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'Up for grabs'

Russian tea cakes are inexplicable as Nora LaBrocca's Christmas-cookie tradition.

"I don't know why," she says. "We're Italians ... and it was always part of Christmas."

So in homage to her grandmother who obtained the recipe from a friend, LaBrocca makes the powdered sugar-covered, nut-filled balls every year. But "everything else is up for grabs," says the designer and cook who routinely reinvents classic recipes at her Downtown Market Co. in Medford.

"I'll take a big cake, and I'll turn it into a little dessert."

The concept also inspired writers and test-kitchen staff for The Associated Press. This year, they baked up 12 days of holiday cookies based on such beloved desserts as German chocolate cake, red velvet cake, grasshopper pie, lemon meringue pie, spumoni, tiramisu, even the much-maligned Christmas classic, fruitcake.

The cookies vary in style from drop cookies, thumbprints and bars to cream-filled sandwiches and no-bake, fruit-and-nut clusters. Photos of each with downloadable recipes can be seen at www.mailtribune.com/holiday101.

Tried-and-true tiramisu already was on LaBrocca's wish list for "taking a family recipe and presenting it in a new way." Whether it's that Italian icon or a more whimsical creation — like chocolate-dipped, peppermint-studded meringues — LaBrocca says she plans to fill her bakery case to the brim and take special dessert orders starting next week until Christmas.

"We have to stand out, and I have to push my envelope," says LaBrocca. "I don't want to do something not fabulous."

That also goes for sugar-cookie cut-outs and tea cakes, says LaBrocca. Call 541-973-2233 or visit the market and its Taste Kitchen at 231 E. Main St.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email slemon@mailtribune.com.

German chocolate cookies combine the original cake's sweet, chocolate crumb and coconut-pecan filling. - AP