10/06/2011 02:15 EDT | Updated 12/06/2011 05:12 EST

Families raise funds to fight pediatric cancer, one bake sale at a time

Can you fight cancer with a cookie? How about 96,000 cookies?

That was the genesis for the non-profit Cookies for Kids' Cancer, an initiative that was born when Gretchen Holt-Witt held a larger-than-life cookie fundraiser to bring in money for research into pediatric cancer, then realized that she'd found a great way to galvanize people into joining the fight.

"I knew that I had to come up with something that was just so irresistible that people couldn't turn away," says Holt-Witt, author of the recently released, "Cookies for Kids' Cancer: Best Bake Sale Cookbook."

The story began in 2007, when Holt-Witt's young son, Liam, was diagnosed with pediatric cancer. Shocked at the lack of treatment options and funding for the number one disease killer of U.S. children, she decided to try to bake and sell cookies during the holidays to raise money for research while at the same time creating an engaging way to get people interested in the relatively low-profile disease that is, as she puts it, "the monster in the closet that you just don't want to think about."

She knew she could call on about 80 families fighting the same pediatric cancer as Liam and estimated each could sell about 100 dozen cookies to family and friends. Voila — 8,000 dozen — or 96,000 individual — cookies.

She turned to friend and recipe writer Sally Sampson for the best recipes for large-scale baking, found a helpful supplier and, not without a few challenges, found a commercial kitchen with the proper certification. More than 250 people, including friends-of-friends showed up, staying all hours to bake, cool, package and ship the cookies, which sold in a matter of days.

The result was an astonishing $420,000 raised.

"We realized after we had baked all 96,000 cookies and raised $420,000 that we had hit a nerve with people and we had found a way to invite people into the world of pediatric cancer without scaring them off," says Holt-Witt.

There was no stopping after that. Holt-Witt and her husband, Larry, founded Cookies for Kids' Cancer, a national non-profit that inspires people to host bake sales.

The new book, (Wiley, $19.99) features nearly 70 bake sale recipes from Sampson and others, along with dozens of bake sale tips and profiles of bake sale hosts from across the country. For instance, once piece of advice is not to price the cookies — these aren't commercial transactions, but a way for people to donate.

"Giving should be from the heart and you can't put a price on that," says Holt-Witt.

All of the author's proceeds will go to Cookies for Kids' Cancer.

Recipes include tried-and-true sparkly ginger snaps and almost-black-they're-so-cocoa cookies, which have a holiday-friendly peppermint stick variation. And for something a little different there's chocolate-covered caramel-laced matzo and white chocolate pistachio bark.

Sadly, Liam's battle ended this year, but the foundation continues, raising over US$4 million so far.

"I've lost the greatest loss, but I can't stop," says Holt-Witt. "Liam would be so upset with me if I didn't do everything I can."



Cookies for Kids' Cancer:



To toast the nuts, heat the oven to 180 C (350 F). Place the nuts on a dry baking sheet and bake until golden, 10 to 15 minutes.

Start to finish: 45 minutes (15 minutes active)

Makes 24 bars

120 ml (8 tbsp or 1 stick) unsalted butter, melted

2 sleeves graham crackers, crushed

250 ml (1 cup) sweetened flaked coconut

500 ml (2 cups) semi-sweet chocolate chips

398 ml (14-oz) can sweetened condensed milk

500 ml (2 cups) pecans, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped

Heat the oven to 180 C (350 F). Lightly coat a 23-by-33-cm (9-by-13-inch) baking pan with butter or cooking spray. Line the pan with parchment paper, allowing enough overhang on the long side to lift the bars from the pan after baking.

In a large bowl, combine the butter and graham crackers. Transfer the mixture to the prepared pan and pat into an even layer to form the crust.

Sprinkle the coconut evenly over the crust. Sprinkle the chocolate chips over the coconut. Pour the condensed milk evenly over the chocolate chips. Sprinkle the pecans evenly over the condensed milk layer. Press the layers down lightly. Transfer to the oven and bake until lightly browned, about 30 minutes.

Set aside to cool completely, then cut into 24 bars.

(Recipe from Gretchen Holt-Witt's "Cookies for Kids' Cancer: Best Bake Sale Cookbook," Wiley, 2011)