Posted Online: Dec. 19, 2012, 9:31 am

Illinois woman makes holiday cookies

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MOUNT STERLING, Ill. (AP) Michelle Hillyer is a little sweet on the holidays.

She takes a little bit of sugar, maybe a little bit of spice, and turns it into cookies and candies.

'It's something we always did when I was a kid, a lot of baking and cooking and candy making during the holidays,' she said. 'I make divinity. I make buckeyes. I make coconut bonbons and turtles, fudge of all kinds, peanut clusters.'

What might sound intimidating just runs in Hillyer's family, with four generations -- Hillyer's Grandma Eva Little; her mom, Judy Dupoy; Hillyer and her daughter, Devon -- still busy in the kitchen.

'My grandmother was a cook at a community school. My dad's mother was a cook in a restaurant,' she said. 'I have recipes from both sides. It's kind of genetic.'

Hillyer favors the from-scratch cooking from her childhood whether preparing meals with her husband, Brian, or getting ready for the holidays.

'It's how my mom was taught, how I was taught. I didn't know any different,' she said. 'It's all about nostalgia, being together, enjoying this time of year.'

Hillyer uses her great-grandmother's Icebox Cookies recipe every holiday season and makes Russian Teacakes rolled twice in powdered sugar -- and she makes plenty.

'Most cookie recipes we have are 12 dozen. When you have two brothers, 12 dozen cookies are nothing,' she said.

Some microwave versions of traditional candies offer similar results without a lot of time involved. Others, like Divinity, take more time and the right weather.

'The sun has to shine. It has to do with the humidity. It is crazy to think the weather has some part in it, but it does,' she said. 'If it's rainy, it just won't set. It's still good, and it tastes the same, but it's like taffy. It's soft.'

Hillyer adapted the Fudge recipe from another one, and her Buckeyes are a favorite. 'Peanut butter and chocolate are something everybody that can tolerate peanut butter likes,' she said.

With candy, it's important to follow the directions.

'As long as you have a good candy thermometer, all of your ingredients and patience, anybody can do it,' Hillyer said. 'When you're baking cookies or something, you can usually cheat on the sugar and flour a little bit, but with candy, you've got to use your measuring cups, use that thermometer. Make sure the thermometer is not touching the bottom of the pan because you're getting a reading of how hot the pan is, not how hot the candy is.'

Candy turned into a sideline for Hillyer, who owns and operates the Tastee Treet in Mount Sterling with her husband and a staff of about 12.

The business, started by another husband and wife team, dates to 1952. 'It was pretty much the only thing here,' she said. 'It started as a little bitty ice cream business. It's evolved to a bigger menu, but it's still small, no dining area, just all drive in, call in orders.'

The candy business started as a favor to people Hillyer knew in the community.

'Somebody hears that (you make candy), then somebody else calls,' she said. 'Because we're slower in winter, I decided it was something I should try to market.'

The candy-making usually starts in the fall with caramel apples and caramel popcorn as the number of customers for vanilla, chocolate and the signature lemon ice cream starts to slow. She switches over to the holiday-type candy when people start asking, and she stays busy until at least mid-January.

Top sellers traditionally are divinity and soft wrapped caramels, but Hillyer's personal favorite is peanut brittle.

'I just like the peanut and the crunch. I make mine really thin. I stretch mine so it's brittle brittle,' she said.

'I make a traditional batch like anyone else would, but I'll make 10, 12, 15 batches consecutively,' she said. 'I'll pick one item and make that item all day long, then go onto the next item. Some days I'm working on several different items, but if I'm getting ready for a big event or have a big order, I have to limit my variety because I have to concentrate on getting the quantity made first, then I work on the variety.'

Most people prefer commercially-made candy for Valentine's Day and Easter, but 'I did do a little bit of stuff last year. In the spring, it's more baking than candy, cutout cookies and that kind of stuff,' she said.

'I love to bake. I do some custom-baking here at the store for birthday parties. Kids can't take (homemade) stuff to school, but I'm licensed, and I can bake a couple dozen cookies or cupcakes and decorate them how they want. Everybody can go to the store and buy something, but I have some specialty cookie cutters that I use. I have a tractor one that's really popular.'

How something tastes is most important.

'You can't get all stressed out about it,' Hillyer said. 'People say it doesn't look like it should. I say did you taste it? It's fine. Just calm down.'