In lieu of store-bought gifts, sisters Vickie Sledge and Lacy Gifford get together to make treats to share with friends and family for Christmas. Their M&M bites are made with pretzels that are topped with Hershey's Hugs or Kisses, warmed slightly in the oven until the candy softens, then studded with an M&M in the top of each one.
VARIATIONS ON A THEME
• Sugar Cookies-Plus: Former Chattanoogan John Harr, now in Atlanta, says to jazz up any school fundraiser or grocery-store sugar cookie dough, add walnuts and dried cranberries (or any nut and dried fruit combo).
• My Cookies: Mike Jennings of Rossville, Ga., says each Christmas his wife, Teresa, varies the basic oatmeal cookie dough by subtracting raisins and adding pecans and chopped candied fruit (especially cherries), like you would use in fruitcakes.
LARGE-BATCH BAKING TIPS
• Bake breads and cakes at your leisure throughout the month. Let them cool completely and wrap them in parchment paper and/or plastic wrap followed by a freezer bag or container. When it's time to serve, take them out of the freezer and thaw completely before serving or icing.
• Cookie dough freezes well, so prepare batches in advance and bake them as needed throughout the holiday season.
• Make fruit pies in large batches by preparing them up to the point of baking. Instead of putting one in the oven, cover it tightly in plastic wrap and place entire pie in a freezer bag. When it's time to bake, cook the pie from its frozen state by reducing the oven temperature by 25 degrees and baking it about 20 minutes longer than what the recipe calls for.
• When baking cookies, only use two pans at one time to prevent overcrowding. Also, place them on different shelves so air can circulate evenly between the cookie sheets.
• When measuring flour, don't scoop the measuring cup directly into the bag. Instead, spoon out flour into a measuring cup and then level off the correct amount. Bagged flour is packed tightly, so cooks can accidentally get an extra cup by measuring incorrectly.
-- Spice Islands
Five years ago, sisters Lacy Gifford and Vickie Sledge decided their Christmas spending was growing out of control, causing stress and not providing a personal touch.
What they did to change things allows them to spend time together, provides a personal touch and offers those on the receiving end a sweet holiday season.
The sisters decided to give gift packages of treats they make themselves. While the gifts themselves are a variety of tempting morsels, even the packages offer a measure of the women's creativity, festooned as they are with colored cellophane wrap and smartly tied ribbons.
"I have to say it is one of my favorite parts of Christmas," says Gifford, a Chattanooga resident. "I enjoy the time spent with my sister and niece, and I can't wait until my little one [11-month-old Zelda] is old enough to help."
The sisters exchange ideas for treats throughout the year, make their list in early November, shop for ingredients on a Friday night in early December, then spend two to four days baking and packaging cookies, candies and other savory foods for about a dozen people at Sledge's home in Flat Rock, Ala.
Items they make every year include Date Nut Balls, fudge, Snickerdoodles, Peppermint Bark and Chex mix. This year, they added bread and jelly, a popcorn mix, Pretzel Buttons, Marshmallows on Sticks, Oreo Peppermint Cookies, Butterscotch Drops and Iced Oatmeal Cookies.
Similarly, Michele Roberts says the women in her family assemble annually for a Dearing Girls Baking Day a few weeks before Christmas.
Each adult female -- usually 10 to 12 of them, ages 6 to 80 -- brings supplies, their own monogrammed apron and two recipes, one "tried and true" and one new, she says. The mothers and aunts bake cookies, cakes, bars and tarts, while the younger nieces and granddaughters dip chocolate-covered desserts such as pretzels and marshmallows and decorate items with sprinkles.
The baking is an all-day event, Roberts says, but the result is large trays of goodies for other family members, co-workers and neighbors.
Amy Dillon says she annually baked dozens of cookies with her mother and sisters but moved from Ohio to Chattanooga this year and will miss the yearly event.
"We would spend most of our weekends in December baking [for] neighbors, coworkers and friends," she says. "My favorite was the weekend I would reserve to spend with my Grandma making pizzelle cookies."
Pizzelle cookies are traditional Italian waffle cookies which, depending on the ingredients and method of preparation, can be hard and crisp or soft and chewy.
Dillon isn't sure how much baking she will do this year, but since her grandmother gave her the pizzelle machine, she says she might make a small batch to take during her Christmas trip home.
While the former Ohioan's doily-like cookies are made with a machine, Elena Haskew makes the gingerbread for the gingerbread houses she constructs annually from scratch.
She began around 25 years ago with a book of patterns, she says, but has created her own designs for many years.
"I have always made my own gingerbread, rolled it and cut it out," she says. "I've never used a kit."
