These are dark days. Wet, chilly and dark, gashed through with the kind of wind that turns umbrellas inside out. Unless an escape to Mexico...

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These are dark days. Wet, chilly and dark, gashed through with the kind of wind that turns umbrellas inside out.

Unless an escape to Mexico is planned, we’ll need to find a few creative ways to combat the elements. Some recent cookbooks offer solace with updated twists on old-fashioned, comfy dishes.

Pull up a chair and lighten up your day with these tasty reads.

Fred Thompson, author of “Hot Chocolate: 50 Heavenly Cups of Comfort” ($12.95, Harvard Common Press), has a love affair with hot chocolate that began at a hockey game in middle school. “Back then,” writes Thompson, “almost all ‘hot chocolate’ was really hot cocoa. In those days, that’s all I knew: a little chocolate flavor with a lot of milk.”

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Years later, his first taste of a European-style hot chocolate — thick with dark chocolate and a whisper of cream or milk — was the inspiration for his worldwide journey seeking the perfect cup. He discovered the subtle differences in quality chocolates, and how they enhance what we eat and drink.

Thompson has developed some amazing variations on his theme. A recipe for Ancient Aztec Cacahuatl is an intense blend of Mexican chocolate scented with ancho chili powder. The popular flavor of chai inspired his version of Chai Latte Hot Chocolate, while Ghirardelli “Square” Caramel Hot Chocolate gets its velvety texture from melted squares of milk chocolate filled with caramel. A delicious mug of “Keep Your Heart Pumping” Hot Chocolate with soy milk and dark chocolate is just the cure for the winter blues.

Frozen potpies, with their skimpy portions of meat and veggies and excess of salty gravy, are poor substitutes for the creative offerings in “Potpies: Yumminess in a Dish” by Elinor Klivans ($18.95, Chronicle Books).

Cooking on a snow day

Catch Seattle Times restaurant critic Nancy Leson on KPLU-FM (88.5) today at 5:30 a.m., 7:30 a.m.and 4:44 p.m., and on Saturday at 8:30 a.m. (This week she talks about cooking on a snow day.)

Leson’s commentaries are archived on KPLU’s Web site, and may also be heard at

Classic recipes from around the world are updated with subtle twists. A chapter of easy potpies rely on frozen phyllo dough or panko crumbs for toppings with plenty of snap, crackle and pop.

Some of the recipes may stretch the limits of our concept of potpies. For instance, an Italian Picnic Potpie combines layers of ham, salami and roasted peppers that are bound together with molten provolone cheese and topped with a tender crust. The pie may not be traditional, but it’s certainly delicious.

Klivans offers readers a little history of the potpie, but more importantly offers tips on equipment and ingredients, as well as storing, freezing and transporting the pies.

Her recipes are easy to follow for cooks of all levels. Klivans isn’t a purist, and she encourages her readers to use what’s available to them. If pastry making isn’t your thing, perhaps her recipe for an extremely easy Extremely Flaky Sour Cream Crust will change your mind. Or simply pick up a ready-made pie crust at the grocery store, drape it over the fragrant filling and prepare for a feast.

Lou Seibert Pappas is another cook who’s taken creative license with her subject. In “Coffee Cakes: Simple, Sweet and Savory” ($18.95, Chronicle Books), the author expands on the theme with a wonderful collection of unexpected recipes.

There are plenty of ideas for the traditionalist. There is, after all, nothing better than a sweet and crunchy streusel topping. And chapters on Bundt cakes and Sunday morning specials are a treat.

But the author’s recipes for savory picnic cakes are where her passion for experimentation takes flight. Her use of intriguing ingredients such as cornmeal, flax cereal, whole wheat and bran are inspired additions to this genre.

CeCe Sullivan:

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