‘Granny’ and ‘the girls’ build special tradition

The cookie decorating crew in 2017 included (standing L to R) Amy Brix, Holly Brandt, Heidi Korb, Alison Karasch, Tara Hayward, (front L to R) Becky Dillon and Jean Shepherd. Contributed photo

With the holidays around the corner, you might be thinking of digging out your apron, a favorite recipe and spending some time in the kitchen. A cookie baking party is one way of getting the work done by adding some fun with friends or family to the mix. It’s a whole day of making cookies, making messes and making memories. Cookie baking parties make the work more enjoyable, and the best part is, at the end of the day, everyone goes home with a platter of goodies.

For the ninth consecutive year, Jean Shepherd is hosting a cookie decorating day at her Avon home with her granddaughters and nieces. It delights her that an idea for a fun holiday tradition has become such a hit with her “girls” who travel from all parts of Minnesota to be there on the first Saturday in December. “They come from Pillager, Bloomington, St. Cloud, Detroit Lakes and Lake Park. They come a long way,” said Jean. “And, one granddaughter even came from Washington, D.C., last year to be here.” Jean objected that it was too far to travel, but Tara Hayward didn’t want to miss out on the annual tradition and the chance to see her grandma, affectionately called “Granny,” and her cousins.

“I was sitting at my kitchen table a few years ago,” Jean recalled, “when I decided I want to be remembered for something, and I came up with the idea that I’d bake Christmas cookies and have my granddaughters come and decorate them. I’ve always baked cookies, but this would be something we could do together.” Nine years later, Jean has been watching the sales and stocking up on powdered sugar, flour and butter.

The first Saturday in December begins early with everyone arriving by 7:30. The cookies are ready to decorate, because Jean bakes ahead of time. “I make myself a schedule,” she explained. “I bake eight batches of sour cream sugar cookies, and five batches of ginger cookies and I put a thin layer of powdered sugar frosting on each. I also frost the sides, so they’re ready to decorate when the girls come.” She adds two extension leaves to her table and sets up two folding tables in the living room so the freshly iced cookies have a place to dry.

“When I make the powdered sugar frosting, I always sift the sugar to avoid lumps,” she emphasized, “because we put the frosting in pastry bags and use a number one tip for decorating, and if there are lumps, it will clog up.” Jean uses whipping cream when she makes the frosting, and adds almond flavoring, white vanilla, and a pinch of salt. Last year, she used four pints of heavy whipping cream to make all of the frosting. Granddaughter Holly Brandt mixes up different colors, which are poured into pastry bags. “We don’t use any sprinkles,” said Jean. “My boys don’t like them.” Holly jokes that if her boys don’t like sprinkles on the cookies, they don’t have to eat them.

Hundreds of cookies are decorated each time the group meets each year. Contributed photo

On cookie decorating Saturday, the “girls” put on aprons and squeeze around the table to begin the fun of making each cookie into a work of art. They decorate snowmen, Christmas bulbs and stockings, reindeer, candy canes, stars, snowflakes, mittens, Christmas trees, churches, and so on. “They’re almost too pretty to eat,” Jean said. She has a bucket of her favorite cookie cutters, and every year they add a new one. This year, it’s a sleigh.  One of Jean’s favorite cookie cutters is a cardinal.

Jean and her crew have learned a few things over the years.  “The girls have told me, ‘Don’t make that Santa next year because it’s too hard to decorate.’  And, I’ve told them, ‘Don’t use too much frosting or it takes too much time to harden.’ ”

While the decorators are outlining or adding details and designs to the cookies, Jean is busy moving the finished cookies to the large folding tables in the living room, where they can dry  before she packs them away, in Tupperware containers, with wax paper between layers. She keeps them cool in the garage until the end of the day when they’re divided up.

At mid-day, everyone stops for a hearty lunch. Jean’s granddaughters and nieces don’t see each other often, so it’s an extra special day for all. “We’re spread apart now,” said Holly, “and we don’t see each other a lot so this means so much to everyone.  We plan vacation days and our family time around this day. It’s a highlight for all of us and no one wants to miss it. We have a great time and lots of laughs.” She can’t say enough about her Granny. “She’s like a mother to me.” Holly makes photo books every year to preserve some favorite memories for the group and Jean buys books for everyone.

Last year, Jean had surgery and wasn’t feeling her best, but, on the first Saturday in December, the cookie decorating party went on.  She baked fewer cookies and agreed to a potluck lunch instead of making everything herself. This year, she’s feeling healthy and her “girls” are headed to Avon.

Jean knows a few things about successful baking, and she’s more than happy to share some tips. “You’ve got to replace your baking soda and baking powder every year,” she insists. “And, I always bake with all butter, no Crisco. Butter tastes better.” When asked why cookie dough might stick to the pastry board after being rolled out, she states, matter-of-factly, “You need more flour. And, you have to work in that flour when you’re rolling out the dough. And, always make a test cookie to make sure you’ve used enough flour.” She uses parchment paper to line the cookie sheets so they don’t stick to the pan. She makes her cookie dough one day and bakes the next, not only because it’s less tiring, but because she believes the dough needs to be chilled thoroughly, and not just for one hour, as many recipes recommend.

April Huls, Holly Brandt, Alison Karasch, Jean Shepherd, Amy Brix and Heidi Korb at a recent cookie decorating party at “Granny’s” house. Contributed photo

Jean got her recipe for Sour Cream Sugar Cookies from a friend at Fingerhut where she used to work. It’s a favorite of hers. “Everyone calls it a sugar cookie, but the recipe says sour cream cookies.” Whatever the name, they are delicious.

Jean’s Sour Cream Sugar Cookie recipe is printed on the recipe page (Page 7A).

“I don’t know how long I can keep this up,” Jean admitted, as she makes plans for hosting the ninth decorating party. “But I’m back to my old self after having a rough year last year. And, I’ve gotta keep going. That’s my secret.”

She started a new tradition decorating Halloween cookies with Holly and her two children about five years ago.  So, the great grandkids are not only learning from the best, but making wonderful memories. They’ll always remember “Great Granny.”