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Forget fruitcake: cookbook reviews

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You miss summer already. You're dreading the cold. And, yes, you're already so over the holidays.

But what if there was a great reason to stay inside ... like trying out a bunch of new cocktails, snacks and desserts on your friends? That'd sure make up for all the imminent gift-seeking trips to Manitou Springs, Old Colorado City, downtown and the eastern reaches, right?

Scores of cookbooks are published at this time of the year, and we've sampled three that we think are worth your time. They should help make holiday entertaining feel less like a duty, more like a creative hobby. Let your inner chef and bartender shine.

Hot Drinks: Cider, Coffee, Tea, Hot Chocolate, Spiced Punch, Spirits

Mary Lou and Robert J. Heiss

Ten Speed Press, $16.95/hardcover

Maybe the most indispensable entertaining guide this season is not a cookbook at all, but a slim volume on beverages. Mary Lou and Robert J. Heiss' Hot Drinks presents original recipes and interpretations of classics from around the world.

Some of the recipes have a definite Christmas theme, like Mistletoe and Holly (part cranberry juice, part peppermint schnapps) and traditional wassail (a British ale-based drink with spices and apples). Others, however, could be enjoyed anytime this winter.

There are luscious combinations of coffee and chocolate; smart, contemporary cocktails; and festive punches. One drink worth mentioning for its originality: a mixture of Japanese green tea, Midori, sake and Absolut Citron, warmed and served with a lemon twist. The Heisses call it "The Bullet Train," after Japan's high-speed rail system.

A note: not every recipe includes alcohol, and many of those that do can be modified.

Michael Chiarello's Easy Entertaining Deck: 50 Irresistibly Simple Recipes

Michael Chiarello

Chronicle Books, $14.95

Michael Chiarello is a Food Network TV star with legitimate chef credentials, having opened Tra Vigne restaurant in the Napa Valley in 1986. He has evolved from restaurant chef to lifestyle entrepreneur, selling a variety of home entertaining products under the brand NapaStyle.

This season, he's published a deck of cards with recipes for appetizers, snacks and cocktails. His style is casual Italian, and the recipes reflect the clean and bright flavors of that cuisine. Think vine-ripened tomatoes, citrus, olive oil and lots of fresh herbs.

His marinated salmon with fennel salad or roasted eggplant and tomato stacks make for simple yet sophisticated first courses. He also improves on ready-made snacks like popcorn and french fries, giving them continental twists (chocolate and orange zest for the popcorn; parmesan and lemon for the fries).

The card-deck presentation allows for easy reading when making a recipe. Or you can deal them out to your friends for a fun challenge before a potluck. Secure the card of your choice to the fridge with a magnet, and you're ready to cook.

I'm Dreaming of a Chocolate Christmas

By Marcel Desaulniers

John Wiley & Sons, Inc.,

$29.95/hardcover

For those who readily embrace the saccharine side of the holidays: I'm Dreaming of a Chocolate Christmas is for you. For those who feel queasy at visions of sugarplums, Santa Claus and other Christmas clichs, save yourself and look elsewhere.

Not only is this book filled with sugary confections certain to cause tooth decay by New Year's Eve, but its prose matches the recipes in cloying sweetness. The fudge in one recipe is described as "chocolatey good," while the espresso in another "may enable you to fly with Santa and his reindeer."

If you can stomach the copy, however, the book provides user-friendly recipes for cookies, bars and other small sweets that are perfect for gift-giving during the holidays. Marcel Desaulniers and his staff even give a list of which items ship the best, and which don't travel well.

Desaulniers tested the recipes using widely available supermarket brands like Nestl Toll House chocolate and Gold Medal flour to ensure they work for the home cook. Most of the recipes are quintessentially American, using ingredients like butterscotch, peanut butter, molasses, cranberries and pumpkin. No surprise, since the author has been the chef of Trellis Restaurant in Colonial Williamsburg, Va., for years.

scene@csindy.com

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