Biggest holiday cookie sale? Try St. Peter’s in little Lebanon

church-miceI saw a Lutheran school cafeteria with dozens of church mice a few days ago, but all will disappear by the time many of you read this. It’s that way every year.

The too-cute treats – chocolate-drenched, with a maraschino body attached to an Oreo base, peanut halves for ears and dots of icing for eyes and nose – are among the first to vanish during the annual cookie and candy sale at St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in unincorporated Lebanon, Dodge County. This is the event’s 18th year.

Cookie sales at churches aren’t unusual before Christmas, but parishioners here believe theirs is the biggest in Wisconsin, if not the world, and so far nobody disputes the claims. Volunteers – kids to senior citizens – produce 150 kinds of cookies and sell upwards of 40,000. That equals around 3,000 pounds, sold for $7.50 per pound; leftovers go to shut-ins and nonprofit groups.

Add 20 kinds of from-scratch soups, sold by the steaming bowl or quart, and many rings of Kranzkuchen, a wreath-shaped and cinnamon coffeecake. Sandwiches, cinnamon rolls, a baked potato bar and booths for crafts wrap up the day.

Such an undertaking is a big deal for any congregation, which makes little Lebanon’s efforts especially amazing. The rural township’s population is 1,659, which includes its key community, seven miles northeast of Watertown.

Lebanon is big enough for a post office and volunteer fire department, too small for a grocery store or restaurant, with deep German roots and a strong farming heritage.

“In a lot of congregations, you have to build a sense of community first,” says the Rev. Douglas Bergelin. “These members have that and know how to get things done. They set up a plan and don’t go through things halfway. They’re in it or they don’t do it.”

His 400-member congregation “is not your typical rural church,” but St. Peter’s biggest annual fundraiser is not all that makes Lebanon unusual.

Native son John Jossi created brick cheese here in 1875. The Lebanon Band, formed in 1890, is the only township band left in Wisconsin. The local museum, open on the first Sunday of the month, May through October, knows more.

Big brainstorming by the church dartball team – particularly Debbi Groeler, Debbie Behl and Kim Budewitz – began when St. Peter’s needed a building addition but also carried an operating debt. Now there is no church debt, and a part of event proceeds finances short-term mission trips.

The first sale involved 300 pounds of candy and cookies, all made at the church with family recipes and donated ingredients. Now recipes fill two binders and on a wall are several alpha-order lists of treats to be baked. Spritz and snickerdoodles? Uh-huh, but Vanilla Bean Shortbread Sandwiches, Lemon Pistachio Checkerboards and other complicated recipes show up, too.

“That’s our motto – ‘we do putzy’,” Debbi says. Turtle bars, pound for pound, are the biggest seller. Many cut-out cookies look like artistic little paintings. Iced Surprises are the last cookie made because it’s an ideal way to use up leftover dips and toppings.

Ingredients arrive via semi-trailer, a 20-quart mixer produces big batches of dough and a commercial oven with eight rotating racks bakes 160 or more cookies at one time. That means even baking but fewer “burnt offerings” as nibbles for church staff and volunteers.

Volunteers work several weekends before the sale and from noon to 10 p.m. daily during the week preceding it. “You might see four generations at a table, frosting and decorating cut-outs,” Debbie says. “You get to know each other in a whole different way” beyond a simple “hello” on Sunday mornings.

“Some people look forward to this work all year,” Debbi adds. That includes elderly folks who gladly show up to peel potatoes or wash dishes for hours.

Non-members of the church help, too. “Catholic ladies made the church mice this year and baptized them,” Debbi jokes. “We had to convert ’em.”

The 18th annual Christmas cookie and craft sale at St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, W4661 County MM, Lebanon, is 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 5 and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Dec. 6. Admission is free; some customers arrive at 6:30 a.m. to get an entry number. stpetersoflebanonwi.org, 920-925-3547

This recipe is among the more unusual prepared for the annual cookie sale at St. Peter’s in Lebanon. It is an adaptation of a recipe by James Petersen of Withee (Clark County) that was a 1961 Pillsbury Bake Off winner.

JIM DANDIES
(About 3 dozen cookies)

1/2 cup butter
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 egg
2 squares unsweetened baker’s chocolate, melted
2 tablespoons milk
1/4 cup maraschino cherry juice
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
2 1/2 cups chopped maraschino cherries
12-15 marshmallows, cut in half
Melted chocolate
Walnut halves

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a cookie sheet, or line with parchment paper.

Cream butter and brown sugar. Add egg and mix until blended. Add melted chocolate, milk and cherry juice.

Combine flour, baking soda and salt in separate bowl, then gradually add to sugar mixture until blended. Add walnuts and cherries (and a bit more flour, if necessary).

Drop by teaspoonfuls onto cookie sheet. Bake 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from oven, press cut side of marshmallows onto top of hot cookies. Cool on rack. Dip each marshmallow top into melted chocolate and top with a walnut half.

How else can holiday cookie lovers get into the spirit of the season, besides baking at home?

Visit Green Lake County on Dec. 12. That’s when Princeton Public Library presents its 20th annual Cookie Walk, $5 per dozen, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 424 W. Water St. Add a workshop to make and decorate sugar cookie cut-outs (include the kids) from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Dec. 12 or 13 at Heidel House Resort, 643 Illinois Ave., Green Lake. Cost is $4; reservations required. princetonwi.com, 920-295-3877; heidelhouse.com, 920-294-3344

Take the three-hour Christmas Around Milwaukee Bakery Bus Tour offered by Milwaukee Food Tours through Dec. 27. The $50 ticket includes transportation to six city and suburban businesses, food and beverage samples, and ongoing narration about local history and ethnic traditions. milwaukeefoodtours.com, 800-979-3370

Forage, 930 Galloway St., Eau Claire, offers a Cut Out Cookie Workshop four times this month: 6-8:30 p.m. Dec. 14 and 17; 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 1-3:30 p.m. Dec. 19. The $30 fee nets you two dozen frosted and decorated cookies, a hot beverage (tea, coffee, cocoa) and snack during class. forageeauclaire.com

Laura Verage’s online Cookies from Scratch in Colgate, Washington County, sells boxes of cookies to consumers and corporations all year. Least expensive is the mini sampler, two dozen cookies (six kinds) for $21.95, plus shipping.

How late can you order? “I like a little notice but also whip things from under my hat,” the baker says. She organizes cookie-making parties, at your place or hers, but not during this holiday season. No time! cookiesfromscratch.com, 414-335-9501