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Baking cookies for charity a Smith family tradition

By Stephanie Williams Dean

Bless Your Spoon

Working at the Smith Cookie Factory was the sweetest job I’ve ever had. Three generations of Smith boys came together along with kinfolk and friends to scratch bake the most delicious oatmeal cookies ever tasted.

A tall glass of milk wasn’t necessary to wash the overstuffed cookies down with – the soft and chewy oatmeal filled with vanilla cream just melted in your mouth.

Even with some so-called tall tales circulating about John Smith’s large scale cookie bake, I never imagined the scope of his charity.

But 11,500 sandwich cookies later – I understood.

The operation was one of the most industrious charity projects I’d ever participated in – single-handedly organized by this man’s family along with supportive friends.

Good people doing good works – in a barn.

John and his two sons, Tim and Jeff, run the cookie factory every other year in a large barn in Rowan County that belongs to his friend, Jimmy. John’s grandsons are involved – three of which are triplets. The boys have been engaged in charitable works as a family for as long as they can remember. “It’s important because you’re helping a group of people in need,” said grandson, Grayson Smith, 12.

Grayson added, “Some people just aren’t as fortunate as we are.”

One of the charities funded by the cookie bake is the J. Michael McDuffie Memorial Scholarship. Every other year, John and his crew of volunteers bake cookies to raise money.   

John and Mike McDuffie worked together for years at Desco, an electrical wholesaler in Salisbury. When Mike was 48, he was diagnosed with colon-rectal cancer. He desired to set up a scholarship fund for high school graduating seniors who experienced hardships in life. When Mike died in 2008 after his 49th birthday – his memory lived on through his established memorial.

After John retired from selling electrical supplies, he devoted himself to the charity. A large scale cookie factory evolved. He works closely with Mike’s wife, Kathy. She is now married to Bruce Sanborn and goes by the name Kathy McDuffie Sanborn. Through the years, she’s remained committed to Mike’s wish, making sure children reap the benefits they need so badly.

For the past 13 years, the memorial scholarship has given out $3,000 each year – giving a $500 to six high schools in Rowan County. To receive an award, a student must be a Crosby Scholar and suffer financial hardship.

Another charity the cookie factory will benefit this year is The HEARTest Yard. The foundation’s one established by former Carolina Panther’s player, Greg Olsen. The charity was created for families of children born with congenital heart defects after one of Olsen’s twins, TJ, was born with a heart defect.

Kathy McDuffie Sanborn’s family has experienced a similar situation. Kathy’s 5-year-old grandson, Hank Chavis, is a special needs child. He has several health concerns, including arteries and vessels of his heart that formed improperly. As a result, Hank’s already had three open-heart surgeries and 10 heart caths. His last heart surgery was successful – he’s walking where he wants to – when before, he didn’t have enough oxygen.

Proceeds from cookie sales will go to Team Hank for their 5K run. A donation will then be made to the HEARTtest Yard, which benefits Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte.

Hank’s mother worked with the Rowan County School system after graduating from Appalachian State University, where she received specialized training in special needs children.

“The good Lord knew exactly who to give that child to,” noted John.

John’s cookie bake started about 25 years ago but only as a small family affair. The family made a dozen cookies one year, then two dozen, and so on – giving them all away.

After Mike passed away, money was needed to support the scholarships, so John decided to set up his cookie factory every other year. John gives $6,000, so there’s enough money for two years of scholarships.

They sell 1,200 packs of cookies with four in a package. The cookies are about 4 inches wide and stuffed with sweet vanilla cream. The recipe for these sandwich cookies came from a school in Rowan County. Back in the ’80s, cookies were baked in the school cafeteria and sold to students. That’s how the school received funding for programs.

The tasty, filled cookies are like Little Debbie, but everyone agrees the cookie factory makes the best ones – including me. John and his team bake them over a weekend. They used to bake only one day but now bake all day Friday and Saturday.

Many friends and extended family showed up to help. The core group was John and his two sons – plus his five grandsons who came on Saturday. But then his cousins and nieces showed up – and some even took off work so they could help.

“We have a good friend who moved to Knoxville, Tenn, and he comes back every year to help us,” added John. “We have friends from Davidson to Charlotte to Cornelius, Lexington, and Mooresville – all who came to assist.” The biggest challenge was having enough people show up.

But this year, 57 volunteers signed in. And on Saturday morning, John got some help from Rowan’s Crosby Scholars, who volunteer as part of community service projects.

There was much to do before the baking production began. First, John had to make sure to buy sufficient product to bake the desired number of cookies – they’re all presold through orders.

John whips up the icing five days ahead. A paste is made of milk and flour and set aside. Then he puts margarine, sugar, vanilla flavoring, and salt in the 20-quart stainless mixing bowls of three large commercial mixers. After the mixture’s beaten smooth and fluffy, he adds the paste, continuing to beat it until all lumps are gone.

The icing is made up on Monday and refrigerated. Then early Friday morning, the men start mixing the oatmeal dough.

Earlier in the week, John prepares batches of ingredients – the sugar, flour, and oatmeal – everything except margarine and eggs. All the dry ingredients are measured, put in bags, and assembled in a box, ready to go.

