Food & Drink

3 Triangle women continue a holiday tradition: A weekend of cookie baking

Seventeen years and counting, Gail Pleasants, far left, Susan Galleo, back to camera, and Lisa Pleasants, second from right, continue their family tradition of spending a weekend baking holiday treats together in Lisa Pleasants’ Raleigh kitchen on Friday, Dec. 5, 2014. Various family members, such as Anna Haddad, 11, center, and her mom, Audra, far right, sometimes drop in to assist during the marathon.
Seventeen years and counting, Gail Pleasants, far left, Susan Galleo, back to camera, and Lisa Pleasants, second from right, continue their family tradition of spending a weekend baking holiday treats together in Lisa Pleasants’ Raleigh kitchen on Friday, Dec. 5, 2014. Various family members, such as Anna Haddad, 11, center, and her mom, Audra, far right, sometimes drop in to assist during the marathon. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Some folks bake a few batches of cookies for the holidays. Others join cookie exchanges. But Gail Pleasants, her daughter, Lisa, and Gail’s cousin, Susan Galleo, have “cookie weekend.”

Since 1998, Gail, 61, and Susan, 44, have been getting together to make treats for the holidays. That tradition has evolved to become a three-day baking extravaganza, now includes Lisa, 36, and is held at her North Raleigh home. Over 72 hours, the three women make 19 kinds of cookies and candies to enjoy and give away.

“We moved in,” Gail Pleasants said on the second day of their annual weekend in early December. She and Susan spend two nights at Lisa’s house instead of returning to their homes in Wake Forest and Dunn, respectively, to make the most of their baking time.

On Thursday, the trio chooses the recipes and then goes shopping. Each woman chooses two favorite recipes from previous years plus one recipe to try. Those nine recipes are added to a long list of “keepers,” or recipes that their families demand they bake, including pecan shortbread, cheese straws and coconut macaroons topped with Hershey’s kisses.

By Friday morning, the project has overtaken kitchen and dining room. Two standing mixers are whirring. Sheets of cookies are in the oven. Trays of cookies waiting to be baked are perched here and there. In the background, Bing Crosby croons, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.”

Every inch of the dining room table, handed down through Lisa Pleasants’ husband’s family since the 1700s, is covered with cooling racks. A nearby credenza is laden with ingredients: 50 pounds of sugar, 30 pounds of flour, bags of chocolate chips, almond bark and nuts, jars of maraschino cherries, Nutella and molasses. Twelve dozen eggs are in a cooler on the deck. Twenty pounds of butter are in the refrigerator.

Each woman is busy, making double and triple batches of dough. Gail is churning out cheese straws. Lisa starts the Nutella hazelnut cookies. Susan is making rugelach, a cookie associated with Hanukkah that Lisa found in a New York Times cookbook. “This is our first time making this so we’re all taking a turn,” she said about the crescent-shaped cookies filled with currants and nuts.

The women can only recall one failure over the years, a recipe that they now refer to as the “healthy cookie.” After sampling a few, Lisa recalls her brother, Bryan, telling them: “If you are going to make a cookie, put some sugar in it.”

At some point Friday morning, Audra Haddad of Kinston and her 11-year-old daughter, Anna, stop by to help. Trying to explain the family tree, Gail says, “Audra belongs to a different first cousin.”

As the baking continues, the women explain that Susan and Gail started the tradition in 1998 but didn’t keep notes until 2001 when they baked four different cookies, including shortbread, the only recipe that continues.

By the mid-2000s, Lisa had joined the tradition, and the cookie list grew exponentially. Double vanilla delights and espresso thumbprints both appeared in 2006. A year later, they were up to 18 varieties. Susan gives the cookies to family and friends. Lisa sends a big platter into her husband’s office.

Lisa asks Gail: “Mom, who do you give your cookies to?”

“Gary,” Gail says.

“That’s my dad,” Lisa explains.

Another cousin, Sarah, with an infant daughter, Jessie, stops by to help. Lisa and her husband, Sam, take turns feeding their 2-year-old daughter and their infant son. Folks sample the cookies as they come out of the oven. Susan stops to announce: “You guys, the rugelach is really good.”

“Is it a keeper?” Lisa asks.

Susan nods, “Mmmm.”

Surveying the scene in the kitchen, just before lunch with half the recipes done and half to go, Lisa says, “It doesn’t feel like Christmas to me until this weekend happens.”

Pecan Lace Cookies

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1/2 cup uncooked old-fashioned oats

1/2 cup pecans, toasted and ground

1 1/2 teaspoons freshly grated orange peel

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

6 tablespoons butter, melted

2 tablespoons light corn syrup

2 tablespoons heavy whipping cream

HEAT oven to 325 degrees. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Set aside.

COMBINE flour, brown sugar, oats, pecans, orange peel and baking powder in a medium bowl. Combine melted butter, corn syrup and whipping cream in small bowl. Stir butter mixture into flour mixture; mix well.

DROP dough by less-than teaspoonfuls, 4 inches apart, onto prepared cookie sheets. Bake for 7 to 8 minutes or until entire cookie is bubbly. Cool completely on parchment paper.

Yield: about 30 cookies.

Nutella Hazelnut Cookies

Lisa Pleasants’ favorite cookie weekend recipe. Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen.

3 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 cups Nutella

4 tablespoons butter, at room temperature

1 1/3 cups granulated sugar

2 eggs, at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon instant espresso powder

1/3 cup milk

2 cups hazelnuts, toasted and finely chopped, divided

1 cup powdered sugar

COMBINE flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl; set aside. With an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat Nutella, butter and granulated sugar until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add eggs, vanilla and espresso powder, and mix until incorporated. Reduce speed to low and alternate additions of flour mixture and milk, starting and ending with the flour, and mixing until just combined after each addition. Fold in 1/2 cup hazelnuts. Refrigerate the dough until firm, at least 2 hours and up to 24 hours.

HEAT oven to 375 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Place the remaining hazelnuts and the powdered sugar in two separate bowls. Using a medium cookie scoop (or about 2 tablespoonfuls), roll the dough into balls, rolls in the hazelnuts, then roll in powdered sugar.

PLACE balls 2 inches apart on the baking sheets. Bake until the edges are set and the middle still looks a tad soft, about 10 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes on the baking sheet, and then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Store cookies in an airtight container at room temperature.

Yield: 36 cookies.

Pecan Shortbread Cookies

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature

1/2 cup sugar

2 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour

1/2 cup pecans, toasted and finely chopped

HEAT oven to 325 degrees.

BEAT butter and sugar in a large bowl with a handheld mixer or with a standing mixer until well blended. Add up to 2 cups flour, a little at a time. If the dough is sticky, add pecans and up to 1/2 cup more flour until it is not sticky and rolls into a 1- to 2-teaspoon balls smoothly. Roll dough into balls.

PLACE on ungreased cookie sheets, patting down to 1/4-inch thickness. Cook for about 25 minutes. Remove cookies onto cooling rack when finished.

Yield: about 30 cookies.

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