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Tarts for the holidays

At this time of year, we're all looking for shortcuts in the kitchen. I appreciate time-saving steps in food preparation as long as I don't have to sacrifice eye-appeal and great flavor in the process.

At this time of year, we're all looking for shortcuts in the kitchen. I appreciate time-saving steps in food preparation as long as I don't have to sacrifice eye-appeal and great flavor in the process.

Several years ago I discovered that having some cream cheese pastry dough in the refrigerator during the holidays could make me look like a real star with very little effort. The cream cheese dough in today's recipe is quite remarkable. It can be overworked and overhandled and after all that, it still bakes light and flaky. This make-ahead dough has "foolproof" written all over it.

It can be rolled into balls and pushed into mini-muffin tins to create tiny tarts. It can be rolled out to form a thin sheet, and then cut into circles or folded into triangles for filling and baking. Its buttery, tangy flavor is best used for savory little tarts rather than sweet treats.

One cream-cheese-dough creation that has always been a hit with holiday guests and students in my cooking classes is Cranberry, Walnut and Gorgonzola Mini-Tarts.

A bright red fresh cranberry shines as bright as Rudolph's nose from the top of each little mini-tart. Rich creamy custard holds a nest of chopped walnuts and pungent Gorgonzola, an Italian blue cheese. Really, any blue cheese can be used in these indulgent mini-tarts.

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Since flavors of Gorgonzola can vary from sweet and salty to very robust, use one that agrees with your taste buds.

These little surprise packages can be baked, and when completely cooled, frozen until ready to heat and serve. They are the perfect accompaniment to a bowl of wild rice soup. They are delicious served with a salad of fresh greens.

And they are always a cocktail party favorite.

They're delightfully simple with a hint of surprise and sure to add sparkle and flair to any holiday meal or New Year's celebration. Pack your freezer full of Cranberry, Walnut and Gorgonzola Mini-Tarts and wait for guests to arrive.

Cranberry, Walnut and Gorgonzola Mini-Tarts
1 cup all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
3 ounces chilled cream cheese, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 cup fresh cranberries
1/3 cup water
1/3 cup sugar
¼ cup walnuts, chopped
1/3 cup Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled very fine
2 large egg yolks
2/3 cup heavy whipping cream or half-and-half

For crust, whirl flour and salt in a food processor for 5 seconds. Add cubes of butter and cream cheese. Pulse until moist clumps form. If you are not using a food processor, whisk flour and salt together in medium-sized mixing bowl. Add cubes of chilled cream cheese and butter and mix with a pastry cutter or two knives. Use hands to gather dough. Shape the dough into a six-inch long log. Wrap log of dough in waxed paper or plastic wrap and chill at least one hour and up to one day.

When ready to prepare mini-tarts, remove dough from refrigerator and cut log into 24 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a ball. Press one ball of dough into each cup of two non-stick 12-cup mini-muffin pans. Put the pans in the freezer for 30 minutes.

While pans are in the freezer, place cranberries, water and sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir mixture until it is bubbling and cranberries are popping. Remove from heat while cranberries still hold their shape. Set aside to cool.

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To make the custard, put the egg yolks and whipping cream or half-and-half in a two-cup glass measure. Whisk together until well blended.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Remove mini-muffin pans from freezer. Place walnuts in the bottom of each mini-tart. Put one cranberry (no syrup) over walnuts. Sprinkle with crumbled Gorgonzola. Carefully pour cream mixture into each tartlet, being careful not to let it overflow. Place tins in preheated oven. Bake until pastry is golden brown and filling is slightly puffed, about 20 minutes. Remove pans from oven and let rest for about 5 minutes. Run a table knife around inside edge of each muffin cup to release mini-tarts. Gently nudge them from the pan and set on cooling rack or serving platter. Makes 24 mini-tarts

Tips from the cook

--These miniature tarts can be made ahead and frozen on a tray or baking sheet. When they are completely frozen, put them in zip-top freezer bags and store them in the freezer. To serve, simply reheat in a 350-degree oven for about 15 minutes.

--Unpeeled apple, diced finely, can be a substitute for the cooked cranberry in each little tart. Just use equal parts apple and Gorgonzola in each one.

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