Baking Up Holiday Cheer: 3 Recipes by Local Pros

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Step-by-step instructions for monkey bread, sufganiyot and an apple cake “tatin,” all perfect for baking with loved ones this season

By Jessica Stringer | Photography by John Michael Simpson


Meital Cohen says her family eats sufganiyot during their eight days of Hanukkah celebration every year. “Sufganiyot is a round doughnut that we deep-fry, fill up with jam and sprinkle with powdered sugar. I like to fill them with pastry cream, pistachio creme or raspberry cream, and instead of powdered sugar, you can drizzle some with chocolate ganache. Every year during November or December my family and I make a few batches of sufganiyot – they are so soft and fluffy and filled with a sweet spread that it’s hard to resist. Now you only need a good, warm Moroccan tea next to your plate, and you are all set!”

Meital Cohen holds a tray of sufganiyot, a recipe her family has been baking for years.

1 cup warm water
1 Tbsp. dry yeast
100 grams sugar (½ cup), plus 1 Tbsp., divided
2 large eggs
55 grams canola oil (¼ cup), plus more for counter surface and frying
½ tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. salt
550 grams flour
1 Tbsp. brandy
Your favorite jam
Powdered sugar

  • In a measuring cup, mix warm water, yeast and 1 Tbsp. of sugar, and set it aside for 5 mins.
  • In a mixing bowl with the dough attachment, combine eggs, oil, vanilla, salt and 100 grams of sugar. Then add the flour and finally, the warm water mixture. Mix on low speed for 10 minutes. Add the brandy and mix for 2 additional minutes.
  • Place the ball of dough into a greased mixing bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let it rise at room temperature for 1-2 hours, or until it has just about doubled in size.
  • Slightly oil your counter surface and divide the dough to about 17 balls (50 grams each). Using your hands, roll each ball until it is smooth and round.
  • Line a sheet pan with lightly oiled parchment paper, and place balls about 2 or 3 inches apart. Cover the dough slightly with plastic and let rise for about 30 minutes.
  • In a low pot (about 4 inches tall), add about 2 inches of canola oil. Heat up the oil to 320-330 F using a thermometer. Keep monitoring the oil temperature and keep it at the same range. Gently, lift each dough ball, trying not to deflate the dough, and carefully start frying, about 3-4 at a time. Fry them for about 1 1⁄2 minutes on each side and carefully remove them to a tray lined with paper towels. Repeat with the remaining balls and then let them cool down for a few minutes.
  • Meanwhile, fill up a squeeze bottle with your favorite jam (make sure to use one without big chunks of fruit). Create a hole at the top part of the sufganiyot using a strong paper straw or a long piping tip and then insert your jam using the squeeze bottle until you feel the sufganiyot getting heavier. Sprinkle some powdered sugar on top and enjoy!

Meital Cohen got her start with baking while working as a pastry chef for Westville restaurant group in 2006 after graduating from The French Culinary Institute (now known as Institute of Culinary Education).

After living and working in New York City for two decades, she and her family moved to Chapel Hill two years ago. At first, Meital took some time off to be with her kids, ages 15, 12 and 8.

Then her baking itch brought her back to the kitchen for more. “After three weeks, I thought, ‘I’m bored. I just want to bake a little. Nothing crazy,’” she recalls. Meital got her kitchen certified, and Even Dough was born, popping out delectable offerings from babka and challah to cranberry-pear pies. Perhaps her most showshopping pieces are her custom cakes, which have grown in popularity through word-of-mouth and repeat customers. “When people come back, I know I’m doing something right,” she says.

While she’s mulling a physical location, Meital says it would be less of a storefront and more for intimate baking classes. “I really love hosting people. We always have people at the house, and I came to a realization after doing this for so many years that I want to get people together,” she says. “I want to be the person who connects them and creates new relationships, so [others] have fun and just forget about reality.”


Leslie Heintzman says it’s a family tradition on her husband’s side of the family to have monkey bread on Christmas, so she usually makes that, plus biscuits and gravy and a frittata, for breakfast. “Typically, I would do what most people do – get the two cans of Pillsbury biscuit dough, pop ’em open and make the bread,” she says. “One year, I couldn’t find [the Pillsbury tubes] in the fridge. So I was like, ‘Screw it, I’ll make my own biscuits,’ which I do anyway, because I make [homemade] biscuits for the biscuits and gravy.” Leslie says homemade biscuits are easier than most people think. (But if you’d rather save a few steps, two cans of Pillsbury biscuits will swap in fine.)

