(STAR)  A TASTE OF LIFE By Heny Sison - It is certainly heartwarming to know that, despite tough times, a proper Christmas spent with our families, complete with the traditional simbang gabi, noche buena and all the trimmings to make this season magical still remains the most important thing. The economic crunch teaches us to tighten our money belts by one or two notches and cut corners here and there but it may never take away the joy of reuniting with our loved ones home for the holidays, or the excitement of watching the wee ones unwrap their presents on Christmas day.

Sure, this time around the Christmas tree may be a little smaller, but the dining table will never be bare! Until now, mine is filled with delicious Christmas goodies, gifts from friends who know how to please a discriminating foodie like me — indulge her senseless with more belly-busting delights, that is. Here are some of the tastiest holiday presents I’ve received:

• Scrumptious sweet pleasures from La Moderna Bakery take me back to my childhood years. This famous landmark at Guagua, Pampanga, has for decades kept me craving the crunchy, nutty, chewy and gooey. It was a joy to receive a basket filled with their signature goodies such as the turones de kasoy, San Nicolas cookies and masa de podrida. And the good news is that one can now purchase these sweet pleasures right in the heart of Greenhills. Butchie Lagman keeps the legacy of Kapampangan cuisine alive at Butchie’s Recipes of La Moderna Pampanga.

• A delightfully light alternative to all the rich and heavy holiday desserts is Betsy’s sponge fingers and bibingkita. Betsy has a creative flair and tends to think out of the box. Her sponge ladyfingers are a fusion of the classic broas, mamon and French macaroons. They are more circular than elongated, crispy outside and chewy-soft inside. Tenderly soft and fluffy to the bite, sandwiched between the two cookies is a light butter-cream filling. One bite brings joy… two bites bliss… three bites… ecstasy! And her bibingkitas are so pretty to look at, elegantly presented in fluted muffin cups instead of burned banana leaves.

• This is the coolest Christmas present I received this year: a gallon of JackLynne Ice Cream and Sherbet. This is not my first encounter with it and definitely not my last. It was one of my “food find features” on my program Heny’s Kitchen when we recently visited Pampanga. JackLynne Ice Cream and Sherbet sounds like your average dirty ice cream vendor, but they churn out your wildest ice cream fantasies. Popular flavors are the unusually delicious Ebun Buro ice cream which is Vanilla ice cream with salted egg, and green Malunggay ice cream. But for me, the flavor which gave me a chilling thrill was their buko sherbet with lychee and grated cheese on top. Definitely the coolest of cool.

• I never knew that Purefoods produced leg of ham till I received one this year. It was a welcome surprise! Their jamon de Serrano had a smoky, sweet taste similar to authentic European ham. And it can be enjoyed in an infinite number of ways. I devour it with warm pan de sal for breakfast. My husband Benny slices some onto a platter and takes it with a good glass of wine. When friends come around I can serve it as an open-faced sandwich. I later found out that there are carving stations in most Shopwise and Rustan’s supermarkets and is offered the whole year round.

• I am not such a great fan of alcohol (I think of it more as a disinfectant, ha, ha). But I am pleased to receive a variety of fruit wines, and bubbly which I bring out when friends come over. What better way to make the season merry and bright? So I was happy to receive a six-pack of San Miguel Premium Malt Beer which looked dandy in its shrink-wrapped Christmas package. The brew — which I understand is limited edition — had a special Christmas theme to it. This would make a nice addition to Christmas baskets with the local touch, don’t you think?

Who said the cheer has gone out of Christmas? This season, if nothing else, it felt more authentic — it became more traditional, with more homegrown gifts received and bolstered by a trend towards home cooking rather than dining out: holiday meals cooked from scratch and prepared from the heart, making it the most satisfying offering for the table. This Christmas gave us a chance to forget all the gloom, put aside our fears and troubles and just enjoy all the blessings we had in 2008 and welcome 2009 with a positive attitude.

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