Memories by the Dozen

Much-loved traditions and McAleer family history make the sweetest Christmas memories on the Eastern Shore.

The McAleer family

Jennifer, Lauren and Jamie chat over fresh-baked cookies. // Photos by Elizabeth Gelineau

A knock sets off barking inside. The front door opens, and a chihuahua-Jack russell terrier mix dashes out, dancing around guests’ legs in an excited frenzy. Jamie McAleer scoops him up from the porch, tucking him under one arm. “This is Parker,” she says with a laugh. “Parker the Barker, we call him.”

She puts him down, and Parker dashes across the hall, Jamie in tow. Inside, she and her husband Jack McAleer have made the house fully festive. A fire gently crackles in the fireplace. A Nativity scene is nestled amongst garland and fairy lights. The couple’s two adult daughters are making treats in the kitchen, chatting away as they mix and shape cookies. Lauren McAleer Johnson holds baby Nathaniel on her hip in the kitchen, plating freshly baked chocolate chip cookies as the comforting aroma hangs in the air. “I love to bake these chocolate chip cookies because that’s what we served growing up, and it’s what Santa would always get every year,” says Lauren. “And then I started making these,” adds younger sister Jennifer McAleer Martin. She pushes spritz cookie dough through a press, creating shapes on the cookie tray as two-year-old son Jude looks on. “At our house now, this is what Santa gets,” she explains. “The chocolate chip cookies became Lauren’s thing. She won her husband with them.” “I did,” Lauren continues the story, smiling knowingly. “I made them for his birthday before we were dating, and they sealed the deal.” Both sisters laugh in unison.

Amongst the decorations, a Christmas village sits on full display in the foyer. It contains a church, a train station, and a Krispy Kreme store, sign and delivery trucks. “Growing up, we always had a Christmas morning doughnut,” says Jennifer. For the McAleers, doughnuts on Christmas aren’t just a sweet and easy tradition. Their unassuming, down-to-earth nature would never betray the fact that the family is practically doughnut royalty. “My dad, Joe McAleer, became a franchisee back in the early 50s, bringing Krispy Kreme to the Mobile area,” says Jack. “Through the 60s and 70s, he grew to five shops, with the largest Krispy Kreme manufacturing plant on Government Street. All seven of his children worked in the business along with many aunts, uncles and cousins.” Krispy Kreme remained a predominately Southern franchise until the early 80s when the corporation was set to be sold. Thanks to a wise business decision, things took a turn. “My Dad and several franchisees bought Krispy Kreme Corporation,” says Jack. “The headquarters were in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where the mix and equipment manufacturing plant was located. So, my parents moved to North Carolina to run the corporate entity. My brother Mac and I soon joined them and worked in many capacities to stabilize the business.” A look around the house reveals more company paraphernalia. Behind the Christmas village hangs a sign commemorating Jack’s two dozen years at Krispy Kreme. A Hot Doughnuts Now sign casts a red glow from its spot on the side table by the mantle. The iconic sign was a marketing idea that Jack and Mac developed, to great enthusiasm from devotees. “Following my dad’s retirement, my brother and I, along with a great team, developed a retail strategy to grow the brand nationally and internationally,” says Jack. “‘Hot Doughnuts Now’ became the call to action to alert fans that the doughnuts were hot now!” A few boxes of doughnuts sit open on the kitchen counter, displaying an assortment of glazes, fillings and sprinkles. “Everyone in the family has their favorites,” says Jamie. “Some do like the original glazed, some like the chocolate iced, some like the cream, and then there are different kinds of cream, so those vary. I can’t keep up,” she laughs. “Jack, which is your favorite?” asks Jamie. “The original glazed,” says Jack with a smile.

Left to Right Jamie holds Parker, who acts as the unofficial greeter of the home. Cousins Jude and Nathaniel discover what goodies hide in their stockings. A Christmas village in the foyer displays a tiny Krispy Kreme shop complete with delivery trucks. A Hot Doughnuts Now sign glows from the living room.

