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Christmas Cookies Win A Trip To The Caribbean

Like most children, I relished the holiday season. There were specials on TV, catalogs full of toys to dream of and the joys of trimming the tree. However, there was never a plate of cookies set out for Santa Claus. No well-meaning friends brought over trays of holiday goodies. Cookies were just not part of the holidays in our home.

A marriage of flavors from my West Indian heritage and homey methods traditional to the country of my birth, my Caribbean Christmas cookies have become a holiday ritual in my home.

Perhaps it was because my parents were immigrants, my mother from Iran and my father from Trinidad, that we didn't eat cookies. In Iran, cookies are eaten mostly at Noruz, the New Year marked by the vernal equinox, and made from bean, rice or nut flours, while in Trinidad cookies are not part of a culinary repertoire that otherwise includes prodigious baking at holiday time.

It was not until I was an adult, preparing for my own Christmas festivities and hosting holiday guests who often came with plates full of holiday cookies they made themselves, that I realized the importance of the sugary morsels.

When I married my husband, I also got his Irish great-aunt's recipe for kiffles, a jam-filled cookie she got from her Hungarian mother-in-law. It was a beginning.

Slowly, I began to incorporate cookies into my holiday baking that, until then, mostly involved making up to 40 Trinidad Christmas fruitcakes for family and friends. Once I resolved to make cookies part of the season, it only seemed right to start with the kiffles. It was part of my in-laws' traditions and also seemed like a singularly American thing to do: a cookie native to Hungary, kept going in an Irish family and passed on to me.

As a next step, it made sense to use the Christmas baking tradition of my father's Trinidadian heritage as a starting point for my own explorations. So, I adapted Aunt Frances' recipe by adding the merest splash of mixed essence, a must-have flavor in Caribbean baked goods. Then I used guava, mango and passion fruit jams for the fillings.

Once I mastered these, I thought I'd go a bit further. Why not adapt a sugar cookie dough in the same way? Not only could I add mixed essence, with vanilla, almond and other extracts, but also coconut essence, an artificial flavoring, both easily found in Caribbean groceries, and even coconut milk or Caribbean cocoa powder.

It was a radical thought, especially for friends and family who had grown up with comfortingly familiar butter cookies that were the base for multiple adaptations. Having grown up without Christmas cookies, though, I was free to experiment and devise a cookie I could call my own.

Once I got the basic dough down, it occurred to me that I could up the tropical flavor ante further using Caribbean fruit jams to make a tropically twisted thumbprint. I added to the cocoa-based dough West Indian spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger to make a tea cookie reminiscent of the cocoa tea popular throughout Trinidad, Grenada and the other islands.

A marriage of flavors from my West Indian heritage and homey methods traditional to the country of my birth, my Caribbean Christmas cookies have become a holiday ritual in my home. Now that my 5-year-old daughter is old enough to help, we make our tropical-flavored delights together. In fact, I already have the recipe cards all written out for her to pass down to her own children.

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Ramin Ganeshram