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Sweet ideas for a homemade holiday

According to a recent survey, 40 percent of consumers plan to spend less this year on holiday gifts. Homemade gifts offer a solution to shrinking your budget without shrinking your gift list, and baked goods continue to be a popular choice. Here are a few tricks and techniques from The Pampered Chef Test Kitchen experts to ensure sweet success this baking season.

Pies are the hot trend this year, and it all comes down to having the perfect crust.

For sweet success:

* Keep it cold. The secret to pie crust is very cold ingredients. Refrigerate all ingredients prior to making the dough - even the mixing bowl. Put butter in the freezer while preparing the other ingredients to ensure the fat is completely chilled.

* Skip the mixer. One of the biggest enemies of flaky pie crust is overworked dough. Use a pastry blender or two knives to cut in fat. Dough should still have some pea-size pieces.

* Get playful. Traditional pies have gone mini like this recipe for Caramel-Filled Cashew Cups, which are bite-size pies with a fun cashew crust.

Peppermint Fudge Cookie Sandwiches

Sandwiching a creamy peppermint candy between warm brownie cookies creates an irresistible sweet treat.

3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate morsels
1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick)
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 candy canes or 8-10 peppermint hard candies (about 1/4 cup crushed)
1/4 cup white or semi-sweet chocolate morsels
10-12 mini foil-wrapped peppermint patty candies, unwrapped

Preheat oven to 375 F. Line a large sheet pan with a 10-inch sheet of parchment paper, set aside. Combine chocolate morsels and butter in a bowl. Microwave on HIGH 40 to 60 seconds or until mostly melted, stirring after each 20-second interval using a scraper. Add sugar and egg to batter bowl; mix until well blended. Add flour; mix just until flour is incorporated. Using a scooper, drop 20 level scoops of batter, 1 inch apart, onto lined pan. Bake 9 to 11 minutes or until edges are set. (Do not overbake.)

Meanwhile, place candy canes into resealable plastic bag; crush using flat side of a meat tenderizer and set aside. Place white chocolate morsels into a microwave safe bowl, and cook uncovered, on HIGH 30 to 60 seconds or until melted, stirring once. Set aside. Remove sheet pan from oven to a cooling rack. Immediately turn over half of the cookies using a spatula; top with peppermint patties and remaining cookies to form 10 sandwiches. Drizzle chocolate over cookies and immediately sprinkle with crushed candies. Transfer to serving platter. Line pan with another sheet of parchment paper and scoop remaining batter onto parchment. Bake 9 to 10 minutes or until edges are set. Assemble sandwiches as directed above. Yield: 10 to 12 cookie sandwiches.

Cook's Tips: If you do not have parchment paper, lightly brush pan with vegetable oil. Bake cookies and fill with peppermint patties. Transfer sandwiches to cooling rack and decorate as directed above. Repeat with remaining batter.

Caramel-Filled Cashew Cups

Using finely chopped cashews to form the crusts adds a nutty richness to these simple, yet decadent, treats.

1 1/2 cups salted cashews
2 tbsp butter, melted
1/4 cup light corn syrup
28 caramel candies, unwrapped
2 tbsp milk
1/3 cup bittersweet chocolate morsels

Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly spray cups of a mini-muffin pan with nonstick cooking spray. Finely chop cashews using a food chopper. Combine cashews, butter and corn syrup in a bowl; mix well using a scraper. Using a large measuring spoon (about 1 tbsp), divide cashew mixture evenly among cups of pan. Gently press tops of cashew mixture with lightly floured rolling pin to flatten tops; bake 6 to 8 minutes or until edges are golden brown. Meanwhile, combine caramel candies and milk in clean batter bowl. Microwave, uncovered, on HIGH 2 to 3 minutes or until melted and smooth, stirring every 30 seconds. Remove pan from oven to a cooling rack. Gently press hot cashew mixture again with tart shaper to form cups. Let stand 5 minutes. Grasp edges of each cup and twist gently to loosen; remove cups from pan. Divide melted caramel evenly among cups using measuring spoon. Place chocolate morsels in a (1 cup) bowl; microwave, uncovered, on HIGH 1 minute or until mostly melted, stirring every 20 seconds. Spoon melted chocolate into resealable plastic bag. Trim corner of bag with a knife; drizzle chocolate over caramel. Serve warm or at room temperature. Yield: 24 servings

Buttery Pastry Crust

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
4 tbsp cold butter
1/4 cup butter-flavor solid vegetable shortening
1/2 tsp cider vinegar
2-4 tbsp ice cold water, divided

Combine flour and salt in large bowl; mix well. Cut butter and shortening into flour mixture using a pastry blender until butter and shortening resemble the size of small peas. Add vinegar and sprinkle 1 tbsp water over flour mixture; gently toss with a fork. Repeat with remaining water until dough is moist enough to form into a ball. Gather dough into a ball; flatten to 1/2-inch thickness. Cover; refrigerate dough 30 minutes. Roll out dough on lightly floured surface and use as desired. Yield: 1 single pie or tart crust

Cook's Tips: This recipe can be easily doubled for a double-crust pie.

For more holiday recipes and free homemade gift how-tos and gift tags, visit PamperedChef.com/holiday.

For Santa-worthy cookies:

* Be perfectly sweet. Too much sugar makes baked goods spread too much and overbrown. Not enough gives you pale results, and cookies won't spread enough. To measure granulated sugar, dip the cup into the sugar container and level the top. For brown sugar, pack the sugar and level. For powdered sugar, spoon into the measuring cup and level.

* Check your temperatures. Ovens should preheat at least 15 minutes before baking for best results. Room temperature eggs, when beaten, give baked goods the best volume. Let eggs stand at room temperature for 15 to 30 minutes or soak in warm water while preparing other ingredients.

* Get out the candy. Who says pies get to have all the fun this season? Sandwich creamy peppermint candies between two brownie cookies to create Peppermint Fudge Cookie Sandwiches.

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