It’s 8:30 p.m. on a Friday night and I’m digging through my family’s cookie cutter collection for a goat. There’s a bake sale for the 4-H goat club in the morning, and my daughter Lucia wants to make animal-specific cutouts for their curb appeal. I find the goat and the four-leaf clover – it’s a 4-H bake sale after all – and start gathering ingredients. I don’t need to find the recipe because after making it so many times for the past 18 years, I’ve got it memorized.

Lucia joins me in the kitchen while we roll out the dough to bake the five dozen cookies we need. At 10 p.m. the cookies are cooling on racks. Tired after a busy work week, I leave them to her to ice – with 4-H green, of course. The next morning, I wake up around 5 a.m. to feed our goats, sheep and chickens, and I think about the fact that this is likely one of the last 4-H bake sales my daughter and I will do together.

She’s graduating from high school in two weeks and will be off to college in the fall. In some ways, I am relieved that these late night/early morning scrambles are ending. Yet we have made so many memories in the kitchen while she and her sister, Gaetana, now 20, were growing up.

Our now-expansive cookie cutter collection started with just a few Christmas-themed ones when the girls were preschoolers. I quickly realized that December is a really busy month with kids, and my daughters decided they liked making gingerbread houses more than cookies anyhow. So one year, we put off cookie making until Valentine’s Day and on Feb. 14 we hosted a cookie-decorating party with friends.

I made the cutouts ahead of time – a great time-management strategy, as it turned out – and picked up a variety of sprinkles and candy for the young decorators. I waited until the guests arrived to make the icing so all the kids could make requests for colors.

The girls were 4 and 5 years old at the time, and they enjoyed the cookie party so much we planned another one for Halloween, and that started a tradition. For years, we organized “other” holiday cookie parties, and at the same time we managed to collect a large variety of cookie cutters. Whenever we saw an interesting one, we bought it, whether it was for a specific holiday or just one we liked.

That’s how we came to own 50-plus cookie cutters, the bulk of them animal shapes. Surprisingly, a goat cutout eluded us for years until the girls’ grandma was thrilled to find one online. We now own three of them because it also became another family tradition that whenever we acquired a new (actual) animal, a cookie cutter in its shape was required.

Like the cookie cutters themselves, our cooking-making repertoire expanded as the girls became more involved in 4-H. Cookie parties became less frequent, while gift-giving and bake sales rose to the surface of reasons to break out the cookie cutters. One year we discovered that our gingerbread recipe made excellent sheep cookies. The cracking of the dough made the sheep look woolly, and its brown color looked just like my daughter’s natural-colored Romney sheep. Those cookies were shared widely because boy, were we jazzed about that happenstance!

Wendy Almeida's chickens get a treat every year on Christmas. Wendy Almeida photo

Wendy Almeida’s chickens get a treat every year on Christmas. Wendy Almeida photo

TREAT FOR THE FLOCK

The gingerbread house-building tradition continues to this day not only because we all genuinely enjoy it, but it is also our annual Christmas gift to our flock of chickens. In the days leading up to Christmas, the kids often pick off pieces of candy from their gingerbread houses for nibbling (shhh, I might do this as well). By Christmas Eve every year, the houses look a shambles.

One year, my husband suggested feeding the remnants to the chickens on Christmas Day. They were so well received, it turned into an annual tradition. In case you were wondering, it takes only a couple of hours for a dozen chickens to eat a gingerbread house, whether it is made from graham crackers or has hard gingerbread cookie walls. Their annual treat serves us well, too, because happy chickens produce more eggs.

In addition to bake sales, there have been many late-night baking projects for the Ossipee Valley and Cumberland fairs’ 4-H exhibit hall entries. Cookie, pie and yeast roll recipes have been refined over the years for those blue ribbons – not easy to come by in the baking category at the fair!

My daughters have attended classes to learn cake-decorating techniques at 4-H club meetings and have traveled to the University of Maine in Orono to learn about food chemistry. Two never-to-be-forgotten highlights: using dry ice to make ice cream and a blind taste-testing of Oreos.

But baking is only the half of it. There are the hours my daughters spend every year at the 4-H food booth at the Cumberland Fair taking orders and serving breakfast sandwiches and burgers to the crowds in a fast-paced kitchen. There are the slow-cooker recipes – chili is always a crowd pleaser – that we bring to potluck dinners for 4-H celebrations, school events and whatever else comes up while raising active, involved kids.

Whenever we cook and bake, we use the eggs from our own hens and the milk from our own dairy goats – though the first year we hand-milked the goats we had more hooves in the milking pan than drinkable milk. We learned to make soap!

But by the end of that season, we’d grown proficient at milking, so we taught ourselves to make yogurt – fresh, warm yogurt is amazing! We experimented with soft-cheese recipes, too, and eventually settled on garlic and chives, and cinnamon and sugar (a perfect match for breakfast bagels) as house favorites. Over the years, the girls enjoyed raising animals, and always figured out how to bring their animal-loving ways into the kitchen.

One year, the girls wanted a challenge so they signed up for cooking classes at a “professional kitchen.” At Measuring Up! Cooking for Kids in Scarborough, they learned to make souffles and other fancier, more complicated recipes. That training led to some excellent dinners at our house. But for all the formal classes my daughters have taken, their genuine interest in cooking and baking stems from cutout cookies and gingerbread houses in our own kitchen.

The goat cookie cutters will be sticking around, even if they're getting a little rusty.

The goat cookie cutters will be sticking around, even if they’re getting a little rusty. Wendy Almeida photos

LOOKING AHEAD

It isn’t just the girls who are getting older. Some of the metal cookies cutters are getting a bit rusty. Still, I doubt I will ever part with the collection. That bag of metal and plastic shapes holds so many memories.

After the goat-cookie bake sale, I will tuck them away, but come fall, I intend to make a college care package full of cookies for Lucia. I hope they’ll be a conversation-starter with new friends and a reminder of all the love – and silliness – we’ve shared in the kitchen.

And maybe someday, I’ll be using our big bag of cookie cutters again – with grandchildren.

I’ve let my mind wander. Suddenly, I realize the time is late, and we’ve got to get to the bake sale. I hurriedly place each goat-shaped cookie into a plastic baggie. As I seal the bags with green ribbons, I wonder where these cookies will end up; I hope the bake sale customers will enjoy and appreciate them as much as we do. And as my daughters make their own way in the wider world, I want them to find love and appreciation, too, I find myself thinking.

Sending my youngest off to college means a lot of “lasts” for us. But I know we’ve got some amazing “firsts” ahead, too.

For 17 years, Wendy Almeida worked at the Portland Press Herald, most recently as editor of MaineToday magazine. She left to take a new job last week. Her daughters, her baking and her career are in transition. We wish her the best. She can be contacted at: [email protected]