1. Cooking

Holiday recipes to kick off your Christmas baking season

SCOTT KEELER  |   TimesGingerbread Men.
SCOTT KEELER | TimesGingerbread Men.
Published Dec. 5, 2018

What makes a holiday dessert a classic? Most often, it's the company, not the cookie itself, that places a dessert in the seasonal hall of fame.

Our thoughts always turn to those baking traditions this time of year, and the wonderful confections they create. Most classics, like my grandma's Holly Wreath cookies, are passed down from one family to the next, ingredients tweaked ever so slightly based on the main baker. I couldn't tell you whether those cookies are objectively tasty anymore — at this point, their flavor is part of my DNA.

Sometimes, a holiday classic isn't made from scratch, but a tree-shaped cake bought in a plastic wrapper, or cut from a pre-formed cookie dough log.

Julie Curry, who owns Bake 'N Babes, a bakery that operates out of the Hall on Franklin food hall in Tampa, grew up eating mostly slice-and-bake cookies around the holidays. She says making cookie dough from scratch used to intimidate her. Later in life, she realized it wasn't so difficult, and also that perfection isn't what mattered.

MORE CHRISTMAS TREATS: I made a Little Debbie Christmas Tree Cake from scratch

"Don't let that kind of stuff get in your way, especially during the holidays," she says. "When you're baking with the family, don't be afraid because you're trying to be perfect. Get in the kitchen and just do it. Even if it doesn't turn out great, you'll still eat it and it'll still be memorable."

She shares one of her holiday recipes with us this year, a cookie bar she's made part of the annual celebration with her in-laws and husband and children. It seemed easier to her than traditional cut-out cookies, and so a new tradition was born.

That's the theme with this collection of recipes: classic holiday treats tweaked just slightly by the bakers to make it their own. Those small changes are an important part of how a recipe evolves, and gets passed down through generations, so that I can make the wreath-shaped cookies my grandma first started making 50 years ago, with modern ingredients.

A little piece of the old, mixed with some of the new. That's the recipe for a lasting holiday classic.

Holly Wreaths

My grandma on my dad's side was known for a couple Christmas cookies, and this was one of them — "wreath cookies," as we called them. It's one of my dad's favorites, so we made it in our house growing up, too.

My Grandma Stark was very German, so it makes sense that one of her annual treats was what's known as a "spritz." The name for this cookie comes from the German word spritzen, or "to squirt." These cookies are made using a cookie press, which means that a soft dough is pushed (or squirted) through a cylinder to create designs.

The cookie press made its way to my kitchen over the years, and I use it still to make these cookies. I have my grandma's original recipe card, too, which contains some charms. The first ingredient listed is "oleo," another term for margarine. She calls for a cherry garnish, and says to use "drink cherries in jar." The recipe is very simple, and the addition of cream cheese gives the shortbread-like cookies just a little something extra. If you don't have a cookie press, you can make wreaths by pinching of pieces of dough and rolling them into logs, then forming into circles.

Michelle Stark, Times food editor

1/2 cup margarine or butter

4 ounces cream cheese

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup flour, sifted

Green food coloring

Maraschino cherries

Heat oven to 325 degrees.

Cream margarine and cheese. Add sugar and cream well. Then add vanilla.

Slowly add the flour. Mix well. Add a couple drops of green food coloring, and mix.

Fill cookie press half full. Form cookies onto an ungreased baking sheet using the star-shaped plate.

Hold press in a semi-horizontal position and form wreaths by moving press in a circular motion. Gently push ends of dough together to form wreaths.

Cut cherries into very small pieces and put a piece on each cookie where the ends meet.

Bake for about 10 to 12 minutes, until slightly browned on the bottom.

Makes about 2 dozen.

Source: Peggy Stark

Carmelita Cookie Bars

I've been making these for about nine years now for the holidays. It has oatmeal, and salted caramel and pecans, it's kind of like a cookie bar. My father-in-law would always eat it for breakfast, and he said it was okay because it has oatmeal in it.

I like this kind of cookie because, before I baked professionally, I tried to make sugar cookies from scratch and cut them into shapes and stuff, and they just did not turn out well.

