Dave Dobbs' first idea on how to best commemorate the 25th anniversary of his family's near-legendary Christmas cookie party was to bake 2,500 cookies.
That's the equivalent of more than 208 dozen cookies, 50 percent more than they made last year and four times the amount they made for their inaugural event in 1987.
"But my wife talked me out of doing that," said Dobbs, a cybersecurity information systems consultant, with a smile.
Instead, Peggy Dobbs suggested a more achievable goal for celebrating the milestone in a symbolic way with their Ellicott City neighbors: Family members will mark the occasion by baking and decorating 25 varieties of cookies in a two-day marathon session beginning Dec. 21. Their open house will be held Dec. 23.
The Dobbs family has no plans to slack off in the numbers department, mind you. They still plan to make at least 100 dozen cookies, which has been their average in recent years. Leftovers, if there are any, will go to relatives, friends and co-workers.
"We all know what needs to be done and we just do it," said Peggy of the two-day extravaganza, during which the double oven in the kitchen of their Montgomery Meadows home stays on much of the time.
Dave likes to joke that "all the neighborhood lights dim" because they consume so much extra power during their weekend of preparations.
"The whole process is really a celebration, and we treasure our time together," Peggy said, especially now that the kids no longer live at home. Son Peter is 27, newly married and a systems analyst, and daughter Maggie is 26 and pursuing a master's degree in urban planning.
"We even bake pies together at Thanksgiving," Dave added, noting that he's growing pumpkins in their backyard specifically for that purpose.
The shopping list for the family's shindig reads like that of a small bakery: 15 pounds of flour, 12 pounds each of sugar and butter, 8 pounds of powdered sugar and 4 dozen eggs. Then there are the five large bags of chocolate chips and jars of toppings and decorations.
The collection of recipes the family has collected is so precious to the Dobbs clan that Dave has stored all of the data from past years off-site as a precaution.
"My son and I are both computer geeks; he stores my stuff and I store his," he explained of the arrangement.
New, old recipes
While family members rely on a dozen or so basic recipes, they experiment throughout the year. One new recipe that's made it onto the list of personal favorites is Peppermint Meltaways, which the couple says lives up to its name.
"They're light and fluffy and not overwhelming," Peggy said, adding they are a nice break from cookies with chocolate, which are so popular with crowds.
One of their best-loved recipes is a version of the iconic Berger Cookie, a vanilla wafer topped with a thick layer of fudge that a Baltimore bakery made hugely popular.
The Dobbses' Christmas cookie-party tradition hearkens back to Dave's mother, who was a military wife looking for a way to make the holidays special for her four children since the family moved often and the kids didn't always get time to forge new friendships.
"We lived in places like Alaska, Hawaii, Texas and Japan," recalled Dave, whose father was a pilot in the Navy, and who spent 20 years as a helicopter pilot himself. He and Peggy and their kids have lived in Florida, Rhode Island, California and Virginia, among other places, before moving to their present home in 1994 from Annapolis.
"Our annual cookie parties were always real ice breakers," he said.
Peggy's mother also loved to help her daughter's family bake for their Christmas party and taught Maggie to roll sugar cookie dough that is so thin it's almost transparent, Dave said.
The parties typically attract about 100 visitors, Dave said, and among the regulars are neighbors Lori and Kevin Gibbons and their four kids, now ages 9 to 24. Their older children still enjoy the party, Lori Gibbons said.
"Just the other day, Mallory asked if we'd gotten the cookie party invitation yet," she said of the couple's 21-year-old daughter. "All the kids in the neighborhood, from the youngest to the oldest, look forward to it, and if they're at home or in town we see them every year at the party. It's a part of what Christmas is to them."
Butter in the oven
On the Tuesday night before the Sunday open house each year, Peggy places the sticks of butter to soften in the oven, which is not turned on.
"That's when you know the tradition is starting," she said of their time-tested, assembly-line style process.
Wednesday and Thursday nights are devoted to whipping up all the cookie varieties, and by Friday everyone is prepared to bake until 3 a.m. On Saturday, various types of icings and toppings are applied, and the finished products are stored in plastic bags overnight to retain optimum freshness.
After they're done, the family orders Chinese food — they even saved last year's order — and kicks back briefly before getting back to work. After all, there are trays to be filled, fruit and champagne punches to be made and a much-used kitchen to be cleaned in preparation for Sunday's visitors.
Since decorations are part of any festive party, the Dobbses stayed in character this year and planned ahead in that category, too. Since Peggy and Dave celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in 2005 and knew that the 25th cookie party was coming, they saved those decorations in order to reuse them.
"We feel very blessed to have established such a wonderful tradition," Peggy said.
Dave wholeheartedly agreed.
"It's very much an anticipated event," he said. "It's a great neighborhood where everyone knows each other and actually likes each other. It really is a special gathering."