Holiday clocks are ticking through hours of planning and preparation. Seldom does the timetable of family tradition bang louder than during this season. Family traditions are punctuated with food.

Think about Thanksgiving dinner. Would it be dinner without the predictable presence of pumpkin, potatoes or piles of turkey?For many, a pungent aroma of gingerbread declares the season's arrival. Cementing a candy-decorated house or outlining cookie people recurs with the dependability of the sunrise.

Tried-and true recipes surface as reminders of holidays past.

As comfortable as familiar recipes are, there comes a time for change. This doesn't mean a pink slip or retirement notice tags a traditional recipe forever, but for part of a meal try something new. Investigate an appetizer with an unusual ingredient. Experiment with low calorie adjustments to old favorites or jump with both feet into an entirely new menu.

Pick up one of many new holiday specialty cookbooks and menu modifications appear at your fingertips. Consider several options:

CHRISTMAS FROM THE HEART OF THE HOME; by Susan Branch; Little Brown and Company; $19.95; 128 pages.

The cozy comfort of an old-fashioned Christmas is generously illustrated by Susan Branch's detailed watercolors. Recipes printed in calligraphy burst with innovative ingredients as well as attractive illustrations.

This book invites the reader to re-examine the simple things of life: visiting family and friends, decorating the tree or caroling along snow-covered streets.

As absorbing as the illustrations are, the recipes provide impetus for altering holiday menus.

From something as easy as wrapping brie in puff pastry to the wonder of piling pastries up into Croquembouche, (cream puffs stacked in a cone shape and cemented with caramel and chocolate sauces), Branch covers the Christmas season with creativity.

A final chapter departs from recipes and offers both serious and whimsical suggestions for holiday survival. Some examples are: ideas for teddy bear tea parties and essays titled, "What Happens to People Who Wait Till the Last Minute to Shop?" and "Little-known Christmas Superstitions That Really Work."

OH, FUDGE!; by Lee Edwards Benning; Henry Holt and Company; $19.95; 303 pages.

Everything you always wanted to know about fudge and more is contained in Benning's fudge analysis.

A must-have book for chocoholics, Benning's collection of recipes expands to include more than 300 variations of the creamy confection.

Imagine a basic recipe for fudge, then begin adding ingredients. For example, the "Ultimate Fudge" chapter suggests coconut, pina colada, chestnut or chocolate chestnut and pistachio variations.

Variations of sugar and cream fudge, brown sugar fudge, marshmallow creme fudge and even summer fudge are available.

To either a novice or a seasoned candy maker, Benning offers valuable information. An introductory section recites the history of fudge with fascinating anecdotes. Detailed instructions, defined in a 10-step method, invite the candymaker to experience success.

For the absolute fudgeophile, Benning traces the evolution of fudge from the first 1849 recorded recipe through contemporary times. Original recipes are included, but modifications are suggested.

DINNER PARTY; by Jane Freiman; Harper & Row; $27.50; 478 pages.

The mystery of plotting a successful dinner party is unraveled through the pages of Freimann's book.

After detailing the how-tos of party planning to the theme, "giving a dinner party is show business," any host could simplify home entertaining.

Central to the entertainment plan is the menu - and "each menu sends a message." When the menu message is clarified, the party preparations fall into place.

Placing more than 150 recipes in dinner course sections allows quick response to individual needs.

Freiman includes background information with each recipe; accompaniment suggestions, possible alterations, preparation times and detailed instructions..

Wordy details don't substitute for colorful illustrations. If you have a vivid print-to-table imagination or a high risk factor personality, Freiman's ideas sound spectacular. For me, I'd rather visualize the product before I tested it on guests.

THANKSGIVING DINNER, Recipes, Techniques and Tips for America's Favorite Celebration; by Anthony Dias Blue and Kathryn Blue; HarperCollins; $19.95; 205 pages.

A single volume on a single holiday. Decidedly a specialized direction for a cookbook, but clearly an efficient way to keep Thanksgiving information in one location.

