Dollene Targan loves giving holiday gifts from her kitchen. "It's a tradition for me," says the Crownsville resident. "I like adding a personal touch and indulging my love of cooking."

Every Christmas, she makes a different food gift for about 30 friends, relatives and the staff at Lanham Christian School, where her husband Eric is the high school principal. Two years ago, she prepared "bars-in-jars" -- ready-to-use jars of attractively layered bar cookie ingredients that are finished simply by combining them with butter and a fresh egg or two and then baking. The jars look like the stratified sand art creations of several decades ago, and each yields a pan of brownies, bars or other cookies. "They seemed the perfect gift," she says, "because people could have a fresh, home-baked treat with almost no work."

I couldn't agree more with Targan (who helps test recipes for my cookbooks).

But many of the bars-in-jars recipes I see floating around on the Internet are simply playing off the novelty of the idea and are neither attractive nor flavorful. Some merely reconfigure existing recipes by putting all of the dry ingredients into a jar -- even if that results in a one-tone look. What's more, many of those recipes don't take into account the peculiarities and restraints of effective bars-in-jars mixes (see "Bars-in-Jars Tips," at right).

For instance, the dry ingredients must fit in a particular size jar. Too little mix, and the ingredients will shift around, ruining the layered look. Too much mix, and it won't all fit, which throws off the proportions of the finished product. The liquid and fresh ingredients, which have to be added by the recipient, should be limited to the essentials. That sometimes rules out vanilla extract, lemon zest and the like. Baking instructions need to be simple enough to fit on a gift card. After all, it's not much of a gift if the recipient has to do a lot of the work and the cleanup.

With those challenges in mind, I set out to create recipes especially for layering into jars. One particularly seasonal one that's for biscotti rather than bars is spiced cranberries, whose top layers are red (dried cranberries) and green (pistachios).

They're attractive in gift jars, and Dollene Targan can attest that they taste great. They're fun and easy for the giver and, more importantly, for the recipient as well.

You Mix It, They Bake It