Sweet Season: Bakers Bring Out Their Best for Winter Holidays

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Order your beautifully decorated Christmas cookies or hot chocolate bombs online from Jaclyn’s Cookies. Submitted photo.

While Crozet and its neighboring rural villages haven’t quite the reputation as Vienna or Paris for outstanding bread and pastries, there are a surprising number of wonderful baked goods available. Outstanding cakes, cookies, fruitcakes, cheesecakes, cupcakes, pies, breads and even French macarons are available in Crozet and nearby. Many of our bakers make holiday specialties and have plenty of advice for home cooks, too. 

Flavors of spice, eggnog and chocolate show up in Fox Hollow cookies during the holidays.

Holiday Flavors Spice Up Fox Hollow Christmas Cookies and Cakes

During December, Leanne Fox adds the classic flavors of the Christmas season––egg nog, peppermint, ginger and cinnamon––to the hundreds of cookies and cakes that she produces every weekday, year-round, from the kitchen at Tabor Presbyterian Church. Her offerings sound like a sweet winter’s-night dream: classic European dark gingerbread, chocolate gingerbread cookies, cakes with lemon and lavender glaze, tender eggnog cookies coated in sugar and spice. Fox works from orders placed by customers, with pick-up at the church or local delivery every Friday. Fox Hollow Baking Company began as a way for Fox to add some joy to the tense dynamics of her job in national politics. Now, she marvels at the generosity of her supportive Crozet community.

What she makes: Cookies and cakes, with special holiday offerings at her website, foxhollowbaking.com. Order there, or find at Bluebird & Company, The Yellow Mug, Starr Hill or Blue Ridge Bottle Shop locally; others on web site. 

Why she does it: “I’ve always loved to make things with my hands. It’s my biggest joy to have my creations featured in someone’s family gatherings, and I’m humbled by the small part I play there.”

Advice for home bakers: “In baking, careful measuring is especially important. I wish everyone would switch to using a kitchen scale for cookies, cakes and other pastries.”

Rachel Willis makes stunning one-of-a-kind wedding cakes right here in Crozet. She was captured last summer with a spectacular summer-flower cake.

Cakes by Rachel: Widespread Demand, Rooted in Crozet

People come from everywhere to commission custom wedding cakes created by Rachel Willis and her small staff, who operate out of a small cottage on Jarmans Gap Road near downtown Crozet. Willis has been a professional chef for more than 30 years. “It’s all I’ve ever done,” she said. She worked in restaurants in France and then in Charlottesville; then married, bought a farm in Crozet’s mountains, and had a family. As if designing, baking, building, decorating and transporting wedding cakes is not physically demanding enough, she also raises sheep and chickens, with some of the fresh eggs going into her beautiful, one-of-a-kind creations. Although her work is sought after from all parts of the state and beyond, she always tries to have a little something for Crozet. During the fall, she dipped local apples in caramel and nuts, selling all she could make. She’ll participate in the Holiday Market December 10 (see page 1) with packages of cookies, bars and cupcakes, and will take online orders for macarons. 

Rachel Willis of Cakes by Rachel always tries to have somethign for her Crozet neighbors. Macarons will be available Dec. 10.

What she makes: Breathtaking wedding cakes, personally designed with her clients, with a variety of fillings, frostings and trimmings; and seasonal pastries and sweets for Crozet customers. See her work at mycakesbyrachel.com.

Why she does it: “I do love it, creating every day with my staff, focusing my full attention all the time, and still trying get better every week.”

Cookies for Crozet: Purchase little boxes of pastries prepared for the Dec. 10 event, or order macarons online through the website. 

Advice for home bakers: “Remember that it’s the browning of the butter, flour and sugar that develops the flavor, so don’t be afraid to see a golden-brown color in your baked goods. And baked goods need salt, even if you can’t taste it.”

Kay Campbell mixes three times the normal amount of fruit into her Christmas fruitcakes. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

Kay Campbell’s Fruitcakes Honor Her Mother

Santa may be bringing you a sleigh full of hundred-dollar bills, but you won’t get one of Kay Campbell’s fruitcakes unless you’re one of the lucky nine or so people on her list. “Mama always baked for Christmas,” Campbell said. “Mama” was Frances Miller of Afton, who baked everything in a wood-stove oven and made extra candy, cookies and cakes, storing them outside on an unheated porch as Christmas approached. Campbell bakes her cakes in November, wraps them in cheesecloth, stacks them in a lard tin, and doses them with peach schnapps a couple of times over the next month or so. “My sister always asks for the one on the bottom, where the schnapps kind of settles,” she said.

