BUFFALO — As Kayla Strouf piped strings of chocolate across the top of nearly four dozen peanut butter cookies this past Saturday, a glob of liquid chocolate leaked out of the top of the piping bag and splattered across her countertop.
As she moved swiftly to clean up the spill, she said the chocolate was just the beginning of the mess that would engulf her and her kitchen by the end of more than 12 hours of cookie baking that day.
"I don't care if I get messy at all," she said. "Usually I'm super, super messy by the end of the day.”
The piped chocolate was the finishing touch on the peanut butter cookies, which were filled with a peanut butter cream cheese filling. The time was 10 a.m. on Saturday, nearly six hours into her baking for the day. The early start was required in order to complete baking some 78 dozen cookies — or 936 individual cookies — with a crucial midday break factored in to watch the Minnesota Vikings game.
Strouf said that, while she does some baking for other occasions — like Valentine's Day and birthdays — Christmas is her busiest time of year.
In December, she has pumped out about 148 dozen orders of cookies. That includes a wide variety, such as cream cheese frosted sugar cookies, lemon raspberry sugar cookies, peanut butter balls, Oreo balls and Russian tea cakes, all made from Strouf family recipes.If you’re inclined to decorate the cookies yourself, Strouf offers a sugar cookie box that comes with piping bags of red and green frosting.While the sheer number of cookies Strouf has made is enough to deter most bakers, it’s even more impressive because she does it on top of her day job as a special education teacher in Campbell County.She said she only has the time to do so much baking because all of her kids are now off to college, and because baking is a family tradition that she’d do anything to make time for.“I do it because I love it,” she said. “I love to cook and bake and my mom loved it, and my grandma loved it, and my great grandma loved it. We love that other people love it, and we love bringing that joy for others.”Strouf said that love for baking was sparked by her great-grandmother, who taught her to bake chocolate chip cookies on the family farm when Strouf was a young child. At that time, all the mixing was done by hand.
“She just had a big ol’ spoon-type thing that she mixed the dough with and now, you know, we have our KitchenAid mixers and everything like that, so things have come so far,” Strouf said. “But, I love that memory with my great-grandma. It always sticks out to me that she taught me how to make chocolate chip cookies, and I still make chocolate chip cookies to this day.”
After learning with her great-grandma, Strouf said she continued baking with her grandma and eventually her mother — though she said she’s the only one of her siblings who has continued to build on that love for baking.
While that love hasn’t changed over the years, Strouf said that baking for so many holiday customers has turned the process into more of a math equation than she ever thought baking could be.
That means having stacks of butter and cream cheese pre-cut and sitting on the kitchen counter to come to room temperature and the appropriate number of boxes stacked on her dining room table, ready to be stuffed with cookies for customers.
With so many orders to complete, she said, people often assume she makes trips to bulk stores in Casper or Billings to buy ingredients. But she actually just shops at Walmart in Sheridan.
That’s easier both because it’s closer, she said, and because she doesn’t have to lug around 50 pound bags of sugar and flour.
But no matter where she’s shopping, she said, prices over the past year have gotten significantly more expensive.
“I keep an inventory of all of my ingredients,” she said. “A lot of times, it’s hard to even find the ingredients, so if I see that they’re in stock, I buy them because I might not be able to find them when I actually need them for an order otherwise.”
Despite the increased prices for ingredients over the past year, Strouf said she’s kept her prices for the finished product low, because for her, baking isn’t about making money, it’s about spreading a little holiday cheer through baked goods.
“I just absolutely love doing it because it brings other people joy,” she said. “I love doing that, and it’s how I was raised and I’m just super happy to bring the tradition down and keep it going within my family.”