This article first appeared in the December 2023/January 2024 issue of eat. drink. MISSISSIPPI magazine.
By Kathy K. Martin
Twas way before the night before Christmas and we already have visions of sugar cookies and frosted cakes dancing in our heads. Many bakeries around the state feature their finest holiday creations to add to our decadent dessert table. These bakers also share a few suggestions to help make baking at home the most wonderful time of the year.
Christmas Baking: Campbell's Bakery, Jackson
Campbell’s Bakery, the iconic bakery in Jackson, greets every Christmas with their famous Southern tea cakes and holiday decorated petit fours. Owned by Damien Cavicchi and Mary Sanders Ferriss Cavicchi, this husband-and-wife duo remains true to the original recipes and its owner, Louis Campbell. He was an Army veteran who opened the bakery in 1962 on North State Street, where it still stands today. “We feel that we’re involved in something meaningful from someone’s everyday need to satisfy a craving to their celebration of a special occasion that spans generations of customers,” says Damien Cavicchi, who is also chef/owner of Hal & Mal’s music venue and restaurant in Jackson.
He describes their traditional Southern tea cake as a cross between a cookie and a cake with the appearance and taste of a sugar cookie flavored with almond extract. “Our classic tea cakes are usually cut in the shape of the state of Mississippi and covered in icing, and like so many Southern things, it’s very sweet.” Their tea cakes are still so popular that the bakery offers nationwide shipping. “We’ve had a lot of requests, especially from people who have moved away and have roots in Jackson.” The bakery also offers ice cream and one flavor, of course, has crumbled tea cakes in it.
While staying true to its heritage, Campbell’s also seeks to be relative to today’s new tastes with more diversity in their products. The bakery still creates custom cakes, but also has cakes ready to go for last-minute shoppers. In addition to a variety of Christmas sugar cookies, cookie-decorating kits (including cookies for Santa accompanied by a milk bottle, reindeer food, and a coloring sheet), chess squares, caramel blondies, and cheesecakes, he says that they have deep-dived into all the recipes to maintain the best flavors. One of his favorite cookies is the kitchen sink chocolate chip cookie, which features chopped pretzels and potato chips in a classic chocolate chip cookie. Some of their seasonal offerings include a variety of pies, a toffee apple cake bar, and a pumpkin cheesecake that is texturally lighter than the traditionally rich cheesecake.
Related Recipe: Praline Pecan Pumpkin Crunch Cake
Cavicchi begins the baking preparations at his home by asking for suggestions from family. “My youngest son especially wants a say in what I make.” As a chef, he also likes to take traditional recipes and put new twists on it with aromatic spices and other interesting flavors, as well as textures to give desserts extra crunch. For instance, he likes to make the Southern classic pineapple casserole because of its simplicity, but he can make his own interpretation with different cheeses and crushed crackers.
He also creates a time line for their holiday baking, which begins two days prior with recipe planning and shopping to remain organized. He makes desserts the day before and preps and measures ingredients before he begins. “Everyone always ends up in the kitchen, so I don’t want to be unorganized or rushed. Better to enjoy it all and not be stressed.”
During the holiday season when many people stop by a local wine shop on the way to a holiday gathering, Cavicchi hopes they consider stopping by the bakery to bring sweet treats that are beautiful enough to put on fine china at the party.
Christmas Baking: R & R Cookies, Oxford
Jessica Franks, owner of R & R Cookies in Oxford, is known for her shaped sugar cookies decorated with royal icing. She also offers decorated cakes, cookie cakes, petite fors, and cookie decorating kits. “I’m 100% self-taught and offer hundreds of different shapes of cookies and about 20 different flavors of cookies from chocolate and vanilla to lemon, strawberry or king cake.” She also makes her own cookie cutters with her 3D printer.
Over six years ago, Franks and her son, Noah, were recovering at home after being injured. “I started testing my baking skills while I healed,” Franks says about watching many online videos of cookie decorating. Practicing became the best therapy for her arm to heal. The name for her business came from that at-home “rest and relax,” as well as from one of her favorite Bible verses, Matthew 11:28, which says: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.”
