Baking 'with love' holiday tradition helps keep hearts warm

| Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

During the holiday season, freshly baked desserts are passed from plate to plate as friends and family gather.

After the coffee or glasses of milk are poured, it's quite possible each cookie could have its own story wrapped in a family recipe. As the pecan tassies crunch and gingerbread men shimmer, traditions are ready for sharing.

Bakers from local churches are ready to offer boxes of homemade treats for the season during cookie walks and bake sales.

“Food is a part of our hospitality. We express how much we care about you,” said Joyce Countouris of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in McCandless.

Decades ago, The Ladies Philoptochos Society of the church planned their annual holiday bake sale to assist aging members who wanted to serve Greek specialties without the fuss of a hot kitchen.

Since mid-October, women of the church have been preparing baklava; finikia, a honey-walnut cookie; and other sweets, along with spanakopita, or spinach pie.

Countouris, 72, of Ross Township, has been helping with the sale as long as she can remember.

“We do one item each day,” said Countouris, pleased with the modern kitchen in congregation's new home, which opened earlier this year.

The 50-year member of the women's group is warmed by the thought of helping people with the sale's profits.

Orders are being taken now, with pickup scheduled for Dec. 22.

The money finds its way to national and local charities and to parish families in need.

“You can be sure everything was made by somebody's grandmother — with love,” Countouris said.

Cookies galore

At St. Brendan's Episcopal Church in Franklin Park, customers can help themselves to 1,100 dozen cookies during an annual cookie walk. There will be at least 90 varieties.

The sale began in 2000, member Sylvia Affleck of Bradford Woods said. Every year, it has grown in popularity.

“In 2011, we sold out in 45 minutes,” she said.

Affleck, 70, makes about 50 dozen butter shorties dipped in chocolate.

“It's a labor of love,” she said, “but it's all for the church.

A few gluten-free cookies will be offered this year.

“They start lining up at 8:30 a.m. at the latest,” she said of the hundreds who arrive early.

Doors open at 9 a.m. Nov. 23.

After cookies are purchased, customers can check out other gift items at the holiday arts and crafts sale taking place at the same time. Proceeds benefit the church's general fund. In 2012, more than $6,000 was collected.

The annual cookie walk at St. Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral in America in McCandless, hosted by the women's association, has been known to average sales of $10,000 to benefit local charities and church families in need.

Janet Casciato, president of the women's association, was there at the beginning in 1999.

The benevolence that begins with camaraderie on baking nights will culminate with the cookie walk at 9 a.m. Dec. 7.

The once-a-week kitchen get-togethers, beginning in late October, are a time “to laugh, talk, catch up and bake cookies,” Casciato said. “The whole room smells like sugar. It's wonderful.”

Casciato, 52, of Richland Township, contributes her coconut-date balls to the mix of about 1,000 dozen cookies created by 25 to 30 bakers.

Nut horns, kolachi filled with nuts or apricot and baklava have become favorites.

Pumpkin rolls

The annual pumpkin roll sale is under way at Salem United Methodist Church in Pine Township.

Church members have been involved since 1990, when church secretary Bonnie Bridge of Pine Township shared her dessert recipe.

“We take a day to measure ingredients, like the sugar, flour and spices,” Bridge said.

Nearly 25 church members measure the ingredients for 300 rolls.

“This gives our older members something to be a part of,” said Bridge, 65. “It takes a whole group to do it successfully.”

Proceeds from the sale benefit the church's improvement fund.

“With just 200 members, it takes a lot of different projects to keep us up and running,” Bridge said.

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or

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