In 1987, Rose Neff came up with a sweet way to raise some extra dough for St. John the Baptist Catholic School in Smithton: Bake and sell Easter sugar cookies.
Fast-forward 30 years and Cathy Rickard, sitting in a chair wearing a bunny apron and icing cookies, is still shaking her head about Rose’s plan.
“I know who to blame, but I don’t know how it came about,” she said with a chuckle.
Rose, 75, admits it was her idea, presented when she was president of the church’s women’s club. It has become an annual tradition for the volunteers in the weeks running up to Easter, when they gather to mix dough, roll, cut into shapes, bake, ice, decorate and box the cookies, which are handed out after Palm Sunday service.
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This year, there are orders for 425 boxes ($10 a box), each holding 1 1/2 dozen cookies. Another 25 boxes hold two dozen cookies. That’s a total of 8,250 chicks, nests, eggs and rabbits, decorated with colored icing, jelly beans, sprinkles and coconut (just for the nests).
“We used to make ducks, but we replaced them with eggs; they broke,” Cathy said.
In 1987, they sold 79 boxes, working in the old parish center.
“The first year, we had two little stoves and we worked on one counter,” Rose recalled in a story published in the News-Democrat on March 31, 1999. A dozen years in the project, they were thrilled to have a commerical convection oven, but were still stuffed in the tiny parish kitchen shared with the school and working on two tables raised on concrete blocks. That year, they sold 12,600 cookies at $6 a box.
On a recent weeknight, about a dozen women worked in the spacious parish hall kitchen and attached school gymnasium built in 2001. The group usually comes in twice a week for about a month before Palm Sunday.
Teresa Jines ferried baked cookies from the kitchen to a long table in the gym. She, Cathy, Rose, Mary Schaefer, Jeanette Capelski and Maryann Biehl have been around since the beginning.
“I wore out a rolling pin,” said a grinning Maryann of her role in the process.
“I’ve been a roller all 30 years,” said Mary. “And a packer.”
Rose said the recipe remains the same: a basic sugar cookie she supplied, along with icing she perfected herself.
“It’s whole milk, powdered sugar and Crisco,” she said. “The secret is in the whipping,” which is done in a commercial mixer in the kitchen.
Other things haven’t changed since 1987. The cookies have to sit overnight to let the icing dry. And volunteers have to return early the next morning to box them up because the school uses the kitchen and gym.
“But, we now have two rooms to store the boxes in,” Rose said.
Plus, the parish priests over the decades have been known to stop by to sample a broken cookie or two. Rose said the Rev. Stan Konieczny has followed that tradition.
In the past, money raised — typically $3,500 annually — have helped pay for items such as kitchen equipment and the gym floor.
This year? “We’re looking at security cameras and a roof for the school,” Rose said.
And, if you’re wondering, the deadline is past for ordering cookies, she added.
“Really, we’ve got enough to do!”
Here is a big-batch sugar cookie recipe adapted from food blogger Rose Buchmiller, of Freeburg. Check out her blog at SockBox10.com.
4 cups granulated sugar
2 cups shortening
6 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon lemon extract
6 cups flour
6 teaspoons baking powder
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Beat eggs until thick. Add sugar one cup at a time.
2. Add shortening one cup at a time. (Crisco sticks work well here cut into chunks.)
3. Slow mixer and add milk, vanilla and lemon extract, one at a time. Mix well.
4. In a separate bowl, combine baking powder and flour, then gradually add to the wet mixture.
5. Refrigerate dough up to an hour to make it easier to roll out cookie dough.
6. Scoop an amount of dough that is manageable onto a floured surface, then roll to desired thickness (about 1/4 inch). Using a cookie cutter, make the shapes you want.
7. Place on cookie sheets at least an inch apart. Place on the oven's bottom rack for half of the baking time, and then finish on the top rack. This will allow the cookies to bake evenly and prevent burning on the bottoms. Bake 15 minutes.
An exact number of cookies is hard to determine, it depends on your cookie cutter. This is a big recipe, so you should get 5 to 6 dozen cookies.