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It’s a tough job memorizing the doughnut preferences of the McAleers’ grandchildren. After all, there are 13 of them. “The oldest grandchild is 15 and then we go all the way down to one,” says Jennifer. “They’re almost every other year, except Lauren was married three years before me, so she’s got a 15-year-old and a 13-year-old, and then I have a 12-year-old, she has 11, I have 10, she has nine…” She continues listing the kids’ ages. “We’ve never been pregnant at the same time,” she says. “But our brother’s son Simon is Nathaniel’s age, so they’ll be in the same grade, which will be fun.” Nathaniel is unaware of the chatter, happily gnawing on a doughnut. The collection of stockings hanging in the window hints at just how many kids will visit Nana and Pops, as they call Jamie and Jack, on Christmas. “It is wild,” says Jamie with a proud grin. “On Christmas Day, they have their own morning at home and open presents from Santa. Then they’ll come here in the early afternoon, and then we’ll have a good time into the evening opening stockings.” The family gathers to have Christmas lunch at the house by the Bay. “After we eat, we’ll sing happy birthday to Jesus and have cake,” says Lauren. The spread is complete with Christmas crackers at every seat, a tradition that carries over from Lauren and Jennifer’s childhood. “Mom always had those, so we do them at the table, and then everyone wears the paper hats,” says Lauren. “What we make for the Christmas meal is usually the same dishes every year. One of them is tomato aspic. Our parents are the only ones who eat it. It’s a big joke in my family that they make it every year for themselves because we’ve tried to get our spouses and children to like it, but it hasn’t worked. When you ask what we have for Christmas, our kids are like, ‘Tomato aspic, but nobody eats it!’”

Left Jennifer and Lauren’s sons Jude and Nathaniel munch on doughnuts. Right Jack McAleer brings home Krispy Kreme doughnuts from Foley to the delight of all.

Jennifer and Lauren’s childhood Christmases looked a bit different from their kids’ holiday experiences. Back then, the McAleers spent their Christmases between North Carolina and Alabama. “We would go between being with my mom’s family in North Carolina — that’s where we were raised — and the next year, we would go to Mobile to visit my dad’s family,” says Lauren. “So, we would change up our traditions a little bit depending on where we were.” Some things remained intact, however. “It always included the Christmas Eve Mass in both places,” recalls Jennifer. “Every Christmas morning, we would take a picture on the stairs before we went out. It was always stockings filled and presents unwrapped.” “Christmas music blaring,” adds Jack from the counter. “Yes, our parents would have their coffee made and music on and would make sure Santa had come,” says Lauren. “After we took a picture on the stairs, we’d run down.”

Jamie and Jack moved to lower Alabama in 2007, and it wasn’t long before they had children and grandchildren within a few miles. They all live within an easy distance from each other; Lauren and Jennifer’s kids even attend the same school. The family is a tight-knit bunch, with both women’s husbands now working with Jamie and Jack at 4PM Media, their Daphne-based Catholic production company. The Bay area has remained a constant in the family’s life. “When we were young and we visited our cousins, we bonded over the Bay and each other,” says Jennifer. “It’s nice for all the kids to be in the same place.” Their children inherited both their parents’ childhood traditions and a few new ones. The two sisters chatter about the various traditions that have changed throughout the years. For the most part, though, the important things have stayed intact. “There’s still a lot that’s the same,” says Jennifer. “We both get pictures of the kids around the stairs. And another thing that our grandparents did, and our dad does for our kids, is to call Christmas Eve with the Santa tracker,” says Jennifer. “When we were with his parents, they would tell us, but when we were gone, they would call to let us know where he was. He calls us on Christmas Eve, saying, ‘Santa’s getting close, he’s over the Atlantic, it’s time for bed.’”

Left to Right Jude helps Jennifer press spritz cookies onto a baking tray. Lauren mixes up chocolate chip cookie dough.  

