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Baking cookies is a time-honored holiday pastime, but while most people might whip up a couple dozen sugar cookies or gingerbread men, Dawn Leijon and her team of helpers come together every year to bake not dozens or even hundreds of cookies, but thousands of them.
The night before Cookie Day, which took place on Nov. 16, Leijon and her kids drove up to her parents’ farm in Woodbine, Md., from D.C. and got straight to work, opening up 130 pounds of butter and cracking 600-some-odd eggs so that the bake-a-thon would go as smoothly as possible. By 7 a.m. the next day, Leijon and her comrades were already firing up the ovens.
As Leijon mixes up 50-pound trays full of cookie dough, Laurel resident Vincent Schembari is busy pulling cookie sheets in and out of a convection oven.
“They’re going to bring some more down from upstairs, and we just keep these ovens moving the whole time,” he says. “It’s incredible how the process works.”
Schembari says he and his wife have been coming to Cookie Day for three years. When he’s not moonlighting as an oven assistant, he works as a dentist. But Schembari says he doesn’t have a problem being surrounded by the sweet treats.
“Cookies are not as bad as sticky candies, and you’re not going to typically eat, you know, a dozen cookies at a time,” he says. And speaking of time, Leijon says a lot of it goes into Cookie Day.
“Actually we started a week ago, buying ingredients and mixing up the first couple batches of dough that go into the freezer,” she says. “My parents work and get things out of storage and start putting together boxes all week. And they were staging the equipment around so everything would be ready, so they’ve been working very hard.”
For her parents, Ken and Sharon Pickett, another tradition is the annual road trip they take to buy rare, but necessary ingredients. “My parents actually drive to Hershey every year because there's one particular cookie that we make that requires these cinnamon chips that you just can't find in the grocery store,” Leijon says. “So it's just easier to drive to Hershey and they get all the chocolate chips up there.”
A tradition that now goes back decades
The Picketts are an integral part of Cookie Day, and not just because they host the event on the farm Ken’s family has owned for more than 120 years. The 27-year-old tradition started in 1987, during Leijon’s sophomore year of college. When she asked her father for a “heavy-duty mixer,” she was envisioning something sturdy, but standard-sized. Instead, she got a big surprise.
“Well, my 'heavy duty' was commercial,” he says. “She called from college and that’s what she wanted for Christmas, so I run into a used 20-quart Hobart mixer. I bought that and gave her that.”
Leijon says she couldn’t even mix a single batch of cookies in that original, industrial mixer if she wanted to.
“You actually can’t make one batch,” she says. “It like, gets lost in the mixer bowl. So we decided to invite some friends over and family and I don’t know, there might have been six or eight of us and everybody brought some ingredients and we made cookies together and then we took them home and put them in the freezer and shared them.”
She says they baked about 1,000 cookies that day, but their first experience was a far cry from the carefully orchestrated event that Cookie Day has evolved into.
“We literally were standing at the mixer with cookbooks, going through, trying to decide by committee what do we think we can make and what do we have the ingredients for?”
Leijon says they started looking for ways to work smarter and more efficiently. They bought new ovens, ditched recipes that didn’t hold up and started buying all of the ingredients in bulk. She also rewrote the recipes, converting measurements from teaspoons into cups and from cups into pounds. Simply put, there’s a lot of math behind Cookie Day.
The event is organized as a co-op, in which participants purchase the number of shares they want to take home. “We’re charging $46 for each share, and a share is roughly 50-55 dozen cookies, so it’s less than a dollar a dozen,” Leijon says.
“The most expensive cookie we make is the milk chocolate espresso cookie because the espresso powder, I need five jars of it and it’s $4.50 a jar,” she says, adding that the recipes that require nuts are also expensive to produce. “One year we made a coconut pecan one with coconut milk and pecan. It was good, but expensive.”
A labor of love
The labor is free, which helps. But Leijon says a big piece of the cost is actually the boxes that the cookies get packaged into. “Every share and every kind of cookie gets its own box so the flavors don’t mix, and they’re 30 cents a box and then they’re very heavy so shipping can be expensive,” she says. “So that’s a surprisingly big piece of the cost.”
They also have to time everything carefully, in order to avoid working into the wee hours of the morning or losing steam before the job is done. Leijon says the goal is always to wrap things up as early as possible, but even if they finish by 5:30 or 6 p.m., that’s still a full day’s work.
“Standing on your feet for 10 hours on a concrete floor is very tiring, so we laugh about the people upstairs at the ball rolling table who get to sit on their butts and drink coffee and chat all day,” she says. “We just don’t think their job is all that difficult.”
But difficult or not, everyone at Cookie Day has a job. In addition to the folks rolling balls of dough and the people down in the basement, working the ovens and mixing up pounds of batter, there are also people delegated to packing the cookies into boxes, running said boxes to the cars parked outside, tallying up the numbers, keeping everyone fed, and watching the youngest kids.
Sue Spencer keeps participants posted on their progress. She periodically rings a bell and updates people on the tally, and how it compares to the predicted yield.
“Okay!” she shouts, over a clanging bell. “We just completed the chocolate espresso. The expected yield was 1,200. We yielded 1,390, and last year we yielded 1,353. Our total is 10,420 cookies up to now, and we’re at a 35 percent capacity.” Everyone claps and cheers when they hear this good news.
This year, the crew made a total of 30,401 cookies and used 19 different recipes, ranging from your standard varieties to some more inventive ones, such as mint chocolate espresso and Jell-O, a recipe they created just for Cookie Day.
“It's a butter cookie that you roll in Jell-O powder, because Jell-O powder is mostly sugar, and we do red and we do green,” Leijon says. “I hate them. They're my least favorite, but I also know two or three people who love them, so we still make them every year.”
Dawn says by the end of the day, everyone is exhausted, covered in chocolate, and happy to be finished with their Christmas baking. But she says the real purpose of Cookie Day is as much about spending time with friends and family as it is about the treats. And that might be the sweetest part of all.
[Music: "Bishop House Bounce of the Sugar Plum Fairy" by Don Byron from Bug Music]
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