“We put it in Ziploc bags. A batch takes 5 lbs. of sugar, 5 lbs. of brown sugar, and 5 lbs. of flour. A batch makes 450 single cookies,”

There are so many requests for the cookies that it’s not feasible to hand dip them now. It used to take 20 minutes or more just to fill up one cookie tray.

So John bought a Kookie King depositer to make production faster. A large hopper is filled with cookie dough that drops out (4) 1-ounce balls at a time. It deposits 20 cookies in less than 20 seconds. The cookie sheets are full-sizes sheet pans – 18 x 24 – and 20 cookies fill up one tray. They use three convection ovens, and every 8 minutes, they’ll have 300 cookies coming out of the ovens.

And then there’s the crème filling.

“I ordered 465 pounds of margarine the other day,” said John. Both the icing and cookies take margarine. Each batch calls for 20 eggs, so they have to buy somewhere around 80 dozen eggs.

The cookies can’t be stuffed right out of the oven because the icing will melt. After the cookies come out, they’re put on a rack where they continue to bake.

From there, the cookies are put on a long row of tables for cooling. The cookies are moved to one of the many icing tables that hold large stainless containers filled with vanilla cream. Volunteers gather around tables where they spread icing and enjoy the camaraderie.

Four cookies are packaged in aluminum foil at wrapping tables. John and the boys do all the baking while volunteers do the icing and wrapping. Kathy’s the front person who’s coordinating the efforts.

John’s grandson, Colby, one of the triplets, shared his thoughts about the cookie bake.

“I’ve been doing this as long as I can remember – and enjoy getting together with my family to do some volunteer work – no matter what it is,” said Colby. “Keeping the tradition in the family – it’s worth it.”

John anticipated making somewhere between 11,000 and 12,000 sandwich cookies this year. But they never know for sure because there’s always some culled from the bunch. The most they’ve ever made was last year’s 10,000 cookies, but they’re making extras now. The demand is high – all the cookies are already sold except for a couple hundred packs.

Whatever they make and sell, expenses are taken out, and what’s left is donated.  John’s hoping to give the HEARTest Yard $8,000 this year, but projecting an amount of at least $6,000.

John enjoys cooking at home. Maybe his interest came from his first job while working a barbecue stand during high school.  Later, he worked in a meat market at a grocery store.  John grew up in the Linwood, High Rock Lake area, outside the city of Lexington.

“I was raised on a farm, so I didn’t stay in the kitchen with my mother.”

John’s wife, Carol, can cook, but “she doesn’t care to when I’m around.”  At home, he enjoys cooking hamburgers on the grill and running the barbecue pit.

“I have a good jambalaya recipe that I make whenever I feel like it. Also, I like to barbecue and have a pellet smoker I like to cook on.”

He enjoys his Treater brand smoker, as it also has a rack in it, which makes it the perfect small grill. You can adjust the temperature depending upon what you’re cooking.

John likes to read food magazines, and watch the Food Network.

What drives John is doing something to help other people. That’s the mission of good men.

“Only once a year though– I don’t want a job. This is fun. We work a lot, but I don’t want to do it more than once a year.”

John instructed me to be at the big barn off Hwy 601 on Friday, any time after 6 am and before 4 pm to assist with icing the cookies.

On Saturday, I returned with my 9-year-old grandson, Caleb, so that he could help. I couldn’t pry him away from the icing table.

“Are you ready to leave, Caleb?”

“Not really,” he said, spreading more icing on his cookie.

As we got in the car to go, he said: “I’ve eaten a lot of good things in my life, but I’ve never eaten anything so fresh – the icing was the best part – and delicious. I don’t really have words for it.”

As if that wasn’t enough, John promised to feed barbecue to any of us who would come to help – and he did.

Barbecue and sweet, cream-filled oatmeal cookies – now that’s a tasty combo no one in their right mind would pass up.

CREAMY VANILLA FILLING

½ cup milk

2 ½ Tbsp. flour

½ cup margarine

½ cup granulated sugar

½ tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. vanilla extract

3 heaping Tbsp. marshmallow cream

1 cup confectioner’s sugar

Blend milk and flour to make a paste; cook over medium heat while stirring until smooth and thick. Remove from heat and cool. Add margarine, granulated sugar, soda, vanilla, and marshmallow cream. Beat until light and fluffy. Stir in enough confectioner’s sugar to make stiff enough for spreading on cookies.

CHOCOLATE COOKIES

½ cup cocoa

1/3 cup hot water

½ cup margarine or shortening

1 ½ cups sugar

2 eggs

2 ¾ cups sifted flour

1 tsp. baking powder

½ cup buttermilk

1 tsp. vanilla extract

Mix cocoa and hot water to make a smooth paste and set aside to cool. Cream margarine and sugar. Add eggs. Sift dry ingredients and add to creamed mixture alternating with buttermilk. Add vanilla and blend in cocoa paste. Drop by Tbsp. on greased baking sheet. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 12 minutes or until done. Cool. Spread one cookie with cream filling. Put together in pairs, sandwich fashion.

