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Holiday YUM

When Karen Kiester wants to show someone she really cares, she mixes up a batch of Katharine Hepburn's brownies.

"It's a gift from the heart," Kiester says.

Clipped years ago from a magazine, it's a recipe — like the screen legend, herself — that remains timeless. Presented on a pretty china plate purchased for just pennies at a thrift store, the brownies are a welcome gift any time of year, not the least around the holidays, Kiester says.

"It can be relatively economical," says the 57-year-old Ashland resident. "And baking from scratch is not that hard."

In her Tuesday class at Ashland Food Co-op, Kiester wraps two holiday tasks into a single package: baking and readying gifts.

Participants will learn four handy recipes — Coconut Chew Bars, Cranberry Walnut Quick Bread, Spice Roll Out Cookies and Peanut Butter Blossoms — and leave with some treats to share at home or to give away.

The pleasure of receiving a tin of homemade cookies, a box of peanut brittle or a jar of spiced nuts almost compares with the joy of making these morsels, says Mary Shaw, Co-op culinary educator.

"It has meaning not only for that person, but for us, too," Shaw says, adding that recipients are sure to recognize the cook's effort.

"One of the most precious gifts we have right now with our lifestyles is time."

But plan ahead to ensure that preparing edible gifts doesn't become another of the season's last-minute chores. Experts advise breaking the planning into two parts: Decide what to make, then decide how to package it. And do both early. You don't want to leave finding hard-to-get ingredients until the last minute.

Choose something easily made in large quantities, such as candied bark, dessert toppings or gingerbread cookies. Consider foods that will last at least a few weeks, preferably without refrigeration. This is easier for you (no need to rush the gift out or make it at the last minute) and the recipient, who may not want to eat it immediately.

Recognizing that many people consider baking for themselves a luxury, Kiester says she keeps her recipes simple in hopes of inspiring other cooks to follow suit.

"Cookies and bread, they're pretty forgiving."

But don't expect Kiester's baked goods to come with fewer calories or less fat. Sweets, particularly when given as gifts, she says, should be recognized for what they are — a treat.

"A fat-free cookie is an oxymoron," Kiester says.

"If you're going to indulge, indulge."

A gift meant to be eaten, however, need not be all butter and sugar. Shaw has long bestowed her homemade raspberry jam and concord grape jelly.

Another tried-and-true token is a braid of garlic cloves, dried chilies and native corn grown in Shaw's own garden. As useful in the kitchen as they are beautiful, the swags are given with a promise that if they aren't used up, the recipient won't get one next year.

When it comes to packaging edible gifts, think beyond the obvious. Craft stores carry loads of paper choices, such as Chinese food containers or seasonal card stock.

Yet Kiester cautions against using paper to package baked goods that contain a lot of fat.

"If you use papers, the grease is just going to come right through," Kiester says.

For cookies and the like, cellophane is a better choice. It's widely available clear, colored or decorated with holiday images.

Another option are the plain white boxes (some have windows in the tops) sold in varying sizes at candy and baking supply stores. Kids can decorate them with drawings or messages.

Alternatively, adorn those pastry boxes with a combination of ribbon, wide and thin in complementing colors. Shaw likes to use ribbons recycled throughout the year from other packages.

"The wrapping is so much fun."

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com. The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Caramel Pretzel Turtles are no-cook treats that can be given in a variety of attractive ways, such as wrapping hard-candy style. - ASSOCIATED PRESS