Editor’s note: This story originally ran March 31, 1999
Just before Easter, the parish center at St. John The Baptist Catholic Church gets a little crowded.
The influx of 12,600 — not counting the broken ones — rabbit, chick and duck sugar cookies accounts for that. Packed gently in each of 700 brown rectangular boxes were 1 1/2 dozen assorted yellow frosted chicks and ducks, solid or speckled rabbits and even some green coconut-sprinkled nests.
They were doled out to parishioners on Palm Sunday at $6 a box.
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A few weeks earlier, the boxes were stacked almost to the ceiling in a small room in the center. Out front, about 15 members of the church’s women’s club were in the process of frosting hundreds of cookies lining the tables.
“You walk in and say, ‘Where do you want me,’” said Violet Sternau as she spread yellow frosting on a chick.
In a corner, Teresa Jines eyed a table full of yet-to-be-frosted chicks and began counting.
Rose Neff pretty much heads the annual operation, plus acts as the parish secretary and housekeeper.
“The recipe is from 36 years ago when I got married,” she said. “It’s pretty much a basic sugar cookie recipe now, but the icing was perfected by myself. I won’t give it out — a neighboring parish might want it. We make the same cookies.”
The project began in 1987, with just 79 boxes of cookies sold. The money raised has always funded school projects.
In back, in the tiny kitchen, at least half a dozen women squeezed into barely enough space to eventually whip up 270 batches of cookie dough, divide them, roll them, wield cookie cutters, fill cookie sheets and bake.
Eighty batches can be made at one time, with Neff and Mary Herring stirring up the batches ahead of time and freezing the dough. That evening, Herring manned the new convection oven.
“The first year we had two little stoves and we worked on one counter,” said Neff as she leaned against the kitchen doorframe. That was as far as she could enter the room. Between the sink and the far counter, two work tables had been put up on concrete blocks. Mounds of dough sat on top of it, along with rolling pins, flour and cookie cutters.
“It makes it easier on our backs — we don’t have to lean over so far,” said Linda Kreher as she flipped cookie dough on the foil-lined table.
Logistics makes baking the cookies a bit of a challenge. Since the parish center’s kitchen is also used by the school to feed its students, whatever work goes on there in the evening has to be cleaned up and put away by the next morning.
To complicate matters, “the cookies have to sit overnight” to allow the frosting to set, said Neff with a grin. “That means we have to be here at 6 a.m. to put them away before anyone else gets here.”
And what would an evening of baking and frosting be without an official taste-tester?
“Father periodically pops in to make sure they taste OK,” said Neff of the Rev. Kenneth York. He stood in a corner that evening, chatting with workers and nibbling on a broken cookie he’d take from a small bowl on the table.
“They’re always good,” he said as he reached for another piece.