By Michele Thomas

Seventeen days until Christmas, and I've already received my first present. And it's a special one from my cousin Wendy in San Clemente.

My mother was one of four sisters. Aunt Minnie was born in 1911, Mom in 1913, and Aunt Margaret in 1915. When my Aunt Margaret was born, my grandfather wouldn't look at her for days because he was so disappointed that she wasn't a boy. Eleven years later, my grandparents tried for a son and got my Aunt Winnie, Wendy's mom. Aunt Winnie is the only surviving sister and she and my Uncle Nick are celebrating their 63rd wedding anniversary today.

My first cousin Wendy is a year older than me. Growing up we were close, always spending birthdays, holidays and special occasions together. Wendy married her high school sweetheart Bill and stayed close to home. I left southern California for college in San Francisco and later Hawaii. Wendy and I gave birth to our first children, sons, in the same week in 1977.

Over the years we've been in touch, but recently, through e-mail, we've reconnected and gotten to know each other again. I e-mail Wendy my column. Recently I wrote about our Aunt Margaret and her talent for baking. Wendy said it brought back fond memories of Aunt Margaret's kitchen.

Aunt Margaret, like our grandmother, was a victim of Alzheimer's. In her last years, she lived in a special home with a caregiver. One evening after dinner she wandered off and drowned in a neighbor's pool. The police said she had grabbed a hose and was watering when she must have tripped and fallen into the pool. She probably thought she was in her own back yard, under the canopy of her giant fig tree that produced buckets of dark Turkish figs for all of us to enjoy for so many years.

After she passed away, I thought about calling my cousin Joe and asking for his mother's recipe box. I never made the call. At a family party a few years later, I told him that I would love to have some of his mother's recipes. Joe said he had thrown them all out. Recently I mentioned to Wendy that Aunt Margaret's recipes were lost forever.

What I didn't know was that as a newlywed Wendy had visited Aunt Margaret's kitchen often to learn to bake and cook from her. Wendy had some of the recipes. And the first one was the gift she sent me a few days ago. In memory of our Aunt Margaret, to honor her and celebrate her passion for making food and sharing it, I'd like to share my gift with you.

Aunt Margaret's

Anise Cookies

1 C sugar

2 1/2 C cake flour

3 eggs

1 1/2 t Anise extract

1 egg yolk

1/4 t minced anise seed

1/4 C butter

2 t baking powder

Cream eggs, yolk, sugar and butter. Sift in flour blending well. Mix in anise extract, anise seed and baking powder. Bake in a buttered baking tin 8andquot;x 12andquot; at 350 for 20 minutes or until cake is dry in center. Turn on cake rack and cool. Remove from pan. Cut in half lengthwise and slice crosswise in quarter slices. Arrange on cookie sheet and place in 450 oven until they are slightly toasted. Makes about 2 1/2 dozen.

Sometimes I make a few changes. Sometimes I don't toast the cookies, they are so good soft. Or add chopped almonds, almond extract, vanilla extract, or cranberries. Or dip in chocolate.

- Love, Wendy