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Tea Treat for Mom and Me 

The house of my childhood was a bit like the set of "Pee-Wee's Playhouse." An upright piano, painted in a shade of Pepto pink, took center stage in the dining room. The kitchen counters, instead of being used for chopping vegetables, were taken up by a vintage milkshake maker and a glass jar of Christmas ornaments circa 1940. The walls were covered with clocks of all varieties, all set to different times, not in any particular order. Antique penny gumball machines were parked in almost every room in the house.

With a frenzied passion for collecting and interior decorating, Susan, my mother, had little interest in cooking. Although my brothers and I regularly scraped off burnt meatballs at dinner, we did so in a kitchen of eye-popping orange walls, filled with garage-sale kitsch of the highest order. We knew what a roll-top desk was before we ever tasted beef Stroganoff. We didn't know about fresh broccoli, but instead we lived among cartoon colors, Americana and crazy artifacts.

Among all the debris, which is how my father diplomatically referred to it, there would be artifacts of another kind - those made by her children. Until she moved five years ago, the paper plate plaster mold of my first-grade hand, painted in bright yellow, was still on display, next to various collectibles of other eras gone by.

Mother's Day is always a personal challenge, because gifts for Susan can never be ordinary. Over the years, I have found success in gifts of doing vs. buying. This year, I'm thinking of fixing her afternoon tea. We'll dust off one of her ancient teapots, put on a Betty Carter CD, and I'll make shortbread, even though she'll complain that it's high in carbs.

This shortbread is so easy, even Susie could make it - but I'll leave her to setting a most fanciful and wacky table instead, resplendent with Pez dispensers, snow-globes and, hopefully, my paper-plate mold.

Cashew Shortbread

Adapted from The New Tea Book by Sara Perry

1 cup salted cashews, finely chopped (food processor or blender is best)

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup powdered sugar

1/4 cup cornstarch

2 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger

1 1/2 sticks cold unsalted butter

1-2 teaspoons granulated sugar

Optional (but highly recommended): 1 tablespoon finely chopped crystallized ginger

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Use either a springform pan (with removable rim) or a 9-inch cake pan; if using cake pan, line with parchment paper. Note: The springform pan makes the post-baking part a breeze.

In a medium bowl, add cashews, flour, powdered sugar, cornstarch and powdered ginger (and crystallized ginger, if using). Mix with a wooden spoon to combine. Using the large holes of a flat or box grater, grate butter into the flour mixture. (The colder the butter, the better; frozen butter is ideal.) With your fingers, work butter into rest of ingredients. At first, the mixture will be crumbly, but as butter softens, it will become malleable. Shape into a ball.

Pat mixture into pan. Press to an even thickness, covering the entire bottom surface of the pan. Pierce dough with a fork. Bake until golden brown, 40-45 minutes. Upon removing from oven, sprinkle granulated sugar over the surface.

Use a sharp knife to cut into 12 pie-like wedges. Let cool in pan for at least 15 minutes; you'll notice that shortbread hardens quickly, which is a good thing. Store in airtight container.

Culinary questions? Reach CL's Kitchen Witch at kim.odonnel@creativeloafing.com.

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