4 cups all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp. sugar
2 tsp. salt
4 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 cup butter chilled, cut into ½-inch pieces
1 ½ cup buttermilk

1 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon

9 oz. (2 sticks plus 1 Tbsp.) unsalted butter
1 ½ cup light brown sugar
½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 Tbsp. dark rum
½ cup pecan or walnut pieces, if desired

  • Grease a 12-cup Bundt pan. Preheat oven to 325 F. In a large bowl, mix all biscuit dry ingredients together and cut cold butter in with a pastry cutter until pea-size chunks. Add buttermilk and mix until dough just forms together. Don’t overmix.
  • Roll dough into 1⁄2-inch thickness and cut into 1⁄2-inch strips. Cut strips into small squares. Roll squares of dough in cinnamon-sugar mixture.
  • In greased Bundt pan, place the dough chunks and add pecans or walnuts if desired.
  • In a small saucepan, melt butter for caramel mixture and whisk in brown sugar, salt, vanilla and rum. Pour caramel mixture over the dough evenly and bake in the oven for 40-45 minutes.
  • Once done, place a platter on top of the Bundt pan and flip the monkey bread carefully upside down and remove the pan. Serve while still warm and enjoy!
Maximus Heintzman, 10, gets in on the baking with his mother, Leslie.
Leslie gets some assistance from son Maximus Heintzman, 10.

After graduating from The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, Leslie Heintzman worked in fine dining restaurants. “But then when I moved down here, got married and was pregnant, I did not want to do the 60- or 80-hour workweek in the restaurant industry and have kids,” she recalls. Leslie noticed a pastry void after a visit to the Carrboro Farmers Market and knew she needed to get baking. “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, we live in such a crazy oasis of local ingredients,” she says, recalling favorites such as nearby Lindley Mills’ organic flour and Maple View Farm’s buttermilk.

She and a partner started Sari Sari Sweets, which translates to “variety” in Tagalog. It’s an apt name given the assortment of treats from kouign-amann to toasted almond-fig scones to baklava croissants. Her partner has since bowed out of the business, but Leslie says, “Fifteen years later, here I am, still selling pastries at the farmers market.”

Though she’s all about local, Leslie’s baked goods have found a global reach. Leslie’s husband, Chris Heintzman, has told customers that he calls her caramel-pecan sticky buns “the life-changer.” “Some customers will come back and say, ‘You’re so right. It changed my life.’” Leslie laughs. “I love that. And I have people who ship them or travel with the buns to Australia, Mexico, Norway, [France] and England.”


Yields 6 servings. (Recipe from Ina Garten, as listed at

Mena Choi has come a long way since appearing on the September/October 2016 cover of Chapel Hill Magazine as a 10-year-old along with her mom, Tracy DeLozier, and former first lady Michelle Obama. She was fresh off a trip to the White House for her win as North Carolina’s representative in a national cooking contest for kid chefs. Now she’s a senior in high school working on her college applications and carving out time to whip up shrimp and grits and vodka pasta for family and friends. Here, Mena shares a favorite Ina Garten recipe for Apple Cake “Tatin” that her family makes during the holidays and other special times.

6 Tbsp. (¾ stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra for greasing the dish
1 ¼ Granny Smith apples, peeled and sliced into 12 pieces
1 ¾ cups granulated sugar, divided
2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
⅓ cup sour cream
½ tsp. grated lemon zest
½ tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. kosher salt
Confectioners’ sugar

  • Preheat the oven to 350 F.
  • Generously butter a 9-inch glass pie dish and arrange the apples in the dish, cut side down.
  • Combine 1 cup of the granulated sugar and ⅓ cup water in a small saucepan and cook over high heat until it turns a warm amber color, about 360 F on a candy thermometer. Swirl the pan but don’t stir. Pour evenly over the apple slices.
  • Meanwhile, cream the 6 tablespoons of butter and the remaining ¾ cup of granulated sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, until light and fluffy. Lower the speed and beat in the eggs 1 at a time. Add the sour cream, zest and vanilla and mix until combined. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt and, with the mixer on low speed, add it to the butter mixture. Mix only until combined.
  • Pour the cake batter evenly over the apple slices and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool for 15 minutes, then invert the cake onto a flat plate. If an apple slice sticks, ease it out and replace it in the design on top of the cake. Serve warm or at room temperature, dusted with confectioners’ sugar.
Mena Choi (right) baking with brother William Choi (left) and mom Tracy DeLozier (center)
Tracy DeLozier (center) and her kids, William Choi and Mena Choi, prep the Apple Cake “Tatin.”

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Jessica Stringer

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