To bake 6,800 Christmas cookies,
it takes more than just holiday magic
PHOTOGRAPHY BY CIE STROUD
The mingled scents of cinnamon, cocoa and vanilla create a tantalizing homespun perfume that fills the Chesterfield kitchen of Joanne Gronikowski.
As the fragrance drifts through the room, the cheerful chatter of children and the merry sound of Christmas carols provide the background music for the culinary event of the season in the Gronikowski household: Baking thousands of cookies to give to extended family, friends, doctors, mail carriers, hairdressers, dentists, favorite pizza makers and anyone else Joanne likes and respects. While most of us are happy if we can find time to bake a few hundred (or even a few dozen) cookies for the holidays, Gronikowski’s productivity puts her in the ranks of the cookie-baking elite. Last year, in an annual tradition that starts in late September, she made 23 varieties for a total of 6,800 cookies.
Forty-five years of cookie baking have given her a wealth of expertise on the subject, which she is happy to share. First of all, she says, “Baking is great therapy.”
Second, “It’s much more fun to bake with somebody.”
And third, “It’s such a good feeling inside when you give something that is homemade. It makes you feel good for the holidays.”
Baking holiday cookies was not a tradition Gronikowski grew up with. For her it began nearly five decades ago, when she was a young mother looking for ways for her children to help make Christmas gifts. Always a home baker, she found she enjoyed it even more when her children were involved. Over time, that involvement expanded to include her nieces, grandchildren, and a few friends and extended family. From the youngest to the oldest, everyone does their share and everyone gets cookies to give away at Christmas time.
In the beginning, Gronikowski made sugar cookies with her children, who did the decorating. But over time she added more cookie varieties, just as her list of recipients grew and her children were able to do more tasks. Some of the cookie list changes each year, but it always includes about a dozen perennial favorites such as the sugar cookies (she calls them butter cookies), chocolate–peanut butter surprises, candy cane logs, biscotti, and peanut-butter-cup temptations. With the help of her family she makes at least 200 of each kind, and more of the most popular varieties.
While baking season at the Gronikowski’s is a time filled with warmth and family joy—children and adults happily sample the cookies they have made and plan the next they will tackle—the sheer scope of the job is possible only because of Joanne Gronikowski’s accumulated organizational skills.
Most of us wait until the air outside is frosty and holiday lights are glowing on trees before we think about cookies, but her baking season begins in the heat of August when she tries out new recipes to see if she wants to add them to her list. In September, she lays in a supply of ingredients, stacking pounds of butter in the freezer and finding flour and sugar on sale. By late that month, when the first nip of autumn is in the air, she is baking her first cookies, which she stores in her large freezer.
One of the reasons she starts so early is so that everyone can find a day or two to help, no matter how busy their schedules.
Gronikowski premeasures flour, sugar, oats, spices and other ingredients into individual containers so they are easy to grab when she and her helpers go into production mode. She loads colored sugars into saltshakers and Nutella into a squeeze bottle so they are easy to apply, and she makes some doughs in advance so that when her helpers show up they can start baking cookies immediately. Her family baking peaks on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when all the grandchildren gather to make sugar cookies and decorate gingerbread people. But she continues baking right up until the holiday, making biscotti and sometimes trying a new recipe or two to surprise the family on Christmas Eve or to take to holiday parties.
Everyone gathers early in December for Sort Night. That’s when Gronikowski and helpers extend the table in the dining room and group the cookies according to which have nuts and which don’t. Gronikowski gives directions on how to layer the cookies in their boxes (plainer ones on the bottom, fancies on top). Then they start at one end of the table and fi ll each box or tray the same way. She sorts early so she can get cookies in the mail; they go to destinations that include Florida, Arizona, Indiana, Las Vegas and England.
People often ask Gronikowski why she doesn’t bake cookies to sell, but she just smiles and shakes her head.
“I would never go into the cookie business,” she says, “because then it would be a job.”
Here are two of Gronikowski’s favorite cookies, which help fi ll her cookie trays each year.
TIPS FROM A COOKIE-BAKING EXPERT
- Buy as many supplies ahead of time as possible.
- Buy two sizes of white shirt boxes for storing cookies. For the freezer, line the boxes with plastic wrap.
- Premeasure ingredients and mark each container so that everything is set up and ready.
- Make a list of what you bake and how many batches are needed.
- Use parchment paper on baking sheets for easier cleanup.
- Prepare batches of cookie dough the day before baking.
- Chop and/or unwrap nuts, chips, fruit and any candies ahead of time.
- Never include cookies with strong flavors like lemon or mint in cookie trays; their flavor will be transferred to the other cookies.
- Stick to favorites and regulars but always add a few new ones.
- Layer cookies in trays with the plain ones on the bottom and the fancy ones on top.
- Make all miniature cookies. Use cookie scoops for uniform sizes.
- Put all colored sugar in salt and pepper shakers for decorating.
- Use plastic sandwich bags for squeezing icing on cookies.
- Always make cookies the first time by following recipe directions, then tweak recipes to bake them more economically and use time-saving shortcuts.
- Use plastic tablecloths on the counters. Precut to the size of the table or counter and have them ready beforehand. This helps with the cleanup.
- Use a small crockpot when melting chocolate for glazing cookies.
- Keep the chocolate-filled applicator bottle in warm water so the chocolate doesn’t harden between baking and decorating.
- Sift powdered sugar ahead of time and keep in large container.
- When recipe calls for colored icing for the cookies, make enough so that you don’t have to stop in the middle and make more.
- Clean as you go. This is an important part of baking and keeps everything much more organized.
- Always critique the cookies after you finish baking, and plan changes to be made for next year.