At her most ambitious, Kelly Fisler baked 85 dozen of each of 10 kinds of holiday cookies. That’s a total of 10,200 spritz trees, raspberry thumbprints, Mexican wedding cakes, peanut butter blossoms and so on. (She’s even baked up to 150 dozen pecan fingers.) That doesn’t include the years the St. Francis resident, whose rigorous handiwork starts the Friday after Thanksgiving and wraps up in mid-December, adds intricate shaped and dipped candies and hundreds of quick breads. Somehow she manages to do this all with one heavy-duty KitchenAid mixer and, she says, “awesome cookie sheets that fit the width of my oven.”
Fisler’s list of holiday cookie recipients is long – her immediate family, in-laws and co-workers, her husband’s office mates, the neighbors. Anyone, she says, who has “made an impact on me that year.” Each recipient receives quite the edible haul – one dozen of each kind of cookie mingled with homemade milk and dark chocolate truffles, sea salt caramels, dipped pretzels and cherry cordials. Anyone who takes on herculean holiday baking efforts understands the signs: Rubbermaid containers full of cookies taking over the dining room furniture, a freezer loaded with butter (of which it’s not unusual for her to go through 50-plus pounds in a season). Fisler starts stocking up on ingredients – mountains of flour and sugar; bottle after bottle of vanilla – before Halloween. Her methodology is to crank out one kind of cookie in a day, with perhaps some help from her husband or 93-year-old mother who lives with them.
You might question why, at a time of year already wrapped in extra commitments and stresses, someone would take on a baking marathon. But, you see, it’s the season of giving. “It makes me happy to see how much they enjoy them, and I give enough to each person that they can share,” she says.
For others, the ritual’s significance is tied to the tradition of baking with loved ones, deepening bonds and getting into the spirit of the season. Food historians trace European holiday cookie traditions to as early as the 1500s, specifically German (gingerbread-like) lebkuchen and Swedish ginger pepparkakor. Intricate molds and cutters were introduced in Germany and the Netherlands and are thought to have spurred the growth of holiday baking; Dutch immigrants brought those traditions to the States.
Baking is also a way of honoring the memory of a special person. Katie Weide Corcoran’s mother was known for her cookies. When Linda Weide’s children were students at Holy Family School in Whitefish Bay, Weide started the tradition of baking and giving 10 to 12 kinds (some in double and triple batches) to the kids’ teachers. For each recipient, she’d “take the bottom of a gift box, wrap it in wrapping paper and line the inside with tin foil. Each box probably had over 100 cookies!” says her daughter, who took up the baton after her mother’s passing from breast cancer in 2010. Corcoran bakes all the favorites her mother made (double and triple batches) and gives them to her own kids’ teachers at the same grade school she attended, and in some cases, it’s the same teachers as when Corcoran was there.
A few years ago the cookies started to touch other people’s lives – a family that, like Corcoran, had experienced breast cancer. That holiday season, she auctioned off her first cookie box and was able to raise more than $400 for a gift card delivered to a young family – the mother had just been diagnosed with breast cancer – by a “secret Santa.” The cookie auction fundraiser has since become part of Corcoran’s baking tradition: “It’s kind of a [coming] full-circle, therapeutic thing to do,” she says. Each season, the first kind she bakes is butter yeast cookies, an old family recipe, because it’s also the first kind her mom baked. In replicating her mother’s methods – cookies need to be small, try one to two new recipes each year, opt for variety – Corcoran feels “very connected” to her.
Legacy and nostalgia bring together Gina Santagati’s extended family to bake their Sicilian grandmother’s handwritten recipes in old yellowed notebook preserved by Santagati’s mom, Ann LoCoco Zambito, who (like Grandma LaCoco) was born in Porticello, Sicily. The holiday cookie baking has always had a place in their traditions, Santagati says, but it brought a younger generation’s involvement when the family started a one-night pre-holiday bake-off combining Santagati’s mom, aunts and cousins. The aunts make all the doughs in advance so that that night – usually the week before Christmas – the family piles into Zambito’s Milwaukee kitchen to bake and decorate everything from Nonna’s “S” cookies (they substitute lemon for the traditional anise), tutus (chocolate-walnut balls in thin white icing), sesame logs (“cimino”), pizzelle wafers, conventional sugar cutouts and many others. Tradition dictates a big extended family gathering to enjoy these treats on Christmas Eve, but they bake enough so that everyone can load up their own trays or tins to bring home.
Kelly Fisler’s ambitious holiday baking sessions got their start over 30 years ago. There were a few years when other commitments got in the way, but she approaches the 10-12-hour baking stretches as a small sacrifice for the joy it brings the cookie recipients. And that’s really what it’s about – giving, a tradition with roots in all cultures. ◆