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Holiday baking not just about the food

News Photo by Julie Riddle Laura Shearer, left, and Nancy Thatcher display baking products at Rusty Petunias Marketplace on Thursday.

ALPENA — In between customers at downtown Alpena shops on Thursday, as a cold December wind blew pedestrians past on the sidewalks, workers daydreamed about holiday baking, past and present.

The real treat that comes from Christmas kitchens lies more in the togetherness and tradition than in the food itself, they agreed.

At the Style Wherehouse, two workers listed favorite Christmastime treats, talking eagerly of buckeyes, peanut butter kiss cookies, candies and pretzels and melted chocolate.

“Now it’s like, ooh, ” said store owner Jessica Krueger. “It’s time to bake.”

Her childhood memories include baking sugar cookies at the side of her mom using cookie cutters that still have a home in her kitchen.

Her own mom is no longer living, but Krueger’s 11-year-old daughter now bakes with gusto at the side of her other grandmother.

Christmas baking this year will, no doubt, include sugar cookies, Krueger said.

An entrepreneur already researching culinary schools, Krueger’s daughter learned to love baking in her grandmother’s kitchen. The two will probably bake enough Christmas cookies to deliver some to friends, one of the best parts of holiday baking, Krueger said.

“It brings joy,” she said. “Food. Comfort. Just knowing that they’re thinking of you.”

To pottery artist Leah Stafford, tending the artwork at the Thunder Bay Arts Gallery, Christmases past meant hours in a kitchen crowded with family and friends, making caramels, peppermint patties, and pulla, a Finnish cardamom bread.

Everyone would pitch in with everyone else’s project, cutting caramels and dipping peppermint filling into chocolate.

She can still hear the voice of one candy-maker who would sing as she made peppermint patties during the joyous get-together, Stafford said.

She remembers the fun of friends gathering to bake treats and bundle them up to give away, and the bellyache from nibbling “the ones that don’t turn out so good.”

This year, with her family going vegan, her son declared it the “greatest day ever” when he found out they could make the family’s traditional caramels with coconut sweetened condensed milk, carrying forward the tradition that stretches back and holding on to the pleasures of holidays past.

Down the block, Nancy Thatcher, employee at the Rusty Petunias Marketplace, beamed as she described the spice-filled treats she learned to bake from her German grandmother.

At Christmastime, her kitchen fills with springerle, rosettes, and pfeffernusse (“Don’t ask me how you spell it,” Thatcher said) that connect her to Christmasses past.

This year, she’s going to try a mohnkuchen, a poppyseed cake, like the delicious version made by an Alpena bakery in a building that now houses a dentist’s office.

“Our grandmothers, they never needed to use recipes,” Thatcher said. “It was a handful of this, a handful of that.”

By her grandmother’s side, she weighed, sifted, and checked for gooeyness and “did it all the old-fashioned way, and to this day that’s how I do it,” Thatcher said.

Her brothers used to demand their share of the 100 pounds of glass candy she makes for church bazaars and for gifts each year. Instead of the fruity flavors modern bakers often use, Thatcher leans on the old-country, spicy flavors of anise, clove, and cinnamon for her candy.

She loves to gift people a plate of cookies, but that’s getting harder and harder, she said, because everyone seems to be on a diet.

“Not me,” said co-worker and store owner Laura Shearer. “Give them to me, I’ll have one.”

Shearer said she misses the dozen cookie varieties she used to bake — no chocolate chip cookies allowed on Christmas cookie plates, Thatcher said — but doesn’t have time to keep all of those traditions alive.

Her family does still look forward to the annual fruitcake over which her mother pours a shot of rum every day for 10 days.

“By the time you’re done, you eat one slice, and you’re drunk,” Shearer said.

Still, because tradition and making memories matters, she’ll make time to bake the molasses gingerbread cookies her nieces demand, complete with cinnamon buttons, “just like when they were little,” she said.

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