Spreading Christmas Cheer By Baking Spirits Bright

By Jacqueline G. Goodwin, Ed.D.

Last year was Shelly Lee’s most ambitious of all her years since she started baking Christmas cookies. The Harrisburg resident baked 90 dozen of each kind of 10 holiday cookies for a total of 10,800 candy canes, raspberry thumbprints, peanut butter blossoms, chocolate chips, gingerbread and snickerdoodles. Definitely her personal best.

Starting the Friday after Thanksgiving and wrapping up the weekend before Christmas, Lee somehow manages to accomplish all of her holiday baking with one heavy-duty KitchenAid mixer and, “awesome cookie sheets I bought from the restaurant store that fit the width of my oven,” she says.

Lee’s list of holiday cookie recipients is long. It includes her immediate family, in-laws and co-workers, her husband’s office mates, the neighbors. . .”Anyone who has made an impact on me that year.” According to Lee, each recipient receives quite the edible haul—one dozen of each kind of cookie mingled with homemade milk and dark chocolate truffles, sea salt caramels, dipped pretzels and cherry cordials.

Anyone who takes on herculean holiday baking efforts understands the signs: Rubbermaid containers full of cookies taking over the dining room table and a freezer loaded with butter. Lee says it’s not unusual for her to go through 60-plus pounds of butter during the holiday season. She starts stocking up on baking ingredients—pounds of flour and sugar and  bottles of pure vanilla—well before Halloween. “I start scouring the newspaper inserts for coupons and deals on baking ingredients right after Labor Day,” Lee adds.

And when she launches into the baking process, she says her methodology is to crank out one kind of cookie in two days, with perhaps some help from her husband and her 90-year-old mother who lives with them.

You might question why, at a time of year already wrapped in extra commitments and stress, someone would take on a baking marathon. But, Lee attributes it to the season of giving.

Lee’s ambitious holiday baking sessions got their start 20 years ago. She says there were a few years when other commitments got in the way, but she approaches the 10-12 hour baking stretches as a small sacrifice for the joy it brings the cookie recipients.

“It makes me happy to see how much folks enjoy my cookies and candies,” says Lee. “And I give enough to each person so they can share.”

For others, baking holiday cookies is tied to the tradition of baking with loved ones, deepening bonds, and getting into the spirit of the season.

Food historians trace European holiday cookie traditions to as early as the 1500s, specifically German, gingerbread-like lebkuchen and Swedish ginger pepparkakor. Intricate cookie cutters were introduced in Germany and the Netherlands and are thought to have spurred the growth of holiday baking. And it is a known fact that Dutch immigrant brought those traditions to America.

Legacy and nostalgia bring together Angela Yacullo’s extended family to bake their Sicilian grandmother’s handwritten recipes in an old yellowed notebook preserved by Angelina Zambito, Yacullo’s mother.

Yacullo says the holiday cookie baking has always had a place in their traditions, but it brought a younger generation’s involvement when the family started a one-night pre-holiday bake-off combining the family’s aunts, sisters, and cousins.

The aunts make all the doughs in advance so that night usually the week before Christmas. Yacullo says the family piles into her large kitchen to bake and decorate everything from Nonna’s “S” cookies (they substitute lemon for the traditional anise), tutus (chocolate-walnuts balls in thin white icing), sesame logs (ciminos), pizzella wafers, conventional sugar cutouts and many others.

“We serve the cookies at our extended family’s Christmas Eve celebration,” says Yacullo. “We definitely bake enough so that everyone can load up their own trays or tines to bring home.”