TEA CAKE SANDWICH COOKIE

½ pounds butter

4 cups granulated sugar

3 eggs

1 Tbsp. boiling water

8 cups flour

Pinch of salt

½ tsp. baking powder

½ cup granulated sugar

1 tsp mace

Cream butter and 4 cups of sugar together until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, while beating. Add boiling water. Blend in flour, salt and baking powder. Blend well. Chill dough. Roll out on lightly floured board and cut out desired size. Sprinkle tops with remaining mixture of ½ cup sugar and mace. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes or until browned. Run knife under cookies immediately to loosen them from the pan. Makes 12 dozen regular sized.  Spread one cookie with cream filling. Put together in pairs, sandwich fashion.

ALL SPICE COOKIE JAR COOKIES

7 cups sifted all-purpose flour

1 Tbsp. salt

1 Tbsp. ground ginger

1 tsp. ground cloves

1 tsp. nutmeg

½ tsp. allspice

¾ cup water

¼ cup rum

2 tsp. baking soda

2 cups dark molasses

1 cup shortening

2 cups granulated sugar

Sift flour with salt and spices. Combine water and rum. Add baking soda to molasses. Cream shortening and sugar. Add sifted dry ingredients, water mixture, and molasses mixture, blending well after each addition. Chill dough for several hours or overnight. Roll out to ¼-inch thickness on lightly floured board. Cut with 4-inch round cutter. Bake on greased sheet in a 375-degree oven for 10-12 minutes. Let cool on sheet to prevent breaking. Makes 24 5-inch cookies. Spread one cookie with cream filling. Put together in pairs, sandwich fashion.

RAISIN OATMEAL COOKIES

1 ¾ cups flour, sifted

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. cinnamon

2 cups rolled oats

1 ½ cups seedless raisins

½ cup shortening

1 ¼ cups sugar

½ cup molasses

2 eggs

Sift together flour, salt, baking soda, and cinnamon. Stir in oats and raisins. Cream together shortening, sugar, molasses, and eggs. Add sifted ingredients and blend. Drop by heaping Tbsp. 2 inches apart on greased sheet. Bake in a 375-degree oven for 8-10 minutes or until browned.  Spread one cookie with cream filling. Put together in pairs, sandwich fashion. Makes 5 dozen regular size cookies.

POTTERY CROCK SUGAR COOKIES

½ cup shortening

1 cup butter

2 cups packed brown sugar

1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. granulated sugar

3 eggs

1 tsp. baking soda

3 Tbsp. buttermilk

2 Tbsp. vanilla extract

½ tsp. salt

1 Tbsp. baking powder

6 ½ cups flour, more or less

Cream shortening, butter, brown sugar, and 1 cup of granulated sugar. Blend in eggs. Dissolve baking soda in buttermilk. Add buttermilk mixture and vanilla to creamed mixture. Sift salt and baking powder with 2 cups flour. Add flour mix to creamed mixture with just enough additional flour to make a soft dough. Roll dough immediately or chill. Roll out on lightly floured board and cut with large round cookie cutters. Sprinkle lightly with sugar. Bake on greased sheet in a 325-degree oven for about 5 minutes or just until they begin to brown. Cool. Spread one cookie with cream filling. Put together in pairs, sandwich fashion. Makes 7 doz. regular size cookies.

GINGERBREAD COOKIES

4 cups sifted all-purpose flour

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. baking soda

2 tsp. baking powder

2 tsp. ginger

1 tsp. ground cloves

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. nutmeg

1 cup shortening

1 cup sugar

1 cup molasses

2 egg yolks

Sift together flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and spices. Cream shortening with sugar. Blend in molasses and egg yolks. Mix in flour mixture. Roll out to ¼ to ½ inch thickness between waxed paper. Cut with large round cookie cutters. Bake on an ungreased baking sheet in a 350-degree oven for 12-12 minutes or until done. Remove from oven. Cool. Spread one cookie with cream filling. Put together in pairs, sandwich fashion. Makes about 20 5-inch cookies.

OLD FASHIONED OAT-CAKE COOKIES

1 cup softened butter or margarine

1 cup packed dark brown sugar

1 cup granulated sugar

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 egg, slightly beaten

1 cup vegetable oi

3 ½ cup all- purpose flour

1 tsp salt

1 tsp baking soda

1 cup rolled oats

1 cup chopped nuts

In large bowl, cream butter and sugar. Add vanilla, egg, oil, and mix well. Combine flour, salt, and baking soda, and add to butter mixture. Stir in oats and nuts and mix well. Chill 1 hour. Drop dough by Tbsp. onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 10-15 minutes. Cool on wire racks.

Note: There’s nothing better than a big crock filled with big, old fashioned cookies.   You can make delicious sandwich cookies, aka whoopie pies, by rolling out and cutting two 4-inch cookies –make ‘em big – either round, square, or rectangular. You decide how big to make them. The larger they are, the fewer cookies the recipe will make. After baking, overstuff them with the luscious, sweet vanilla cream filling – and experience pure delight.