light dough on top of a length of dark-light-dark dough, sticking them together with egg wash. You should have two full logs with six colored squares each.

4. Chill the two logs until firm enough to slice, then cut them into ½ inch slices. Lay the cookies on their sides, with the checkerboard pattern showing, on cookie sheets. Bake at 350 degrees for 18-20 minutes, until golden brown. Makes about 4-5 dozen.

- From Maida Heatter's Book of Great Chocolate Desserts, 1978

Per serving (based on 5 dozen): 56 calories; 1 gram protein; 6 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams sugar; 3 grams fat; 11 milligrams cholesterol; 35 milligrams sodium; no dietary fiber.EndText