By Lyn Wilson (Rated G)
I arrived at the Applefield Country Christmas Cookie Bake-off Invitational early. I had a lot to do! My shop, Ginny’s Cookie Jar, has participated in this festival every November for the last 20 years. Because I now have celiac disease, my bakery has switched to gluten free treats. I inherited the shop about 5 years ago when my aunt passed away. I’d worked with Aunt Ginny since I was a kid. Aunt Ginny’s passion for baking fostered my love for the baking business. We have always been a family run business therefore family pride was on the line at this bake-off.
I thought a vintage Christmas theme was the perfect touch for our 20th year at the Bake-off. Applefield is a quaint town in northern New York only about 10 minutes from home but it feels like a different world. It is a bit “up market” as Aunt Ginny used to say, therefore my vintage display had to have style. I brought all the best glassware, tablecloths, decorative pieces to make our stall really stand out. My helpers, Bethann and Rachel, were working hard. Bethann and Rachel are my second cousins, twins, and the best employees in the world.
As I looked over the competition I noticed one table in particular – my main competitor in business in Bushwick, Bob Schlagel of Bob’s Best Bakery. A pretentious oaf who makes hometown bakeries look “half-baked,” if you will. Bob isn’t married and isn’t in a relationship. He says he’s married to the work. I was engaged but my fiance was killed in a car accident several years ago. Ever since then the women of Bushwick have made it their stated goal to get me married off to Bob.
Bob sauntered over with his toque blanche (white chef’s hat) set at a jaunty angle. Typical! He wanted to wish me luck… as he had all the single ladies at the Bake-off.
“Hello lovely ladies,” Bob intoned in his usual soupy voice.
“Bob,” we all said together.
“Nice! A unison greeting,” he replied.
“Yep, that’s us, the Three Fates,” Rachel retorted.
“By the way, nice toque,” I said, without much feeling.
“Thanks, good of you to notice. I won it at the New Holland Oktoberfest for the best fruit bread,” Bob responded. Then he drifted off to another table.
“We will have to try to be gracious,” I announced with my best “boss” voice. “Aunt Ginny would have expected us to be thoughtful to others. Now, let’s get those cookies out because the judges will be around in 10 minutes.”
Aunt Ginny’s best glass plates were set out, covered with cookies and fruit breads for sale. However, the Bake-off rules this year stated that we had to choose 1 signature cookie recipe for the contest! Our customers have always raved about Aunt Ginny’s Nutmeg Christmas Cookies with maple syrup icing. This year they are gluten free and, in the opinion of my customers, amazing! This was the recipe the family chose for the Bake-off. It wasn’t like this was the first time the Nutmeg Christmas Cookies were featured in the Bake-off but it was the first year that bakers had to feature just one recipe. I did feel like the proverbial long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. I regretted taking a family vote on the issue of what cookie to feature. If I didn’t get Aunt Ginny’s recipe right… My thoughts trailed off as a light breeze blew the smell of fresh baked goods across the park.
This is an important year for the Country Christmas Cookie Bake-off Invitational. Not because of the prize (which is pretty substantial) or bragging rights but because the price of admissions is ear-marked to buy new equipment for our local hospital. The imaging machines were very old and in great need of updating. This was just as much about the presentation as it was about the baking. A good show would mean more tickets sold. The park looked beautiful and smelled amazing!
The time arrived for the judges to make their rounds. There were small 30 bakeries from around the area invited to participate. The Norwich Baking Company along with Red Rock Mills supplied the judges and the prizes awarded. These companies are employee owned and operated, and the judges were chosen from the various departments of each mill. They had a vested interest in making sure the prizes are awarded to the best cookie. No pressure, I thought to myself.
Finally the time came for our cookie recipe to be judged. We all lined up in our authentic costumes for the judges, who were evaluating the cookies on presentation, unique recipe, rich texture and, last but not least, flavor. Iced cookies should have light icing with a delicate flavor. That was the criteria for our cookies. Each of six judges was served a cookie on a small glass plate from Aunt Ginny’s collection. Each tasted the cookie and two judges even asked for a second! I’d never seen that in twenty years of being a part of the contest. While the judging was taking place the mayor read a list of our accomplishments, specifically the outreach I do through the church, into a microphone over a loudspeaker. This did not help my case of nerves at all.
