It would be the closest I’d get to being a real Santa Elf. I was thirteen and my brother eleven. Through the family grapevine, we were selected to help the Cookie Lady.
When were arrived, she was wearing a purple flowered frilly apron that belied her drill sergeant attitude. She greeted us with a tight smile, and handed us plain white restaurant-style aprons.
She wasn’t the wrap-her-arm-around-you, mushy grandma who pinches your cheeks kind of woman. She was all business. This was her big event of the year, and she had a system.
I remember feeling intimidated by her fancy house, her proper language, her tall, upright posture and her reputation. It was a privilege to be invited to help, but scary as hell.
After a minimal amount of “How are yous” and formalities, she delivered the instructions.
“No eating of the raw dough.”
“No stealing of the finished treats.”
“Work fast and efficiently.”
“Don’t lose track of your counts.”
“Smile while you work.”
My brother and I exchanged glances and I was thinking, “Dang, I thought this would be about fingers in the dough, eating all the broken cookies and sitting around drinking hot cocoa.”
This was going to be work.
We were “in charge” of de-panning, packaging, and decoration.
We both got real good at counting to 12.
647 sets of 12. Or maybe it was 843 sets of 12. I can’t remember now.
We packaged hundreds of dozens of cookies for the Cookie Lady, in just four Saturdays before Christmas.
In that first meeting, she asked me to go downstairs with her. Even though I was a grown-up 13, I was terrified. I asked if my brother should come, too, and she said, “No, there won’t be room for three of us.” With visions of the hag from Hansel and Gretel racing through my mind, I shot a last look at my brother and descended the steep narrow stairs, with the Cookie Lady leading the way.
Her basement was nothing like I’d ever seen before.
In the light cast by two bare bulbs with pull chains hanging from the low ceiling, I could see shelves upon shelves of ingredients for making and decorating every kind of cookie or Christmas treat imaginable. From multiple bottles of red and green sugar sprinkles, to bags of flour and brown sugar, to teetering stacks of empty tins, to baskets of bows and ribbons, to piles of chocolate chips. There were walnuts and pecans and bottles of cinnamon and vanilla extract. I saw cookie cutters and loaf pans and stuff I didn’t know the names of.
It was the coolest baking shop in the world – for short people.
There were a couple dark corners hidden from the light. I can’t tell you what was in the corners, because I didn’t have the guts to venture there.
Could have been a cast off pair of tennis shoes w0rn by a fired helper.
Could have been a used apron worn by a helper who’d dared to dip her fingers in the raw dough.
I wasn’t going there.
The long banquet tables in the middle of the room were the center of the counting and packaging operation. The floor underneath glittered red and green from the excess sprinkles that never made their way into the tins.
On this first trip to the basement, she filled my arms with walnuts, chocolate chips and baking sheets.
Every trip after was a solo venture to look for stuff I couldn’t – at that age – identify. I could almost hear her tapping her fingers on the kitchen counter upstairs, waiting for me to find the almond paste.
After I became acquainted with the hiding spots for peppermint extract, slivered almonds, cocoa powder and confectioner’s sugar, the basement became my favorite place to be. It was in the basement that I could safely shove broken cookie pieces in my mouth without worrying I’d be caught.
The Real Meaning of Christmas
By our fourth Saturday of working our tails off and getting to sneak only the occasional cookie bite, we were less than enthusiastic about the role of the Cookie Lady’s elf. My brother – who got the courageous gene in the family – finally broke the silence to ask her a question. As he gazed longingly at a tin full of chocolate pillows, mint meringues and peanut clusters he said, “Mrs. Johnson, what do you do with all these cookies?”
She smiled down at him and said, “Why, we give them all away, of course!”
“You give ’em all away? Who gets ’em?” (I told you he was brave.)
“We give the cookies to family and friends and people from the church and folks who don’t have as much as Mr. Johnson and I have.”
- 1 C butter
- 3/4 C sugar
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/4 tsp peppermint extract
- green food coloring
- 2 1/2 C flour
- 7 – 1.55oz Hershey’s Chocolate Bars
Cream the butter, sugar and salt. Add the egg, vanilla and peppermint extracts and several drops of green food coloring. Mix in the flour.
If you tried Aunt Pat’s Spritz Cookie recipe, that means you have a cookie press. Use the pattern that is flat on the bottom, with the jiggy top.
Next, press long strips of the cookie dough, running the length of a cookie sheet. You’ll have room for four strips per pan.
You’ll get the hang of it. If you flub up, scoop up the messed up strip and press it again.
While you are pressing the strips, have an assistant break the Hershey Bars into sections. You may need more than seven bars, depending on how many you steal during the process.
Lay the Hershey sections on the strips with a small space between them.
Press another strip of cookie dough to cover the chocolate sections. This gets tricky, but it’s fun.
Sprinkle with red colored sugar and bake for 6 minutes at 375 degrees.
Let the cookies set on a cooling rack for a minute and then cut them between the chocolate sections. You’ll notice a little dip in the cookie dough between the chocolates. Make sure to cut them while they are still warm, or you’ll end up with broken Chocolate Pillows which still taste good, but aren’t as cute.
You should end up with about seven dozen Chocolate Pillows.
If I counted correctly.