For most of us, the holidays are that one time a year when we dust off a beloved family cookie recipe and start baking. Elizabeth Chambers is not like most of us. The culinary entrepreneur and TV personality — Food Network fans will recognize her as a guest judge on Cupcake Wars, Best Baker in America, and Chopped Sweets — grew up in a home where baking was a year-round Big Deal, and she turned her love of making her grandmother’s dessert recipes into a bona fide business in 2012, when she founded Bird Bakery in her hometown of San Antonio.
Since then, Chambers has added ‘mom’ to her resume (daughter Harper is 5, son Ford is 3), and her first baby, Bird, has a sister location in Dallas.
Not surprisingly, the bakery is brimming with seasonal treats, from “grandmother’s sugar cookies” to granola, that are perfectly giftable (and available online). But Chambers is also sharing her tips for amazing edible gifts that you can make at home — no professional baking skills required — plus advice on how to package them, her go-to entertaining hack, and how to make this holiday season magical.
SheKnows: What was your favorite holiday dessert growing up — and what is it now?
Elizabeth Chambers: “Growing up, my mom would make tens of thousands of cookies every holiday season. She’s a crazy, over-the-top baker and chef, and for me, that was the signal that the holidays were here; when it went from her making two dozen cookies a week to, like, 2,000 cookies a week. I’m not exaggerating. My mom taught me at an early age that cookies are currency, and such a nice way to brighten someone’s day.
“Now, my favorite, favorite, favorite holiday dish is English Trifle. And it’s my grandmother’s recipe, but I’m always in charge of making it for the holidays. It’s basically layers of angel food cake, a good, delicious berry jam, lemon curd, whipped cream, berries, slivered almonds, and then, of course, a very healthy dash of port or sherry — because booze just makes everything better in terms of dessert.”
SK: Is there a favorite holiday recipe that you make every year? Is that it?
EC: “Yeah, it is. And you know, it’s easy. It’s not even a bake, it’s just more of an assembly. Right now, I think, more than ever, people want to spend time with their loved ones and they want to make it easy. And the thing I love about the English Trifle is you can buy the angel food cake, and you can make it the night before and assemble it, and it just gets better because the sherry sets in and all the flavors sort of come together. I love anything you can make ahead because it’s not taking away from where you’re supposed to be.”
SK: What are your favorite recipes for gifting?
EC: “Of course, I love cookies. The great thing about cookies is, they travel well, they store well. You can freeze them. People just love cookies, and they love being gifted something sweet.
“And that’s what I love about Reindeer Feed. Growing up, my mom always called it Reindeer Feed because she mostly made it during Christmas. Now we have it year-round at Bird bakery and we call it Sweetheart Crunch. But you can change out the M&M’s and make it special for every occasion. You can add pistachios. You can add dried cherries. You can make it a little fancy and add some edible gold. You can add anything you want and change it for every season. And people love it!
“It’s just such a simple, simple recipe that doesn’t require baking — it requires melting white chocolate, pouring it over, and then kind of just having fun and taking some liberties. So even if you’re not the best baker in the world, you can look in your pantry and experiment with it and make it your own. And to me, that’s the best kind of recipe, right? A forgiving one.
“I have vivid memories of doing hours and hours of Christmas shopping with my mom and her having it in the car. There are so many memories attached to that recipe, and I always just associate it with the Christmas season.”
SK: Can you share tips for packaging these treats in ways that are festive but also practical?
EC: “I mean, we all know that presentation is everything — especially your presentation, plus the most delicious thing ever. So I love a Weck jar. I think now more than ever, we should be repurposing things and reusing things, and there are so many great jars. But glass is heavy, so I also love a cello bag. And again, it’s just about that presentation. You can have stickers made so easily online — you can do an image or your family monogram on a sticker and then tie it with a beautiful green ribbon or red, or blue. So, my go-to is really a cello bag, some sort of personalized sticker, and then a beautiful ribbon.”
SK: What’s an entertaining secret you can share?
EC: “I’m a big fan of freezing, especially when you’re super busy. Freezing cookie dough is wonderful. That is my go-to move in life: keeping cookie dough balls in the freezer. Then when people come over unexpectedly, you pop your cookies in the oven and people are like, ‘I don’t understand. You’ve been working all day. How do you have freshly baked cookies?’ And it’s like, well, girl, let me tell you my tricks. It’s been in the freezer, but you don’t need to know that. The house smells amazing, everyone gets warm cookies, and it’s a win-win.”
SK: Holiday entertaining will be different this year for lots of people. Do you have tips on how to make what may be a smaller or more local celebration still feel festive?
EC: “I think what’s needed this season more than ever is just thoughtfulness. The note. The small gesture. The Reindeer Feed, the cookies, whatever. I think we’ve all taken the last eight months to realize that all that matters is relationships and people. It’s not really about the flash or the big Christmas party, it’s about telling the people in your life that you love them and that you’re thinking of them and what they mean to you. That doesn’t have to be something big, it has to be something from the heart. So it’s something you make, something you bake, something you write. And that, I think, is how we can keep this Christmas spirit more meaningful and make it different. Yes, it’s different, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be bad. We can make it more meaningful this year with small gestures.”
SK: How do you make the holidays magical for your kids?
EC: “ I love tradition in every sense of the word, and there’s no time for tradition like the holidays. So I like to continue doing what we’ve done every year. We may be in a different place, it may be a very different time, but we will continue with our traditions in whatever iteration that means now.
“We always bake cookies for Santa. We decide what kind we think he would like that year. We always have Reindeer Feed for the reindeer — and celery and carrots. They 100 percent think that his reindeer love white-chocolate covered cereal, which is adorable. They’ve had a tough year — our children have been through a lot. These are unprecedented times, and we don’t know what long-term effect this is going to have on them. So I think right now is the time to really bust out all of our tricks and make it the most memorable and magical holiday we can.”
SK: OK. Fill in the blank for us: It wouldn’t be the holidays if I didn’t eat ____ at least once.
EC: Rum balls. I love rum balls. Are you sensing a boozy dessert theme here?