It took an hour or so for all the cookies to be tested. Bob was last. He at least had the great good sense to take off his toque blanche before the judges came to his table. It looked to me as if he were serving his German Lebkuchen cookies. Even I have to admit those are amazing. I watched the judges carefully and I was listening as the mayor read Bob’s accomplishments from the 3×5 card. One of those accomplishments was Bob’s work as the coordinator of activities in the children’s cancer floor at the hospital. Also, he helped to distribute food to the elderly in a neighboring village using his food truck. Bob and the mayor are personal friends, but the mayor said Bob had no idea that he was going to bring up those charitable efforts at the Bake-off. Well now! I began to see Bob in a completely new light.
Don’t get me wrong, I still think Bob believes he’s irresistible to women. We both grew up in our family bakeries and we’ve known each other for years, though we hardly travel in the same circles around town. Our families have known each other for years. I was amazed that I hadn’t heard of Bob’s outreach to the community. That in and of itself is a minor miracle, especially considering I host a knitting and crocheting group in my shop one day a week. Some of those ladies could work for the Secret Service the way they can ferret out information! While I was standing there pondering, the judges had made their decision about the winner of this year’s Country Christmas Cookie Bake-off.
I felt my face start to flush as the judges handed their paper to the mayor. The mayor looked puzzled and the judges simply nodded. Now my heart started to pound a bit.
“The first prize winner of the Country Christmas Cookie Bake-off Invitational this year will receive a year’s supply of specialty flours for their bakery. Including sweet rice flour, almond flour, coffee flour, coconut flour and 4 flours of their choice,” announced Mayor Riopelle, getting an ooh from the crowd. By this time I felt like I was going to faint. “This year there has been an unprecedented decision by the judges from the Norwich and Red Rock flour mills. There are two winners for the first prize!”
As the mayor waited for the crowd to settle down to continue, I glanced over to Bethann and Rachel, who looked as shocked as I felt.
“Okay, ladies and gentlemen, your winners for this year’s first prize will be asked to share the prize. However, the judges assure me that there will be enough given for both winners!” Mayor Riopelle signaled for everyone to quiet down, then continued, “The first prize winners are Ginny’s Cookie Jar and Bob’s Best Bakery!” Of course I didn’t think I heard him correctly until the twins hugged me.
“Rachel, Bethann, bring the lovely Lillian up here will you? Bob, bring your mom and join me on stage,” the mayor asked, stepping aside to allow the head judge, Mr. Overmeyer, to take center stage.
“Lillian, Bob, this year you have outdone yourselves! Congratulations!” said Mr. Overmeyer. Bob joined me so that Mr. Overmeyer could hand us the prize certificate. I stuck out my hand to Bob and he shook it heartily then reached over to give me a hug around the shoulder.
As we all exited the stage to begin our bakery sales, Bob pulled me aside. “Lillian,” he said, “I can’t imagine sharing this prize with anyone more amazingly talented.” He looked me straight in the eye when he said it and I saw all the pretense wash away. He continued, “I’ve admired you for years but of course there was someone else.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! It was a side of Bob I had never known existed. “Bob, that’s the kindest thing you’ve ever said to me. I think I’m glad we’re going to be sharing this prize,” I said in a near-whisper.
He smiled and his face turned a bit pink.
I said, “And you blush, too?”
We both laughed.
“Lil, I know I can’t hug you because I’m covered in wheat flour and with your celiac… Just know I would hug you if I could,” he finished as he looked down at his shoes.
“Duly noted,” I said, grinning. I looked over to my table and the girls were doing a brisk business. I looked at Bob and he said “Yes, my booth too”. Then we both glanced to our right as mothers stood there looking at us in disbelief, making both Bob and I laugh. As we parted to go to our booths, Bob shouted “Coffee tomorrow?”
“Absolutely! My shop around 9:00 am? It’s on me!” I shouted back.
When I got back to my table the girls were giggling. I said, “Yes, girls, it’s weird but a good kind of weird. I think I may have misjudged Bob!”
Rachel looked at me quite seriously. “Lilli, we’re just so glad to see you smiling that broad smile.” I hugged them both. By the end of the day, I was exhausted, elated, and very likely beginning a new adventure in my love life. A love life I thought had gone many years ago.
As I drove homeward, a few snowflakes started to drift from the sky. Caught in the light of the full moon, the snow shimmered. A Christmas song began to play on the radio, one of my favorite songs of the season: “Christ The King”. Feeling incredibly blessed, I felt this was the perfect ending to a nearly perfect day. I whispered a word of thanks as I pulled into the driveway at home.