The holiday season finds Riley in the kitchen baking

Jerilyn VanDeWoestyne
Becky Riley holds a ceramic cookie plate she likes to use.

With the approach of cooler fall weather, Becky Riley of Atkinson is looking forward to getting into the kitchen and doing what she does every year — bake.

“I really start doing my holiday baking right after Halloween,” she said. “And I can’t wait to get started this year. When it starts getting cold outside, that’s when I start baking.”

And the reason Becky begins so early is the amount of baking she does each year. “I don’t bake quite as much as I used to, but at one time I made over 110 dozen cookies and 800 pieces of candy between Halloween and Christmas,” she said. “I love every minute of it.”

Sharing that she very much enjoys making cookies and candy to be given as gifts to friends, neighbors and family,  Becky said it is just something she has always done. “I take trays and boxes to work and I deliver them to friends and neighbors,” she said. “My mom started me doing that when I was young and I have always done it.”

Becky remembers, as a young girl, helping her mother bake cookies and make candy to send to “the guys” serving in Vietnam. “That made us feel like we were doing our little part to help support the troops,” she said.

With her long list of favorite cookies and candy right at hand, Becky said many of the recipes she uses are ones she has kept through the years, ones  she received from her mother or grandmother. “I have my great-grandmother’s recipe for sugar cookies and those can be made early because they freeze  really well,” she said. “Some of my mother’s recipes are in her own handwriting and those recipes are very special to me. I have made copies of certain recipes to share with others, but when I’m baking those cookies, I always get out the original recipes and use them — they bring back wonderful memories.”

Becky said her mother was a wonderful cook, but her grandmother is the one she credits with letting her do anything in the kitchen. “My grandmother just let me experiment and have fun in the kitchen,” she said. “I really hope I can be that way with my grandchildren.”

Becky has two sons and a daughter-in-law, Rick and Kelly Preston of Geneseo and Ryan Preston of Kewanee. And her two grandchildren, Rylie and Reed, are very special parts of her life.

“Rylie is almost 4 years old and last year she and I baked some cookies together,” Becky proudly states. “It was the best time. Having two sons, I had waited a long time to finally get a granddaughter that I could do these kinds of things with. When you dream about something for years and years and then it comes true, it is the best — and spending that time with Rylie was just that.”

“We have the best time together,” Becky said of her grandchildren. “I would someday like to put together some kind of cookbook with all our favorite family recipes for them to keep.”

Some of Becky’s favorite cookies to bake are sugar cookies, Snowballs, Kisses, Peanut Butter Balls and a frosted pumpkin cookie that she says her family loves. “Those pumpkin cookies freeze really well so they are ones I can start early,” she said, adding she has certain cookies that just seem to freeze better than others so those are the ones she begins making early.

Becky also knows after having made them so many times, which recipes can be successfully doubled or tripled. “Some recipes just don’t turn out well if the quantity of the ingredients are increased,” she said.

Using a good quality ingredient when making cookies and candy is important to Becky. “Like when I make my divinity,  I will use only Watkins white vanilla,” she said. “And I don’t use any shortcuts when I’m baking.”

The secret to making great cookies, according to Becky, is to cream the shortening and sugars together really well before adding the dry ingredients. “That makes all the difference in making a good cookie dough,” she said. And every one of the thousands of cookies she has made through the years has been mixed by hand. “I’ve just always mixed the dough by hand in a big mixing bowl even if I double or triple the recipe,” she said. “It’s just the way I’ve always done it.”

Admitting that her hand gets a little tired when she’s mixing up cookie dough, she still does it all by hand. “I don’t really like the consistency of the dough when a mixer is used and besides, I’ve just always done it that way!” she said.

She does, however, still use the Sunbeam portable mixer she received as a wedding gift in 1969 for things like frostings or for some candies. “I used to get that mixer smoking when I made so many batches of divinity at one time,” she laughs.

When she makes the sugar cookies from her great-grandmother’s recipe, Becky flattens the cookies with the same glass her mother always used for that purpose. “It makes a pretty design on the cookie. I love sentimental things like that,” she said. “I remember my boys sitting at the table when they were young and helping me with those cookies. They would sprinkle colored sugar on the tops of the cookies.”

Becky said when she’s making cookies she will put on Christmas music and can lose track of time. “The most perfect day for me is if it’s cold and blowing outside and I can be in here baking,” she laughs. “The house always smells so good when you’re baking and I can crank out a lot of cookies in a day. It’s nothing for me to start baking on a Saturday morning and bake all weekend. It really isn’t an effort — it’s fun.”

When she begins baking, Becky said she gets out her large bowls and starts by setting out all the ingredients she will need. “I have a big Longaberger bowl that is perfect for mixing up the dough,” she said. “And I always bring the shortening and eggs to room temperature before I begin.”

While her secret to making great cookies is to cream the shortening and sugars well Becky has found, through trial and error, the secret to making her special divinity is to cook the syrup mixture a minute or two longer than the directions say. “I cook it just a little longer than the hard ball stage,” she said. “That  has really made a difference in my divinity and I’ve never had a problem with it setting up since I started doing that.”

