Want to maximize your holiday cookie offerings? A prolific Ottawa baker has tips
By Amy Eddings
Cookies are to Christmas what pies are to Thanksgiving — in a word, essential — and you can never have enough around for snacking, gifting and exchanging. That’s why Kathy Moening makes 150 dozen sugar cookies for her family every December.
Yes, 150 dozen. That’s 1,800 cookies. That’s enough to feed a small army, and you could say Moening’s extended family is one.
She’s one of 11 children, all married, all with kids of their own. Like good soldiers, they rally around Moening and, with her husband, four daughters and two grandchildren, help bake and decorate those 1,800 sugar cookies in a single weekend. They call it Cookie Sunday.
“We only do these,” she said of the rolled-out sugar cookies. She’s not interested in gingerbread or chocolate snowcaps, German Pfeffernüsse or Italian pizzelle. “This is Mom’s recipe when we were kids. She made roll-out cookies and she just slathered frosting on them and we’d put on sprinkles. That’s what we grew up with.”
One look at Moening’s artful Christmas cookies shows she’s taken that “slather-and-sprinkle” decorating style to new heights of precision, complexity and delight. It’s a skill that she was first drawn to during a different holiday.
“When I was in high school, a girlfriend of mine decorated cakes. She brought in a heart-shaped cake on Valentine’s Day, and it was beautiful. I said, ‘Someday, I want to be able to do that,’” said Moening. “When I got married and had kids, I bought a heart-shaped pan at Penny’s that had one decorating bag in it and five plastic blue tips, and I just practiced and practiced and practiced.”
Twenty years ago, Moening moved from cakes to cookies, taking up her mother Clara’s sugar cookie Christmas tradition.
“We got together on a Sunday at our house and we used to bake a pan [of cookies] and decorate them,” she said. “Everybody loves it.”
Over the years, the special baking day has grown into a multi-generational, weekend-long event. Cookie Sunday now starts on Saturday, when her daughters spend the afternoon at Moening’s house near Ottawa, mixing and chilling the dough, rolling it out, cutting it into shapes and baking the cookies until they’re the color of a very milky cup of coffee.
“I’m usually at work,” said the 61-year-old, who works at a flower shop. “(They’ll) have nine pans going, three baking, three being unloaded and three being loaded, and (they’ll) just rotate them around the kitchen. It’s like well-oiled machinery.”
On Sunday, decorating day, Moening takes charge.
“You get a whole tray of the same cookie,” she said of her helpers. “You do 20 or 30 bells, somebody else does Christmas trees.”
They don’t go at it willy-nilly, either. Moening decides each cookie’s design. With some cookies, like Christmas cut-out bells, she does some of the more complicated finishing touches herself.
“I’ve been doing this for 40 years,” she said. “I get to put on the zigzags and the stars and the bows.”
Other family members keep pastry bags filled with colored frosting. Others distribute the cookies into cardboard boxes, covering them tightly with plastic wrap. Others start washing the dishes.
“I’m amazed at how many people buy cookies,” said Moening. She said making your own is so much better, and she prefers organizing Cookie Sunday to organizing a cookie swap.
“My daughter does it with her mother-in-law and the sisters on that side of the family. Everybody brings five batches that they make at home and they trade.”
As for her, she said, without a trace of irony, “I just never had the time.”
Want to host your own Cookie Sunday?
Here are Kathy Moening’s tips for hosting a cookie baking and decorating event for your family.
WHAT YOU’LL NEED:
Disposable frosting (also known as icing or piping) bags. These are inexpensive and there’s no fussing with them during clean-up. When cutting them to size to attach the tip couplers, Moening recommends taking your time and making many small cuts. “Once you go too big, you ruin it. Too big is toast,” she said.
Frosting tips. Moening recommends buying writing, or drop, tubes in sizes 3, 6 and 14 and star tubes in sizes 14, 16 and 18. “They can do all their cookies with just that,” she said.