I was trying to make a cookie to bring over to my in-laws, and I thought, "I'll do a cookie bar. I probably can't mess that up." It's really easy to make, and it's got all those notes you want — salty and sweet. Kind of like a chocolate chip cookie. It's definitely not Christmas without them.

I also love chocolate chip cookies. We make those for Christmas, too. My son suggested we practice making cookies for Santa when we put up the tree last week, so I made some (chocolate chip cookies). It's a go-to for me.

Julie Curry, owner of Bake 'N Babes

For the salted caramel:

1 cup light brown sugar (packed)

1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon vanilla

For the carmelitas:

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 3/4 cups quick-cooking oats

1 1/4 cups light brown sugar (packed)

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 cups (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter

1 cup chocolate chips

3/4 cup chopped pecans

Sea salt, for garnish

Make the salted caramel: Mix brown sugar, butter, salt and heavy cream in a medium saucepan over medium heat until thoroughly melted and mixed together. Whisk in the flour until no lumps remain. The flour will help thicken the caramel sauce. Once smooth, remove from heat and whisk in vanilla extract. (When using real vanilla, extract it's important to add it to a slightly cooled mixture since it contains alcohol and it will burn off, along with a lot of the vanilla flavor.)

Set aside 1 1/2 cups of caramel for the bars, and store the rest. Caramel will stay good in the refrigerator for 2 weeks. (You can double or triple the recipe and put them in mason jars and give them as gifts.)

Make the carmelitas: Heat oven 350 degrees. Grease a 9- by 13-inch pan with cooking spray or butter, line it with parchment paper, then grease again. You will want to heavily coat the corners because the caramel will get very sticky.

Combine the flour, oats, brown sugar, baking soda, salt and softened butter in the bowl of a stand mixer. If you don't have a stand mixer, use a handheld mixer to combine. Mix on low speed until crumbly. Divide the mixture into two equal portions.

Spread half the crumb mixture evenly in the prepared pan. Press the dough mixture down with your hands until you have a flat and even layer. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove pan from oven and let cool.

Sprinkle the chocolate chips and chopped pecans over the cooled crust. Drizzle salted caramel sauce over the chocolate chips and nuts. Top with the remaining crumb mixture. Just an even sprinkling of the dough makes a beautiful crumble top.

Return to the oven and bake for an additional 15 to 20 minutes, or until the crust starts to brown. Allow the pan to cool, and refrigerate until the caramel filling is set. Cut into bars and serve.

We like to garnish our bars with a drizzle of chocolate and a sprinkle of Maldon sea salt.

Makes 12 large cookie bars.

Gingerbread Cookies

Alessi Bakery has had gingerbread on its menu for decades, using the same recipe for at least the past 40 years to create gingerbread men (and women), which they sell year-round. At the holidays they come in shapes like reindeer, stockings, trees and gingerbread houses. Melissa Maggiore, is in charge of the cake department and also the gingerbread houses and shapes. I talked with her recently just as they were ramping up gingerbread houses production. She says that along with the classic sugar cookie cutouts, gingerbread cookies are the bakery's most popular cookie.

"Even if they don't need gingerbread, people still feel obligated to get one, because they're so cute and festive," she said.

They make 80-quart batches of dough, going through more than 1,200 gingerbread men and women each season.

What gives gingerbread its signature flavors?

"Well you have to have ginger of course, but I find the most important factors are molasses and the brown sugar," she said. "Molasses adds that extra sweetness to balance out the ginger, and gives it that nice pretty brown color. Same with the brown sugar. If you don't have right combo, the cookie will be too light."

For at-home bakers, she recommends rolling your dough to about 1/4-inch thickness before cutting out the shapes. And coat those cookie cutters with a little bit of flour. It can help, too, to make sure your dough is chilled and not at room temperature when you're cutting and preparing the cookies for the oven.

After testing a couple gingerbread cookie recipes, we're sharing a recipe heavy on the molasses and brown sugar, with just the right touch of spices.

Michelle Stark, Times food editor

3/4 cup butter, softened

1 cup packed brown sugar

1 large egg, room temperature

3/4 cup molasses

4 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons ground ginger

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

3/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon salt

Frosting, for decorating

Sprinkles, for decorating

In a large bowl, cream butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg and molasses. Combine the flour, ginger, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves and salt; gradually add to creamed mixture and mix well. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to an hour.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. On a lightly floured surface, roll dough to 1/8-inch thickness. Cut out desired shapes with cookie cutters. Place on ungreased baking sheets.