When she gets ready to think about baking, Becky said she starts purchasing supplies, like flour and sugar, a little at a time. “And each time I shop I grab another bag of chocolate chips,” she laughs. “I go through a lot of them when I’m baking.”

Becky is employed in the admitting department at Hammond-Henry Hospital and says she is very happy there. “I began in housekeeping five years ago and have been in admitting for over three years,” she said. “I love my job and everyone there has been so good to work with.”

Although she enjoys baking, Becky also likes to prepare meals. “One of my favorite things to do is make things like ham and beans,” she said, adding that is an easy dish to prepare. First, she said, she soaks a one pound bag of navy beans all night in water and a little baking soda. “The next day I rinse the beans real good and put them in a slow cooker. Then I cut a ham steak into pieces and put it on top of the beans and add enough water to about an inch and a half above the beans,” she said. “And just let them cook all day.  Add some cornbread and you have a good meal.”

Holidays, Becky remembers, were made very special by her mother. “As a young girl I remember helping with the Thanksgiving meal. You woke up to the smell of turkey in the oven and my mom would always make her grandmother’s oyster dressing,” she said. “She would brown sausage, celery and onion and then boil the neck and gizzards for broth. She would keep old bread and tear it up for the dressing then scald the oysters until they turned up.” Becky laughs that she would eat that dressing until she was sick.

Baking holiday cookies and candy is simply something she has always enjoyed doing. “I’ve just always done this, ever since I was a youngster, delivering boxes of cookies and candy to neighbors,” she said. “It’s part of me — it’s how I was raised. I like to share and make memories, because our memories are our most treasured possessions.”

Becky also feels a mother never “outgrows” the pleasure of her children saying, “This is good,” adding her favorite part of cooking is having her family enjoy what she has made. “Whether it’s cookies, candy or a meal. I guess it just gives you extra purpose.”

Becky Riley shares some of her favorite recipes.


Becky Riley

2-1/2 C. granulated sugar

1/2 C. light corn syrup

2 egg whites

1 t. vanilla

In 2-qt. saucepan, combine sugar, corn syrup, 1/4 t. salt and 1/2 C. water. Cook to hard ball stage (260 degrees) stirring only until sugar dissolves. Meanwhile, beat egg whites to stiff peaks. Gradually pour syrup over egg whites, beating at high speed on electric mixer.

Add vanilla and beat till candy holds its shape, 4 to 5 minutes. Quickly drop from a teaspoon onto waxed paper.

Makes about 40 pieces.


Becky Riley

3/4 C. brown sugar

1 stick butter

1 C. chocolate chips

Melt butter and sugar in saucepan, heat to boiling, boil 7 minutes.

Spread on cookie sheet, sprinkle chocolate chips over toffee, invert another cookie sheet on top, let melt a few minutes, then spread.

Cool and break up.

Pumpkin cookies

Becky Riley

2 C. flour

1 t. cinnamon

pinch salt

1 t. baking powder

1 t. baking soda

Sift together.


1 C. shortening

1/2 can pumpkin

1 beaten egg

1 t. vanilla

Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients. Mix well. Drop by teaspoon onto baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 14-15 minutes.


1 C. brown sugar

6 T. butter

4 T. milk

Boil two minutes. Beat in 2 C. powdered sugar.


Becky Riley

1/2 C. (1 stick) butter or margarine

3 T. confectioner’s sugar

1 C. sifted flour

1 C. finely chopped pecans

confectioner’s sugar

Cream butter or margarine and 3 T. confectioner’s sugar until fluffy in medium sized bowl. Stir in flour gradually, then pecans until well blended.

Chill several hours or until firm.

Roll dough, a teaspoonful at a time, into marble-sized balls between palms of hands. Place 2 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheets.

Bake at 325 degrees for 20 minutes or until lightly golden.

Cool on cookie sheets five minutes; remove carefully. Roll in powdered sugar in pie plate while still warm to make a generous white coating. Cool completely on wire racks.


Becky Riley

1-1/2 C. shortening

1-1/2 C. peanut butter

1-1/2 C. white sugar

1-1/2 C. brown sugar

Cream above ingredients. Add:

1 unbeated egg

2 T. milk

1 t. vanilla



1-3/4 C. flour

1 t. baking soda

1/2 t. salt

Shape into balls and roll in sugar.

Bake at 375 degrees for 8 minutes. Add chocolate kiss.

Sugar cookies

Becky Riley

1 C. granulated sugar

1 C. powdered sugar

1 C. butter

2 eggs

1 C. Wesson oil

1 t. cream of tartar

1 t. baking soda

1/2 t. salt

1 t. vanilla

4 C. flour

Cream sugar, oil, butter. Add vanilla and eggs. Add flour and other ingredients.

Keep in refrigerator overnight.

Roll in small balls and roll in white sugar, place on cookie sheet. Press with bottom of glass.

Sprinkle with sugar or colored sugar. Bake at 375 degrees  until golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes.


Becky Riley

2 sticks oleo

1-1/2 C. crunchy peanut butter

2 C. finely rolled graham crackers

4 C. powdered sugar

12 oz. chocolate chips

Mix together first four ingredients. Press into buttered 9x13 inch pan.

Melt chocolate and spread on top.