Fruitcakes are aged in peach schnapps for a month or two and brought out for the holidays. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

What she makes: Fruitcakes with three times the normal weight of fruit and nuts. She also makes cookies and custards for her family.

Why she does it: “It’s fun!”

Advice for home bakers: “For the fruitcakes, prepare your pans with butter and sugar instead of butter and flour to give the outside a nice, sweet crunch, and remember to bake them for a long time at low heat.”

Marissa Kalo teaches granddaughter Audrey how to roll our piecrust

Marissa Kalo Creates One-of-Kind Cutie Pies

Traveling through Scotland and England by train, Marissa Kalo tasted plenty of little pies. “When you’d stop at a station, they’d offer you a selection,” she said. “They’re considered traveling food.” She was enchanted by the trays of miniature pastries, with ground meat, vegetables and cheese, or fruit and custard tucked inside a rich crust. Shortly after she returned to her home in Crozet, she worked out a pastry-shell recipe without gluten, so she could enjoy them, too. Kalo is an artist who majored in art in college and studied further in New York City. She’s published a children’s book and has exhibited her work locally. Her little pies are edible works of art, shining like jewels, studded with cranberries or blackberries, or golden with butternut squash or spicy vegetable curry.

Order Cutie Pies online and pick them up in Crozet.

What she makes: It changes with the season. Right now, find apple-cranberry, pecan, French walnut, pumpkin cream and chocolate orange pies for a sweet dessert; or choose spinach-feta, Mexican poblano, Indian curry or butternut squash pies for a savory bite. 

How to find her: Kalo publishes each week’s offerings on the Cutie Pies Facebook page, takes orders by text or email, and puts each order in a cooler outside her Jarmans Gap Road home on Friday and Saturday for pick up. She appreciates a week or two notice for large orders during the holidays.

Advice for working with gluten-free dough: Kalo uses a mix of gluten-free flours for her creations. “There are plenty of recipes online now,” she said. “Experiment until you find the one you like best.”

June Morris makes beautiful
holiday cookies at her home in Afton.

Fresh, Frosted Cookies Made in Afton

June Morris was raised on her family’s land in Afton, where her parents, Junior and Hester Fox, farmed. After experiencing a fire at their home, Junior got the ball rolling for the Rockfish Valley Fire and Rescue. Junior was also a contractor, and Hester was a great cook, Morris said, and also did some baking. Her homemade rolls, in particular, were very well received. Morris loved baking and did it as kind of a hobby on her days off as the office manager for McDow Funeral Home in Waynesboro. During the pandemic, she found herself with too much time on her hands. “I knew I had to do something,” she said. “I started making sugar cookies for family and friends.” Soon she was taking and filling orders from friends of friends, neighbors and, eventually strangers. Thus was born Fox Farm Cookies, named after her childhood home.

Creativity and whimsy make Fox Farm cookies special.

What she makes: Beautifully decorated sugar cookies made from farm fresh eggs and real butter.

Where to find her: She takes orders through her Facebook page, with pick-up at her home.

Advice for home bakers: Her first efforts at elaborate frosting were not successful, she said. “I figured, this is it for me, but my children told me to keep at it.” Her advice is the same as her children’s: “Keep at it,” she said. “Different designs need different consistencies of frosting.” You’ll learn as you go along.”

Ben Stowe and Heather Coiner farm and bake bread at their Little Hat Creek Farm in Nelson County.

Little Hat Creek Farm Promotes Local Grains

There was a time, Heather Coiner said, when you’d find a mill around here wherever there was enough water to turn a wheel. “That was before they all became Bed and Breakfasts.” She’s one of the founders of the Common Grain Alliance, a group of people interested in planting, growing and using local grain for local baked goods. At Little Hat Creek, she’s made wonderful artisanal bread for almost six years. As Coiner became more aware of the different types of available grains, and the way they work together to make growing wheat sustainable, she’s added cookies, crackers and granola to the bread made and sold by Little Hat Creek. “Flour has different qualities,” she said. “Something that’s not suitable for bread might be perfect for cookies.” She’s excited about the idea that Virginia bakers can make their products from grains grown in the mid-Atlantic, adding to the independence and security of the region.  

Part of the mission of Little Hat Creek Farm is to find ways to use grains that compliment wheat in Virginia. These cookies are made with locally grown rye.

What she makes: Little Hat Creek sourdough bread, crackers, cookies, and granola.

Where to find it: Breads by order (See the Little Hat Creek website) or at Integral Yoga in Charlottesville; dry goods at Greenwood Gourmet Grocery and selected Charlottesville sites.