When the kids come over on Christmas afternoon, they look forward to playing with the special Christmas toys kept only at their grandparents’ house and, if the weather is warm enough, splashing in the Bay. “They love the Bay,” says Jamie. “There’s just so much for kids to do on the Eastern Shore.” The family also enjoys playing games and holding small contests, a new tradition to the delight of the grandkids. “Dad’s our big game guy,” says Jennifer. “Normally, we do a blindfolded drawing challenge.” Both adults and kids participate, hanging up the finished pictures for family members to judge. Jack whips out some pictures of their past Christmas drawings. “You think in your mind that you’re going to do some amazing drawing and then —” he breaks into laughter at the memories and the less-than-artistic end results over the years. “Some people get really strategic with it, plotting out the points with their hands.” For one member of the family, this will be the first time to experience a McAleer Christmas. “This year, our brother has a baby, so it’ll be his first Christmas,” says Jennifer. Having siblings, cousins and grandparents together in one place fosters a special kind of closeness amongst the family, not to mention a happily packed house on Christmas Day. “Your family, they’re your people,” says Lauren. “You know you can count on them and turn to them. It’s great to see them grow up together.”

The McAleers make gluten-free berry cobbler for their son Alexander, who has been gluten free since he was little, to enjoy.

Berry Cobbler

Serves 10

1 cup gluten-free flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 egg, beaten

4-5 cups berries 
2 tablespoons gluten-free flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 stick butter, melted

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. 

2. In a medium bowl, combine the first three ingredients. Make a well in center of dry ingredients and blend in egg, mixing well. Set aside. 

3. Add berries to a large bowl. In a separate small bowl, combine flour and sugar. Stir into berries. 

4. Pour berries into an 8 x 8-inch baking dish. Spread crumble mixture over berries. Drizzle melted butter on top. Bake 45 minutes.

*Cook’s note: Blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and peaches work well.

Spritz Cookies 

Homemade spritz cookies, gluten-free cobbler and chocolate chip cookies accompany the customary Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

These little cookies are perfect for a small, sweet bite after dinner.

Yields 60 small cookies

1 cup softened butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/4 cups flour, sifted
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
Sugar sprinkles, for topping

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. 

2. Cream butter and sugar well with an electric mixer. Beat in egg and vanilla. 

3. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, salt and baking powder. 

4. Gradually blend the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients.

5. Fill a cookie press with dough and form cookies on an ungreased cookie sheet. Top with sugar sprinkles.

6. Bake for 10 minutes.

Chocolate Chip Cookies.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Yields 3 dozen cookies

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1/2 cup white sugar
1 cup light brown sugar
2 large eggs
2 1/2 packed cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 12-ounce bag semi-sweet chocolate chips

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

2. With an electric mixer, beat together the butter and shortening on medium-high speed for about 30 seconds. Add both sugars, mixing together. Add the eggs and beat. 

3. Gradually mix in the flour a few cups at a time until combined. Add in the baking soda, salt and vanilla and mix.

4. Stir in the chocolate chips with a spoon.

5. Using a cookie scoop or dinner spoon, scoop dough into balls and place on baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes, or until edges are golden-brown.

6. Rest for 1 minute on tray and then move to wire rack to cool completely.

Jesus’ Sour Cream Chocolate Birthday Cake

Every Christmas, the McAleers make a cake and sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus.

Serves 16

1 package Duncan Hines chocolate cake mix
1 3.4-ounce package instant French vanilla pudding mix
1 8-ounce container sour cream
1/2 cup vegetable oil
4 eggs

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans. Set aside.

2. Combine all ingredients in a stand mixer
and mix until combined.

3. Pour batter into cake pans. Bake 35 minutes.
Let cool before frosting.

Cream Cheese Icing 

1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
1 stick butter, softened 1 1/2 ounces 
unsweetened chocolate, melted 
1 teaspoon vanilla 
1 16-ounce package powdered sugar, sifted

1. In a stand mixer, beat cream cheese and butter until smooth and fluffy.

2. Add melted chocolate and vanilla. Mix.

3. Add powdered sugar and mix on low until fully incorporated. If frosting is too wet, add powdered sugar 2 tablespoons at a time until it reaches desired consistency and sweetness.

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