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Getting through Christmas crunch time

Maybe you're one of those organized people with everything done and ready. Gifts all bought and beautifully wrapped under a perfectly decorated fresh tree. Sparkly wreath on the front door. Battery-run candles in every window. Christmas dinner planned, shopping list ready, and recipes taped to the front of the refrigerator for reference. Stop reading. This is not for you.

This is for the rest of us mere mortals who have been juggling work and laundry, shopping and carpools, gift-wrapping and trying to unearth the batteries for the musical reindeer. All between trips to the supermarket, the mall, and the post office. Maybe we're just not good list-makers. Or maybe we reached the point where one added errand put everything else into a jumble.

A chef told me recently that we need to take a breath and make something in the kitchen, for the good of our souls. Easy if you have a professional kitchen and a staff of prep cooks. The rest of us have the four burners and a couple of kids. But that thought rings true this week, as we hug our kids just a little bit tighter, listen to their laughter a little more closely.

The rewards are great when you treat your kids and a few friends to an afternoon of making popcorn balls or oatmeal cookies. For very young children, the popcorn recipe needs adult prep and supervision before the "snowball-making" stage. The oatmeal cookies, jazzed up with fruit, will fill the house with warmth. Sit down, exhale, enjoy. And make enough to send a plate home with the friends.

If your holiday table is a grown-up one with the home-from-college crowd, try something new and memorable. Ignite a batch of cherries and brandy and pour them over ice cream. No pitting – the cherries are from a can – the whole thing takes about 15 minutes.

Cherries Jubilee

Serves 6, easily doubled for a crowd

Serve this over the best vanilla ice cream you can find. Be safe: when pouring the brandy into the cherries, make sure that the flames have burned out first. The safest place to do this is on a hard surface without there are no tablecloths or napkins.

- 1/4 cup sugar

- Pinch salt

- 1-1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

- 2 (16 ounce) cans pitted dark sweet cherries in syrup

- 4 tablespoons brandy

1. In a large skillet, mix together the sugar, salt, and cornstarch. Drain the cherries so that the syrup is reserved in a bowl. Set the cherries aside.

2. Pour the syrup into the skillet with the sugar and cornstarch. Bring to a boil, and simmer briskly stirring constantly, until thickened. Reduce the heat to low and stir in the reserved whole cherries.

3. In a small saucepan over medium heat, warm the brandy, tip the pan to ignite. Wait until the flame burns out, then pour the brandy over the cherries. Serve over the vanilla ice cream.

Popcorn Balls

Makes 8 popcorn balls

Keep the kids away from the heated sugar and wait until the popcorn mixture cools before buttering little hands. Keep rolls of paper towels nearby to wipe buttery fingers.

- 8 cups popped corn

- 1/2 cup light corn syrup

- 1/2 cup water

- 1 teaspoon white vinegar

- 1/4 teaspoon salt

- 3/4 cup brown sugar

- 3/4 cup white sugar

- 3/4 cup butter

1. Put the popped corn into a large bowl.

2. Combine all the remaining ingredients except the butter in a saucepan. Heat to boiling over medium high heat, stirring often. Cook, stirring constantly, until the temperature reach 260 degrees on a candy thermometer. Remove from heat, stir in the butter, until melted into the mixture. Slowly pour this sugar-butter mixture over the popcorn, continuing to stir until the popcorn is coated.

3. Let the mixture cool slightly. Butter hands. Take handfuls of popcorn mixture and shape into 3-inch balls. Set on waxed paper to finish cooling. Pile them up in a large bowl.

Oatmeal Cookies

Makes about 4 dozen

Based on the classic recipe from Quaker Oats, this recipe leaves the cook free to add any type of dried fruit – or a mixture – to make it holiday special. Raisins are the obvious choice, but humdrum for this time of year. Try dried cherries or cranberries, or chopped dried pineapple or apricots. Most people steer clear of walnuts and peanuts these days because of allergies.

It's also fun to buy a few whole nutmegs for this recipe and show the kids how to grate it with a microplane into the mixture. And it tastes a whole lot better, too.

- 1-1/4 cups margarine, softened

- 3/4 cup firm packed brown sugar

- 1/2 cup granulated sugar

- 1 large egg

- 1 teaspoon vanilla

- 1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour

- 1 teaspoon baking soda

- 1 teaspoon salt

- 1 teaspoon cinnamon

- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

- 3 cups Quaker oats

- 1 cup dried cherries

1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees.

2. Beat together the margarine and both sugars until light and fluffy; beat in egg and vanilla.

3. Combine flour, baking soda, salt, and spices; add to the margarine mixture. Mix well. Stir in the oats.

4. Drop by rounded tablespoons onto ungreased cookie sheet. Bake 8 to 9 minutes for a chewy cookie, 10 to 11 minutes for a crisper cookie.

5. Cool 1 minute on the cookie sheet; remove to a wire cooling rack. Store in a tightly covered container.

Linda Bassett is the author of "From Apple Pie to Pad Thai: Neighborhood Cooking North of Boston." Reach her by e-mail at Read Linda's blog at Follow Linda for quick recipes on Twitter at @Kitchencall.