Advice for home bakers: Don’t be intimidated by sourdough bread. You can hold the starter, feed it and use it without stress. “It can definitely fit into your life,” Coiner said.

Nancy Hellerman of Goodwin Creek Bakery advises home bakers to avoid using so much flour that the dough is dry.

Goodwin Creek Bakery Bakes Early-American-inspired Bread

Unlike home-based entrepreneurs who have a steep growth plan in mind from the time they sell their first product, John and Nancy Hellerman have cut back production and they couldn’t be happier. Ingredients as well as employees became hard to find, so the proprietors and now sole employees of the Afton-based bakery currently produce what they can each week without the worries of hiring, supervision, and expansion. It’s a relief, John explained, after years of pulling hundreds of loaves a day from their ovens. “This gives us time to home school our children and even to travel a little bit.” Almost everyone is familiar with the breads under the Goodwin Creek label, baked with only the best organic flour: oatmeal, French country, challah, Italian farmhouse, cinnamon-raisin, great seed, seven-grain, wildflower honey, ciabatta and farmhouse white. 

Goodwin Creek Bakery will have festive cranberry pecan bread for the holidays.

What they make: All those listed above, plus pecan-raisin bread and dinner rolls for the holidays.

Where to find it: Crozet Market, Greenwood Gourmet and Blue Ridge Grocery.

Advice to home bakers: Be gentle with yeast dough, Nancy Hellerman said. “Do not punch it down. Fold it instead like an envelope.” And choose your ingredients: instant yeast and flour that’s at least 12.7% protein. Avoid overworking, as a wetter dough will yield fluffier bread.

Lisa Swinson of Sweet Bliss Bakery with pieces of her French-style raspberry swirl cheesecake.

Find Sweet Bliss in Nellysford

Lisa Swinson was only 12 when she attempted her first cheesecake at her home in North Carolina. She adopted the same cheesecake style as her mother, who baked the rich concoctions for sale.  They were made in the French style: “They’re different from most cheesecakes,” Swinson said. “Most people are familiar with New York-style cheesecakes, which use both the yolks and the whites of eggs.” “French style” means there are only egg whites in her creations, Swinson said, so they’re a little lighter than those you might be used to.” She said cheesecakes are her first love, but all kinds of pastry and desserts, including bread puddings, as well as quiches, sandwiches, salads and soups, are available in the Sweet Bliss Bakery shop.

Handmade rosemary focaccia at Sweet Bliss Bakery in Nellysford.

What she makes: Sandwiches, soups and pastries as well as bread pudding, cookies and cheesecakes.

Where to find it: Find individual pastries and lunch items in Nellysford, or special order a whole French-style cheesecake in one of dozens of flavor combinations. Visit www.sweetbliss bakery.com., or find Sweet Bliss on Facebook.

Advice for home bakers: “Don’t be scared! Just follow the recipe exactly. Once you master the basic ingredients, you can invent new flavors.”

Jaclyn Shaffer has grown her Crozet business by offering something for every cookie lover. Photo Beth Kagarise.

Cookies for Everyone by Jaclyn

Jaclyn Shaffer is glad when people are delighted with her colorful decorated sugar cookies, and she offers beautiful seasonal designs as well as custom decorated cookies. She’s not one to hoard her knowledge, though. She’s been teaching classes in cookie decoration at Bluebird & Co., and also offers classes at private homes for groups of would-be cookie artists. And for those who prefer the more creative part of cookie production rather than the nuts and bolts of mixing, rolling, cutting and baking, she offers do-it-yourself cookie kits with already-baked sugar cookies and pre-filled frosting tubes. These vary with the season: she just closed her Thanksgiving cookie orders and is open for Christmas orders. Shaffer had a bit of a head start with the scientific demands of baking––she was a biologist before becoming a baker. She’s employed her knowledge to concoct a new product, “Hot Cocoa Bombs,” that chocolate lovers can transform before their eyes into a steaming cup of hot chocolate with marshmallows. 

What she makes: Seasonal cookies, special orders, pre-packaged cookie-making kits, hot cocoa bombs.

Where to find it: Through her website at jaclynscookiesva.com, or look for the hot cocoa bombs at Bluebird & Co.

Advice to home bakers: “When you decorate, don’t hold the pastry tube like a pencil against the cookie. Let the icing flow freely down onto the cookie.”

Order your beautifully decorated Christmas cookies or hot chocolate bombs online from Jaclyn’s Cookies. Submitted photo.

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