Many of us have strong holiday memories of decorating the Christmas tree, singing holiday songs, or opening present after present. Then there are those who associate the holidays with spending time in the kitchen with family, making those special treats that come out only once a year. Despite the New Year's resolution to lose the holiday weight, it's well worth putting on the pounds for these delicious desserts, as they only come around every December. There's a multitude of traditional holiday desserts available right here in central Illinois, from festive holiday cookies to fruitcake, Challah bread, Springerles and Stollen, the Yule Log, and baklava. For no matter which winter holiday you need a guaranteed-hit dessert, all it takes is a call to your favorite baker or a willingness to attempt a recipe in the privacy of your own home.

American family traditions

Gina Edwards, editor of AndSheCooksToo.com (and vice president of marketing for the Heart of Illinois United Way in her daily life) shares that same nostalgic feeling about holiday traditions and how they often center upon sweets. "Like many families, mine has a collection of holiday traditions—traditions that change and grow as our families do," Edwards said. "Growing up, my grandma always made a multitude of cookies and candies. She had a special caramel she made—and now I make—for Christmas, orange caramels. Grandpa would stand bent over the kitchen counter ‘helping' Grandma individually wrap the caramels with wax paper while she had the hard job of cutting them into bite-sized pieces. I think Grandpa ate more than he wrapped."

After her grandparents passed away, Edwards' mother gave her Grandma's recipe box. "As I was going through the box, I found her orange caramel recipe, and it reminded me of all the holidays we spent at my grandma's house."

She decided to give her grandmother's caramel recipe a try. "I still remember sneaking down to our kitchen on that Christmas Eve and checking to see if my first attempt at making Grandma's specialty was a success. I had a good cry before getting my husband up early and making him help me wrap the caramels. And, well…I think he eats more than get wrapped, too."

In her role as baking expert and cooking demonstrator, Edwards said her two most requested topics are "Holiday Sweets and Treats Make the Perfect Gift" and "Wrapping Around the Christmas Tree." Both demonstrations offer easy cookies, confections, and baked goods suitable for holiday entertaining and gift-giving. Her recipe for "Very Versatile Thumbprint Cookies" (see page 17), from her mom's and grandma's repertoires, is one of her most popular for those who don't have time to slave over the oven during the holiday frenzy. What started out as a simple cookie with red or green filling and a toasted pecan coating has blossomed into several variations. "Now the cookie is the base for several ideas: rolled in coconut and filled with coconut or lemon curd, rolled in sliced almonds and filled with homemade raspberry jam, rolled in walnuts and filled with a rum-and-nutmeg cream. The list goes on and on." The recipe is suitable for most other holidays too—Easter, baby showers, birthdays—given variations in icing color or decorations.

European customs

Wanda and Pete Hanssen of Hanssen's Le Bakery find themselves busy with traditional international treats throughout the holidays. "For the Christmas season, we do a lot of German Stollen [coffee cake] and Bûche de Noël, the classic Yule Log with Genoise [sponge cake] and French buttercream," explained Wanda Hanssen. "Special treats during the holidays also include German Springerle, the anise baked cookie that ‘springs' to life when baked, hence the name; and Challah bread, the braided Jewish loaf for Hanukah."

Hanssen said that the most unique, traditional, international holiday dessert her bakery offers is hands-down the Australian classic called Pavlova. "This meringue creation was named for the Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, who danced in Sydney in the early '30s. We have the rare request for this, especially as a centerpiece for an elegant table."

Besides its winter holiday treats, Hanssen's is known for its St. Patrick's Day Irish soda bread; Hot Cross Buns, Easter logs, and cakes; spooky Halloween treats; and pumpkin concoctions for the autumn holidays. According to Hanssen, each traditional recipe "requires a special touch and has to be prepared with a special attitude."

Well put. We've all had that special holiday treat we just know we could never duplicate, as it does indeed require a generous helping of love, pride, wisdom, and grace. At the same time, with a little luck, many of us will discover a winter recipe we can begin to claim as our own family tradition—or at least find just the right place to buy it! As Anthony so tastefully put it, "Desserts are a big part of every celebration—they represent the sweetness of life."

Lebanese celebrations

Another favorite tradition of many families in central Illinois is the time-honored Lebanese treat, baklava. Alice Anthony of Anthony's Catering, Aleece's Pita Chips, and Anthony's Wedding Coordinating Service, produces it in scores for the holidays. She said her No. 1 requested pastry is baklava, and her fudge and chocolate raspberry tart are also popular and come from time-honored family recipes.

Anthony said no holiday is complete in her home without mounds of her authentic Lebanese sweets piled onto the family's dessert table. Besides her baklava, Christmas visitors will also be persuaded to try her crescent-shaped, sugar- and walnut-filled macaroons known as Sunbousick; Mamoul, which are sugar cookies stuffed with crushed pistachios or walnuts and represent the snow-capped mountains and the purity of white snow, usually served on New Year's Day; Awamat, a fried sweet puff pastry made for the feast of Epiphany, January 6; and Ghouribeh, a simple, almond-topped butter cookie made with rose water that Anthony said "reminds us of life itself—it's sweet with a little bitterness."

Anthony is also well-known in town for her fresh fruit dessert displays during the holiday season. Her fruit displays a range in size from centerpieces to five-foot fruit sculptures. Each of her displays is truly a unique work of art. "Fresh fruit is always plentiful in our home. No matter what time of year, we had fresh fruit growing in my father's orchard," explained Anthony. "I enjoyed arranging the different colors and making a display that was as pretty to look at as it was good to eat."

Time-honored holiday favorites

Mary Ardapple, owner of Apple's Bakery Northside Market, fills several popular requests around this time of year, and some very unique ones. "At Christmas, our fruitcake is very popular," Ardapple said. "The staff also makes about 15 types of handmade Christmas cookies, which are all made from scratch and include traditional favorites such as Spritz, Mexican wedding cakes, peanut butter blossoms, peanut butter balls (some rolled in chocolate, some not), all kinds of shortbread, coconut meringues, Chinese noodle cookies, a variety of pinwheels, thumbprint cookies, and all shapes of our favorite iced sugar cookies, just to name a few. Apple's has one customer in particular who gets a Grand Marnier custard pie every Christmas—it's made just for him (he's pretty special)."

Ardapple reserves the holiday season to make mincemeat (because, she said, it's steeped in holiday tradition), coconut meringues, black walnut cranberry poundcake, and fruitcake. "I believe one of the elements that make the holidays so memorable is the fact that some things are only baked at that time," she said. "If we baked everything the same all year round, the secret ingredient of being ‘special' wouldn't exist and everything would be ordinary. The traditions created around special baked treats at special times are what flavor our memories from childhood to adulthood. These memories are what help us smile and create a softening of our hearts throughout life." a&s