Her home business grew into a storefront in 2017, which she describes as family-friendly and family-owned and operated. While her son and husband, Chad, moved on to different careers, she and her daughter, Sarah Garrett, now operate the business daily. Their main cookie recipe is a sugar cookie, but without the almond flavoring. She and her daughter also offer other types of cookies, as well as pound cakes, dessert poke cakes, cupcakes, and even cake shooters, which are individual cake servings with icing.
For Christmas, R & R creates cookies in the shape of wrapped presents, personalized elves, snowman faces, stockings, reindeer heads, gingerbread men, and more. Their cookie-decorating kits are always a hit, she says, with groups like Ole Miss sororities who want to have a holiday activity to do together. Their motto is to rest, relax, and eat more cookies, she says.
As for baking at home, Franks suggests planning ahead and doublechecking recipes to make sure you have all the ingredients before beginning the baking process. “You must plan since it takes about three days to complete cookies.” The dough should chill overnight, and the next two days allow for the base frosting to dry before decorating the top.
In order to develop the correct consistency of royal icing, she suggests practicing often until you get it right and watching tutorial videos like she did to discover what works best for you. “I practiced so much that now my daughter and I could make icing in our sleep.”
For her family’s Christmas celebration at home, Franks usually makes a sweet cinnamon monkey bread (recipe below). She said her mother-in-law also makes a chocolate chip pound cake. Since three family members have December birthdays, they also have a joint birthday celebration with three different kinds of cake during the week of Christmas.
May your Christmas be merry and bright – and extra sweet – as you bake (and buy) treats to celebrate.
Holiday Baking Tips From Taste of Home
Use an ironing board as an oversized cooling rack.
Just remove the cover and cool your cookies and cakes while saving precious counter space for prep work.
Soften butter quickly by cutting the cold butter into small cubes and letting it sit about 15 minutes.
Use a lazy Susan when decorating Christmas cookies. Place the supplies on the lazy Susan to keep everything within reach and to maintain the mess in one place, which is helpful if this is a group project.
Make your cookies ahead of time and freeze them. Stack and arrange them in plastic storage containers with layers of parchment paper between cookie layers. You can always refresh them in a low oven (300 to 325 degrees) for a few minutes after they thaw.
Use food coloring pens for easy decorating.
Use corn syrup to get sprinkles to stay in place.
Keep cookies soft by storing with a slice of bread in the container. It will give the cookies the moisture they need.
When baking, it’s important to use room temperature ingredients. If you forget to take the eggs out of the refrigerator in time, just place them in a bowl of warm water for a few minutes.
Use aluminum foil to keep pie crust from burning. Sometimes crust bakes more quickly than their fillings. To prevent the crust from over-browning or burning while the filling cooks, cover the crust with foil to make a shield for it.
Repurpose cookie cutter shapes. Think outside the box with your cutouts. Many shapes can be repurposed to make seasonal designs. Stars can become Santas and diamonds can become elves.
Coffee Cake/Monkey Bread
From Jessica Franks, R & R Cookies
½ cup butter
2 Tablespoons water
1 cup brown sugar
2 to 3 cans of refrigerated biscuits
Melt the butter in a saucepan with the brown sugar and water. Spray a Bundt pan with cooking spray and tear biscuits into small bite-size pieces. Once the sauce is melted, pour it over the biscuits. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 to 45 minutes.
This old family recipe is a cross between a Soldiers Kiss and a meringue cookie. From Betty Jennings, mother-in-law of writer Kathy K. Martin
2 egg whites
2/3 cup sugar
6 ounces of semisweet chocolate chips
Red and green sprinkles (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350F.
Beat egg whites and sugar until stiff peaks form. Fold in the chips. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto a greased cookie sheet. Top with red and green sprinkles.
Place in preheated oven.
Immediately turn off the oven and don’t peek. Leave in the oven overnight, as if you have “forgotten” them.