It may be better to give than to receive, but there is one Christmas book that guarantees the giver also will get. It is "Rose's Christmas Cookies," by Rose Levy Beranbaum (William Morrow & Co., $19.95), who also is the author of "The Cake Bible," that testament to the wondrous ways in which flour, butter and sugar can take on 100 different guises to tease 100 different tongues.
This time the author has made her foray into the world of cookies, giving ingredients in volume (i.e. one cup), as well as in weights (both ounces and grams). Each recipe includes step-by-step instructions, warning the reader at which point things could go wrong, and it also advises on how to store the various cookies and how long one can expect them to last. Under lock and key, presumably, or their actual life certainly would be a lot shorter than their shelf life.
There are traditional holiday cookies, such as springerle and gingerbread, playful creations to make with children in the shapes of turtles or lions' paws, and sophisticated company confections, such as brandy snaps filled with whipped cream or praline truffle cups.
For the ambitious cook, Beranbaum gives plans and instructions for re-creating Notre Dame cathedral in gingerbread (Quasimodo not included), something you probably always meant to do. Providing one has the sense to give this gift early, it should keep the cookie tin full until the holidays end on Twelfth Night.
There is another cookbook that gives a special nod to the season: "The New England Buttery Shelf Cookbook," by Mary Mason Campbell, with illustrations by Tasha Tudor (Stephen Greene Press, Pelham Books, $10.95, paperback). The food is seasoned with memories of life in rural New England and includes recipes that date back to the author's great-grandmother.
At the end of a year devoted to menus and recipes for all the days we celebrate, there are pages of Christmas confections, from pfeffernuss to jam Florentines to penuche. It is a book that is as old-fashioned and as sentimental as the season.
Fannie Farmer is in fine and modern form in Marion Cunningham's new edition of "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook" (Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95), giving over pages to vegetarian dishes and including a table that lists cholesterol content. But beneath the new apron, there beats the heart of the old Fannie Farmer, cautious, unadventurous but offering the kind of essential advice that should be on every kitchen shelf.
If Fanny Farmer is tradition, "The New Spa Food," by Edward J. Safdie (Clarkson N. Potter Inc. $27.50), is change. Who ever heard of a menu for tea where each enticing item is accompanied by the amount of calories it contains? Do not be put off. Individual cheesecakes hold only 46 calories, a slice of cranberry-oat tea bread, 64. What Safdie, who owns the Norwich Inn and Spa in Connecticut, wants to do is preserve the taste but drop the fat. His book offers an elegant and imaginative way to lose weight.
"From a Breton Garden: The Vegetable Cookery of Josephine Araldo," by Josephine Araldo and Robert Reynolds (Aris Books, $22.95), is both a culinary and a sentimental journey, a reminiscence of a woman who helped shape the current West Coast cookery and who died in 1989 at age 92.
Beginning in a garden in Brittany, and with the wild food foraging of Josephine Araldo's grandmother that produced recipes like beets with fresh black currants and green beans with cherries, down to present-day San Francisco and recipes for Jerusalem Artichokes with guavas, or onion and raspberry tarts with bacon, the book is a hymn to the freshness of food served simply or paired in unexpected and imaginative combinations.
"The Heritage of Italian Cooking," by Lorenza de'Medici (Random House, $40), makes not the slightest pretense to being practical. How could you possibly prop a book that is 13 1/2 long by 10 inches wide up against a saucepan? And even if you could, how could you bear to splatter its beautiful pages with grease?
No, this is a book for the living room, not for the kitchen, where the reader can savor the sprinkling of history and the rich illustrations (both paintings and photographs) while waiting for the cook to prepare the potato cake with basil or swordfish and capers baked in foil or the apple cream with almond praline.
While waiting one could dream of the days when one might have been served the evocative Tendril Pie, as described by a 15th-century cookery writer:
"Take some tendrils that grow on the vine and boil them. Beat them and crush them thoroughly with a knife, and do the same with the pink roses; and you will have some good fresh cheese and some milk fresh from the cow, that has been well boiled; and beat everything well. And, if you prefer, instead of cow's milk you can use pork fat or butter and put into it ginger and cinnamon and sugar to your taste.
"Put this mixture in the pan with a crust underneath and one on top, and when it is nearly cooked you make holes in the upper crust, lots and lots of little holes in many places, almost all over. And when it is finished cooking you put on top of it some sugar and some rosewater of good quality, as much as necessary."
What's that you say? No cook? Well, if "The Heritage of Italian Cooking" should come your way this holiday, do not smear its beauty with grease. Photocopy the recipe you want, or copy it out by hand, then trot out to the kitchen and prepare for the giver a piece of Tendril Pie.