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Christmas cookies evoke sweet memories

| Tuesday, April 24, 2012, 7:05 a.m.

The smell of a peanut butter cookie can send Mike D'Ascenzo back to Christmas at his childhood home in the Italian section of Homewood-Brushton.

Having grown up on a Pittsburgh street with dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins, D'Ascenzo associates Christmas with late-night visits with family and a plethora of cookies.

Now a cafe-bakery owner in Murrysville, D'Ascenzo can't imagine a Christmas without trays upon trays of cookies.

"You start eating these cookies that people are making at the holiday, and you're back to when you were a child," said D'Ascenzo, 52, owner of Jennuine Cakes and Cafe.

"I wish my kids could see something like that, the way it used to be -- it was just family spending time together, and it was special."

Like a childhood stocking or a homemade ham dinner, Christmas cookies are a holiday staple in many families. Whether it's the process of making and decorating the cookies or simply the memories that the taste of a homemade ladylock evokes, Christmas cookies are as much a part of the season as pine trees and candy canes.

Each year, Molly Jelovich and her extended family gather together to decorate sugar cookies. The group of aunts, uncles and cousins will order pizza and share memories as they decorate cookie angels, stars and trees.

"It's part of our tradition. We have such great memories with it," said Jelovich, of Export. "You'll watch kids dump an entire can of sprinkles on the cookies when they're 2, but as they get older they start making more intricate designs. It's neat to watch."

At the D'Ascenzo house, it's all about the chocolate-dipped peanut butter cookies. His wife, Jennifer - the baker of the pair - dips her cookies half in white chocolate and half in dark chocolate. When the bakery gets orders for holiday petit four cakes, his wife knows to make a dozen just for him.

"They're just incredible," Mike D'Ascenzo said. "I have to wait until the kids go to bed to eat them."

The D'Ascenzos' holiday specialties range from a traditional Yule Log to a chocolate peppermint torte, along with specialty pies and cupcakes. And of course, there's the cookie trays. Each year, the demand grows, D'Ascenzo said.

"It seems to get stronger and stronger every year," he said. "Cookies are a thing that people definitely want on their Christmas table but don't necessarily want or have the time to do it themselves."

At Franklin Regional, teachers and staff members don't have to look far to buy cookies. Students in the high school foods classes are making more than 1,500 cookies during the next eight school days. They'll sell trays with four dozen cookies on them to raise money for the school's annual telethon.

The teens are learning to make Oreo balls, cornflake wreaths, snickerdoodles, soft molasses cookies, iced orange cookies, peanut butter blossoms, thumbprints and double chocolate graham cookies this week, said Jenna Rogerson, a family and consumer sciences teacher.

Cookies are a big part of holiday traditions, she said, starting with the idea of leaving Santa Claus milk and cookies by the chimney.

"Just food in general goes hand in hand with holiday traditions," Rogerson said. "Foods bring back our memories of past Christmases. If you've eaten homemade peanut butter cookies every year on Christmas Eve, it brings back those memories."

Mike D'Ascenzo said he can't recall a Christmas in his life that hasn't been celebrated with cookies. Even when he and his wife visit her mother in California, her mother has an abandance of homemade cookies on display -- despite being a diabetic who isn't allowed cookies.

"It just brings you back to tradition in your own family," he said. "Those cookies, they give you that feeling that you had when you were a kid, so excited for Christmas. It takes you back."

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