Eileen Antalek is wearing gingerbread men in her ears. Her turtleneck, rolled to the elbows, is speckled with them and, at the moment, the kitchen of the North Grafton United Methodist Church is filled with the aroma of molasses and sugar, cinnamon and ginger, as an army of gingerbread men — and reindeer, angels, stars and presents — take form under her fingertips.
Antalek is Grafton’s “Cookie Lady.” She’s held the title for the past 20 years and her cookies are legendary, baked in bulk every year for the Methodist Church’s Christmas fair, which falls this year on Dec. 5 and 6. This year, for the first time, she has been taking cookie orders in advance, with the pre-order period ending Nov. 30.
She doesn’t count how many cookies actually come out of the church’s ovens — she estimates she makes at least a thousand each year — and this year, with the pre-orders, she’s been keeping a record-setting pace. Sometimes she has helpers but, due to the small size of the church kitchen, most weekends lately find her alone, surrounded by flour, butter, sugar and a host of cookie cutters.
“All these cookies that I make, I use real flavors, I use real extracts, I don’t use, you know, butter-flavored Crisco, I use real butter,” she says. “It’s going into your body; you’re going to ingest this. It not only should taste good, it should look good, too.”
It all started back in the ’80s with a batch of gingerbread cookies and a bake sale table. It quickly took on a life of its own. Board of Health regulations now require that all the cookies be produced in the church’s inspected kitchen.
“Trying to do it here is very difficult, I will not kid you,” she says. “And frankly, my kitchen has a better working space… but we do what we can do.”
On this particular day, one counter has a lineup of cooling racks, another holds sticks of butter, bags of flour and decorators’ sugar. Antalek has claimed a third area for her rolling mat, on which she’s deftly coaxing a flat round out of some slightly dry gingerbread dough.
Other cooks might throw their hands up in frustration at the crumbling mass, but with fingertips coated with water drops, a professional rolling pin and a great deal of patience, she manages to create a silky brown canvas for her cutters. The dough may put up a fuss at first, but it finally realizes it’s in the hands of a master.
There are 20 recipes in her line up this year: almond wedges, bicotti di prato, butter pecan turtles, butterfly cookies, Carmella’s Italian anise, cranberry walnut swirls, gingerbread, lemon gems, Linzer torte, Mississippi mud, nutjammers, nutmeg noels, orange cardamoms, peanut blossoms, polvorones, Sarah’s sugar cookies, simple sesames, Scottish shortbread, walnuts, and walnut lemon squares.
Many of those recipes came from a 1979 Ladies Home Journal article. Others were collected and perfected over the years. Antalek has a fondness for some of the more exotic recipes — the walnuts, made in a walnut mold and sandwiched with chocolate, and the rich almond wedges, an adaptation of a layered apricot, chocolate and almond creation from a 5-star hotel — but her go-to recipe, and a perennial bestseller, is the gingerbread.
“Gingerbread keeps all winter long,” she says. “That’s the beauty of gingerbread. We’ll have these cookies until February.”
Antalek will only hint at the ingredients. There’s no dairy, there’s definitely molasses, an overnight stint in the refrigerator aids in the next day’s roll out.
“It’s my favorite recipe,” she says. “It’s one I’ve had people beg me to tell them but uh-uh, no way.”
Cookies may be ordered in half dozen increments, with a minimum order of two dozen total. The cost is $2.75 per dozen, a price that she’s been told is low but “I’m donating my time and it’s really all for the church.”
To order, contact Antalek at eantalek (at) charter.net or leave a message at 508-839-2404. All orders must be received by Nov. 30. Cookies may be picked up on Dec. 4, 6-8 p.m., or on Dec. 5, 9 a.m.-2 p.m. or 6-7 p.m.