Bake until edges are firm, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove to wire racks to cool. Decorate cookies.

Makes about 4 dozen.

Source: Adapted from Taste of Home

Mini Panettone

Panettone is the Italian answer to fruitcake. A sweet bread that's more bread-y than cakelike, panettone is typically made as a large loaf and dotted with dried fruits like raisins, cherries and apricots. Most panettone sold in these parts is imported from Italy. La Casa Del Pane (7110 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach), which specializes in Italian treats, sells a traditional loaf from Sicily, as well as a handful of other flavors. There was always panettone on the table when the Italian side of my family got together, the kind from Italy. It can be hard to make at home, the traditional loaves typically made in old cans like coffee cans, which makes for an awkward shape to recreate. This year, I set out to make panettone a bit more manageable. The result is these mini loaves, which bake in muffin pans. I think it may become a new tradition, though next time I will be adding chocolate chips to the batter.

Michelle Stark, Times food editor

1 1/2 cups diced dried fruit (a combination of cherries, raisins and apricots)

1/4 cup apple juice, orange juice, rum, or a mixture

1/4 cup butter

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2/3 cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs

1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon Fiori di Sicilia, to taste

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

2/3 cup milk

2 generous tablespoons coarse white sparkling sugar, for topping

Mix the dried fruit and liquid of your choice in a bowl. Cover the bowl, and let the fruit sit overnight. Or speed up the process by heating fruit and liquid in the microwave till very hot, then cooling to lukewarm/room temperature, about 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease a standard muffin tin.

In a medium-sized mixing bowl, cream together the butter, vegetable oil, and sugar until smooth.

Add the eggs, beating to combine. Stir in the Fiori (if you can't find this, you can use almond extract) and vanilla.

Whisk together the baking powder, salt and flour. Stir the dry ingredients into the butter mixture alternately with the milk, beginning and ending with the flour and making sure everything is thoroughly combined.

Stir in the fruit, with any remaining liquid.

Spoon the batter evenly into the prepared pan, filling the cups quite full. Sprinkle the tops of the muffins generously with the coarse sugar.

Bake the muffins for 18 to 20 minutes, or until they're a sunny gold color on top, and a cake tester inserted into the middle of one of the center muffins comes out clean.

Remove them from the oven, and let them cool for a couple of minutes, or until you can handle them. Transfer them to a rack to cool.

Makes 12 muffins.

Source: Adapted from

Italian Sesame Seed Cookies

This classic Sicilian Christmas cookie known as Angeletti Guiguileni is a favorite on my Italian cookie tray. It is much like a biscotti but softer and not twice baked. It is usually shaped into a small rectangular log; most recipes use shortening and anise as a flavoring. While looking through my mom's recipe box recently, I found a recipe for sesame cookies using the standard technique of creaming butter and milk to make a glue to hold the sesame seeds onto the cookies. This classic has evolved and been transformed in my collection. I have updated the recipe with lots of butter and more sugar. A simple sugar syrup is used as glue to hold the sesame seeds on the cookie. I add vanilla sugar for taste and texture to the sesame seeds. The crescent shape gives the cookie a crispier exterior than the traditional log shape. To infuse more air into the cookie, I beat the eggs and the brown sugar until frothy and then use the wire whisk attachment when mixing the remaining dough. This simple cookie is my favorite for breakfast dipped in cappuccino.

Lorraine Fina Stevenski, Times correspondent

For the sugar syrup:

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup water

For the cookies:

1/3 cup light brown sugar

1 large egg

1 large egg yolk

2 tablespoons milk, or half and half

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon Fiori di Sicilia flavoring, optional

2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed

1/3 cup granulated sugar

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1 1/4 cups (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened and cut into pieces

For the topping:

1/2 cup sesame seeds

1/4 cup vanilla sugar blend

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 rimmed half sheet pans with parchment paper. In a microwave safe bowl, whisk together the sugar and water. Microwave for 1 minute or until the sugar dissolves. Set aside to cool.

Make the dough: In a large mixing bowl, add the light brown sugar, egg and yolk, milk, vanilla extract (and optional Fiori di Sicilia). Vigorously whisk by hand until frothy. Set aside.

