Food & Drink

Cowgirl Chef: Homemade gifts straight from your kitchen, and your heart

Sugar cookies are one of the easiest and most festive holiday cookies to make, and it’s especially fun when the whole family gets involved in the decorating. Let the colored sugar rain.
Sugar cookies are one of the easiest and most festive holiday cookies to make, and it’s especially fun when the whole family gets involved in the decorating. Let the colored sugar rain. Special to the Star-Telegram

Growing up in Denton, practically the entire month of December leading up to Christmas, our kitchen became a place of familiar alchemy: The air was heavy with comforting aromas of butter and sugar, and the countertops and kitchen table became workspaces.

Something was always in the oven or on the stove. Divinity, bite-size balls the color of snow. Almond butter crunch. Fudge, without nuts, because back then that’s how I liked it. Peanut butter-filled buckeyes.

Delicate pecan logs, the size of a pinkie finger, in red and green, dusted with heaps of powdered sugar. Loaves and loaves of cinnamon bread, followed by dozens of cinnamon rolls baked in round aluminum pans so they would be easy to tote.

Mom always gave homemade gifts to friends and neighbors for the holidays.

Like handwritten thank-you notes and postcards from faraway places sent through the mail, giving a home-baked gift is an old-fashioned tradition that never goes out of style.

You remember the gift, and you never forget the person who spent the time to make it for you. My granola recipe is a variation of one that I’ve tinkered with for more than a decade now, after a neighbor in Dallas gave me some for Christmas one year.

I liked it so much, I asked her for the recipe. Then I started making it and giving it to friends — in old jam jars that I’d find at the flea markets.

Which is what I suggest — go to your favorite flea, hit garage and estate sales and keep an eye out for interesting jars, vintage baking pans, tin boxes, old bowls and baskets, or anything else that looks like it would be a great container.

Cookies don’t always have to go in a jar. Granola can be bagged up and put in a great old 1950s stoneware bowl, then wrapped in cellophane. Find pieces that you love, then make them work as the vessel to hold whatever you make.

Buy colorful ribbons and twine, and tie on vintage kitchen tools, like spatulas and knives, or serving spoons with an interesting design.

It’s upcycling. It’s one-of-a-kind. It’s easy on the pocketbook. And it makes the recipient feel special. The giver, even more so.

It won’t take forever, plus it’ll make you feel good while you’re doing it. Baking always takes me to a happy place, and baking for someone else makes it even more fun.

Ellise Pierce is the author of “Cowgirl Chef: Texas Cooking With a French Accent” (Running Press, $25)., @cowgirlchef.

Holiday gift guides!

Dec. 5: Presents from North Texas

Monday: DVD box sets

Tuesday: The best of “Fab or Flub?”

Wednesday: Homemade goodies from the kitchen

Thursday: Video games and gear

Saturday: Purr-fect presents for pets

Dec. 13: Cliburn pianists’ CDs, Dave Barry’s Gift Guide

Gingerbread loaf

Makes 1 loaf

  • 1  1/2 cups flour
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • Powdered sugar, for dusting
  • Large crystal sugar, for dusting

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees and line a loaf pan with parchment paper.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, baking soda and salt.

3. Pour the buttermilk into a glass liquid measuring cup, add the vanilla, and whisk to combine.

4. Put the softened butter and brown sugar in mixer and beat until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add molasses and beat for an additional 1 to 2 minutes. Scrape down sides. Add the eggs one at a time, beating each one for 3 to 4 minutes.

5. You don’t want to overmix at this stage, so with the mixer running on low, carefully add one-third of the flour mixture and let it go just until it’s incorporated. Now add half of the buttermilk/vanilla. Then one-third of the flour. The second half of the buttermilk/vanilla, and finally the rest of the flour.

6. Pour into a prepared pan and bake for about an hour (mine took a little longer) or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the pan on a rack. Turn it out and sprinkle with powdered sugar and large crystal sugar.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 227 calories, 9 grams fat, 34 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, 56 milligrams cholesterol, 252 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 35 percent of calories from fat.

— Adapted from a recipe on Chowhound (

Peanut butter and cranberry granola

Makes about 9 cups

  • 8 cups oats
  • 1  1/2 cups peanut butter
  • 3/4 cup apple juice
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup dried cranberries

1. Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Put the oats in a large bowl.

2. Warm the peanut butter and apple juice in a saucepan over low heat. Remove from heat, and stir in the honey and salt. Pour this over the oats, using your hands to make sure it is completely incorporated.

3. Put half of this mixture onto your largest cookie sheet and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring the oats every 10 minutes to make sure they cook evenly. Repeat with the other half of the oats.

4. Once all of the oats have cooled, toss with the dried cranberries.

Nutritional analysis per  1/4-cup serving: 150 calories, 7 grams fat, 19 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams protein, no cholesterol, 81 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber, 38 percent of calories from fat.

Eiffel Tower sugar cookies

Makes 4 dozen Eiffel Towers

  • 2  1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for rolling out dough
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
  • Colored sugar, such as green, red and silver

1. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, cream of tartar and salt.

2. In a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add egg and mix well. Add vanilla, and mix again. Now, add the flour mixture and combine just until it comes together — don’t overmix.

3. Divide the dough into two pieces and put each one on a piece of plastic wrap. Press each piece into a disc and refrigerate for 2 hours or until firm. (I usually make the dough the day before I want to make the cookies, so on cookie day, I’m just rolling out, cutting, decorating and baking.)

4. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Roll out the dough until it’s about  1/4-inch thick. Cut into desired shapes using cookie cutters, and place on a parchment or Silpat-lined cookie sheet. Decorate with colored sugar; return the cookies to the fridge for 30 minutes to an hour.

5. Bake each pan of cookies for 10 to 12 minutes or until the edges just begin to slightly brown. Be careful not to overcook them. Cool on a rack.

Nutritional analysis per cookie: 76 calories, 4 grams fat, 9 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 15 milligrams cholesterol, 73 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 47 percent of calories from fat.serving.

Daddy’s hot fudge sauce

Makes about 1  3/4 cups

My dad used to make this for us as a surprise sometimes when we’d be in our rooms, doing homework, long after we’d have dinner. He’d call us down to the kitchen, and there he’d be, making us hot fudge sundaes. The recipe is an adaptation from The New York Times Cookbook.

  •  3/4 cup cocoa
  • 4 ounces bittersweet chocolate
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup corn syrup
  • 1/2 cup cream
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

1. In a heavy saucepan over medium-low heat, combine first six ingredients. Cook and stir constantly until the sugar has melted.

2. Remove from heat and add the vanilla. Serve warm.

Nutritional analysis per 1-tablespoon serving: 93 calories, 5 grams fat, 11 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 7 milligrams cholesterol, 22 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 48 percent of calories from fat.serving.

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