Frosting tip couplers. They make it easy to use the same color frosting for different decorative results. Just unscrew the collar of the coupler and swap out the tip.
Food coloring. Moening recommends Wilton Icing Colors in 1-ounce screwtop bottles. They’re sold online, on Amazon, and are also available at Hobby Lobby and JoAnn craft stores. Moening said white, red, green, black and gold are all you’ll need for most cookies. Figures like Santa Claus or angels will require an additional color for their faces and hands, so keep this in mind. She also thinks the “right red” for Christmas is made with equal parts Wilton’s “Red” and “X-Mas Red.”
Christmas cookie cutters. Larger shapes will be fun and easy to decorate but will cut into your yield. Smaller cookies will mean a higher yield, but a smaller decorating surface requiring more precision. Moening recommends starting out with seven to nine different shapes, with the majority of them of a medium size.
Trays. Kathy has a variety of cafeteria-style or fast food plastic trays on which she places the undecorated cookies. Find them on Amazon.
Cardboard boxes. These are for boxing the cookies and sending them home with family and friends. The best kind are the short-sided ones used by food manufacturers to ship boxes of canned goods. “I get mine for free from [the discount supermarket chain] Aldi,” said Moening.
Plastic wrap, for sealing the boxes. Moening also recommends putting a piece of bread in the corner of each box before sealing it. “It gets as hard as a rock, but the cookie is soft as soft,” said Moening.
Lots of eager helpers! It goes without saying that to bake 150 dozen cookies, you’ll need some assistance. Pick a weekend that works for most of your family members and make an event out of it. “Everybody brings snacks,” said Moening. “It’s just a food fest here. We barely eat any cookies.”
A game plan: This starts with deciding how many cookies you want to bake and how much time you’re going to need to get that done. Can you do it all in one day, or will you need two, like the Moenings?
Write your grocery list. Kathy makes a cheat sheet to help with the shopping. Six batches of cookie dough made from her mother’s recipe, for example, will require 10 pounds of flour (that’s typically two bags of flour at the grocery story), five and a quarter pounds of sugar (a bag and then some) and 18 eggs.
Set up your space. Survey your kitchen. Set aside counter space for mixing and rolling out the dough. Set up tables for decorating and for boxing and wrapping the cookies. Moening sets up long folding tables in her sewing room for that.
Develop a strategy. Utilize down-time well. The dough needs to chill for at least a half hour, which is a good time to prepare staging areas for rolling and cutting. Use the 10-minute baking time to load and unload baking sheets, and choose a consistent design for each cookie and tell your decorating squad.
Organize your helpers. Who’s going to decorate? Who’s going to refill frosting bags? Who’s going to take finished trays of cookies and put them in boxes? Who’s going to clean up? Decide ahead of time.
Have fun. Enjoy the chaos, the camaraderie, the mess and the end results. “We never tell somebody their cookie is ugly,” she said. “That just wouldn’t be in the Christmas spirit.”
Grandma Clara’s Christmas Cut-Out Cookies
1 pound butter
2 cups sugar
3 beaten eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
Cream butter. Add sugar, eggs and vanilla. Mix in flour, baking soda and salt, one cup at a time. Refrigerate for at least one hour.
While chilling, preheat over to 350 F. Roll out the dough and cut into shapes. Bake for 10 minutes. Cookies are done when the edges turn a very light brown. Do not overbake. Cool on wire racks and decorate with frosting. Makes 9 dozen cookies.
1 1/2 cups Crisco shortening
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla (Kathy prefers white vanilla flavoring to vanilla extract because it’s not as strong)
2 pounds powdered sugar
1/2 to 3/4 cup milk
Add all ingredients into a bowl and beat well. Frosts about 7 dozen cookies, so you’ll need to increase this recipe by half to frost one batch of Grandma Clara’s cookie recipe. Moening suggests smearing extra frosting on graham crackers. Frosting will keep well in a Tupperware container in the refrigerator for a week.