This year's creation, Disneyland's Cinderella Castle, emblematic of the trip she and her family will make later this month, took three days to make.
"It is 100 percent edible except the base and the lights," she says.
Contact staff writer Clint Cooper at email@example.com or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to my posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.
1 stick butter, softened
1 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cream of tarter
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 8-ounce package Heath Bits O'Brickle toffee bits
Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Cream shortening, butter and sugar, then add eggs. Sift together dry ingredients and gradually add to creamed mixture. Stir in toffee bits. Chill dough for about 30 minutes. Roll into 1-inch balls, then coat with a mixture of 3 tablespoons sugar and 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet for 9-11 minutes.
-- Linda Wilson
Salty Caramel Bars
1 pound butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
3 tablespoons vanilla
4 cups flour
14 ounces caramel candies (about 50 individual caramels, 1 bag), unwrapped
1/3 cup half and half
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 tablespoons extra coarse sea salt
In a large bowl, combine the butter and both types of sugar. Using mixer on medium speed, beat together until creamy. Add the vanilla. Add flour and mix until smooth. Spray a 9-by-13 inch baking pan liberally with nonstick cooking spray. Press one-third of the dough evenly into the pan to form a bottom crust. Refrigerate the remaining dough. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Bake crust until firm and edges are a pale golden brown -- approximately 20 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool about 15 minutes.
While the bottom crust is baking and the remaining dough is chilling, make the caramel filling. Place the unwrapped caramels in a saucepan, add the cream and vanilla and cook and stir over low to medium heat until completely melted. (You can also use the microwave in short bursts to melt the caramel mixture.) Pour the caramel filling over the crust. Generously salt with sea salt. Remove the remaining chilled dough from the refrigerator and crumble it evenly over the caramel. You may find the chilled dough doesn't crumble that easily. If so, just place on a cutting board and chop into the size pieces you want for the topping. Return the pan to the oven and bake until filling is bubbly and the crumbled shortbread topping is firm and lightly golden, approximately 25- 30 minutes. Let cool, and cut into squares.
-- Michele Stone
Jam Thumbprint Cookies
3/4 pound (3 sticks) unsalted butter (at room temperature)
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water (egg wash)
7 ounces sweetened coconut flakes
Raspberry and/or apricot jam
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar until they are just combined and then add the vanilla. Separately, sift together the flour and salt. With the mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture to the creamed butter and sugar. Mix until the dough starts to come together. Dump on a floured board and roll together into a flat disk. Wrap in plastic and chill for 30 minutes.
Roll the dough into 1 1/4-inch balls. Dip each ball into the egg wash, then roll it in coconut. Place the balls on an ungreased cookie sheet and use your thumb to press an indentation in the top of each. Drop 1/4 teaspoon of jam into each indentation. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until the coconut is toasty brown. Cool and serve.
-- Michele Stone
Christmas Fruit Cookies
1/2 pound each of cherries, pineapple, mixed fruit (bag or container of sugared fruit but not fruit cocktail)
1 pound white raisins
1 cup sherry
1/2 pound each of almonds and pecans
3 cups plain flour
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon buttermilk
3 whole eggs
1 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup melted butter (not margarine/shortening)
1 tablespoon vanilla
Cut up cherries, pineapple mixed fruit and raisins. Mix all together and soak the mixture overnight (at least 8-12 hours) in the sherry.
In the meantime, cut up and prepare the almonds and pecans.
The next day, sift together into a bowl the flour, cinnamon, cloves and salt. In a separate cup, dissolve the baking soda into the buttermilk.
In a very large bowl, beat the eggs, then the brown sugar and melted butter.
To the egg-sugar-butter mixture, add the flour mixture, baking soda mixture, the vanilla and the fruit and nuts. Mix thoroughly, cover the bowl, place in refrigerator and leave until mixture is chilled all the way through (may take overnight again).
When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Drop cookie mixture by teaspoonfuls onto greased cookie sheet and bake for 20-25 minutes.
Unused dough can be stored in refrigerator until ready for use. Cookies can be stored in tins. Makes about 275 cookies.
-- Kelley Nave
1 1/2 cups white sugar
1 cup margarine, melted and cooled
2 tablespoons anise extract
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
Beat eggs and sugar with an electric mixer until fluffy. Stir in the melted margarine and anise extract. Combine the flour and baking powder, stir in gradually. Dough will be sticky.
Preheat your pizzelle iron according to manufacturer's instructions. Drop batter by rounded spoonfuls onto the iron. Close and cook for about 90 seconds, or until steam stops coming out of the iron. Carefully removed and cool. Store in an airtight tin at room temperature.
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...