"Thanksgiving is not a potluck dinner; it is a complex feast that requires organization and considerable precision," writes Anthony Dias Blue.

With the assistance of Blue's guidelines and recipes, the feast becomes manageable.

Tips on timing the turkey, preparation of other poultry and more than 20 stuffing recipes are included. The recipe collection offers traditional dishes like Pumpkin Praline Pie as well as innovative alternatives to old favorites like Creamed Onions with Mustard and Lemon Juice.

THE TURKEY BOOK; by Rick Rodgers; Harper Perennial; paperback; $10.95; 267 pages.

Capitalizing on current nutritional trends, The Turkey Book suggests the use of the healthy poultry in myriad ways.

Detailed instructions on roasting, stuffing and carving the holiday bird precede a group of creative turkey leftover recipes. Included are chapters for both white and dark meatloaves.

Dieters will applaud the chapters featuring turkey cutlets and ground turkey. Cutlets fit perfectly into time-crunched lifestyles; seasonings like lemon, tarragon, cider or hot peppers lend variety to the poultry cut. Mild-flavored ground turkey comes to life in recipes like Truck Stop Turkey Loaf or Turkey Picadillo in Acorn Squash.

Turkey complements like stuffings, gravies, sauces and relishes complete the story of America's favorite bird.

ROSE'S CHRISTMAS COOKIES; by Rose Levy Beranbaum; William Morrow and Company; $19.95; 255 pages.

The Christmas cookie jar needs a daily refill, and Rose Levy's ready to make her contribution.

With a collection of interesting cookie shapes and flavors, the author of "The Cake Bible," turns her attention to another sweet treat. Cookies of all varieties and shapes complete the pages.

Instructions for making tree cookies, decorative centerpiece cookies, (like the gingerbread Gothic cathedral, easy-to-mail cookies or elegant party cookies are assembled in the book.

Each cookie collectible is illustrated with a full-color photograph and accompanied by both volume and weight ingredient lists. Instructions for electric mixers and food processors are included.

Levy writes a personal reaction prior to each recipe; she responds with vignettes as well as instructions or suggestions.

FEASTS, Menus For Home-Cooked Celebrations; by Leslie Newman; HarperCollins; $25.00; 283 pages.

Dinner for a crowd is a challenge in any season, and Newman covers the calendar.

Renowned as a New York hostess of hundreds, Newman shares her wealth of experience with a collection of imaginative menus, hands-onadvice and step-by-step instructions.

"Feast" menus are planned with international touches, regional recipes and seasonal specialties. From chapters titled "The Road to Hong Kong," "Red Beans and Ricely Yours," to "Barbecue in a Blizzard," Newman's work enables any host to re-create a wide diversity of eating environments.

The author defines the collection's philosophy with an explanation on economics,"Anyone with money can call a caterer, and anyone with money and a can opener can serve caviar. But money can't buy the plain cook's gift, the patient and homely magic that turns bones into broth, and broth and pork, cabbage and beans into great stews that even the rich and famous - especially the rich and famous - never get enough of. Money cannot buy the love that makes a feast."

GOOD FOOD, GOOD FRIENDS, The Guide to Today's Easy Entertaining; by Linda Foley Woodrum; Taylor Publishing Co.; paperback; $14.95; 185 pages.

"Good food will never go out of style, especially when you share it with good friends."

Based on a generous sharing of camaraderie over edibles, the volume is a consistent collection of recipes. I found pages of "page-benders," recipes with exciting possibilities and well worth a test.

Planned with the busy host in mind, "Good Food," contains both cool and warm weather appropriate menus. Detailed shopping lists and timetables accompany each menu and simplify preparation. Microwave cooking alternatives are included with each recipe.


Recipes listed:

Crab-stuffed Chicken Wellington

Tandoori Turkey

David Shamah's Jumbles

Chocolate-Dipped Melting Moments

Peanut Butter Cup Brownies

Warm Spinach Salad

Brown Sugar Fudge

Stuffed Acorn Squash