With a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment on low speed, combine the flour, granulated sugar, baking powder and salt. On medium speed gradually add the butter pieces and mix until the mixture resembles coarse meal, 3 to 5 minutes.

Add the egg mixture and mix until the dough just comes together, about 1 minute. If the dough is too wet, sprinkle in a few tablespoons of flour. The dough should not stick to your fingers when pinched. Turn the dough out on a floured surface and knead into a ball. This dough is best to work with at room temperature when just made. A cool room and surface makes these cookies easier to form.

Form and bake the cookies: In a shallow bowl, mix together the sesame seeds and vanilla sugar. With floured hands and lightly floured surface, break off a handful of dough and roll into a 3/4-inch-thick rope. Cut the rope into 4-inch lengths. Dip one side of the rope in the sugar syrup and then in the sesame seed/vanilla sugar. Place ope on the cookie sheet and form into a crescent. Place 12 on each cookie sheet. Bake 15 to 18 minutes. Let cool on the pan 15 minutes, wipe off the parchment paper with a paper towel and form and bake the remaining dough. Store at room temperature in a tightly covered cookie jar or tin.

Makes about 48 cookies.

Christmas Milkshakes

"Let's make milkshakes!" yelled my dad, as he marched into the condo carrying a new milkshake maker. A couple years after the divorce, Mr. Volk was determined to start a new Christmas tradition with me and my younger sister. He's not a regular dad. He's a cool dad. We picked the dinner menu: Grandmom's spaghetti and meatballs, duh. And after pasta: milkshakes. We each blended our favorite ice cream flavors and milk using Dad's new kitchen gadget. Sipping our cold beverages in sweat pants, because that's all that fit us after all those carbs, we introduced Dad to Mean Girls. (It can be a Christmas movie!) This tradition didn't really stick as we got older. Dad couldn't make fetch happen. But at least we got a fun memory out of it.

Brittany Volk, Times staff writer

3 big scoops of your favorite ice cream (ours are Cookies 'n' Cream, Mint Chocolate Chip and Vanilla With Cookie Dough)

2 ounces milk

Mix-ins: Chocolate syrup, crushed candy or cookie pieces

Toppings: Chocolate or caramel syrup, whipped cream, chocolate chips, candy canes, cookie pieces

Using a blender or milkshake machine, blend ice cream, milk and any mix-ins together until smooth.

Pour into a chilled glass, and add any toppings. Serve immediately.

Serves 1.

Source: Food Network


• Do not add ice as it will just water it down. If you like your milkshakes thinner, add more milk.

• Put your glass in the freezer to give it a nice chill.

• Make sure your ice cream is softened, but not runny, before you start. If your ice cream is too hard, adding more milk to thin it out will dilute the flavor.

• For the grownups: Add a splash of your favorite liquor. Especially if your kids make you watch a teen movie.


You don't like fruitcake? You might like this fruitcake.

My family has been making this recipe for four generations now. It was handed to my great-grandmother, Josephine Falkowski Smith, by her lifelong friend Lottie Gorski more than 50 years ago.

My mother makes it every year, following a recipe on a handwritten card from her mother with a very important note next to "butter" — "no substitutes." It's sweet, dense, toothsome, not dry. We like to freeze it and saw off hunks to eat while still cold. The secret ingredient? That whiskey. A whole cup! If you wanted to give it a new twist, you could try bourbon, and toasting the walnuts would bring out a little body.

Stephanie Hayes, Times deputy editor, features

1 pound candied pineapple (green and white)

1 pound candied cherries

6 eggs

2 cups sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 pound shelled walnuts

1 cup butter

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking power

1 cup whiskey

Cut up fruit and nuts in small pieces. Put in a large bowl and sprinkle a little flour over the fruit and nuts and mix. Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat well. Add flour sifted with salt and baking powder to the creamed sugar and egg mixture. Then add fruit and nuts. Stir well and add 1 cup of whiskey and mix thoroughly. Bake in an angel food pan at 325 degrees for 1 hour, then reduce to 275 degrees for one hour. Or, bake in four small loaf pans at 300 degrees for 1 hour and 30 minutes. Let cool before removing from pans.

Source: Family of Stephanie Hayes