For the Roberts family, it really wouldn’t be Christmas without gingerbread cookies. Just ask Betty Roberts of Swartz Creek, the Gingerbread Lady. She has been baking gingerbread “boys” for her family for many, many years. And as the family grew, so did the number of the decorated gingerbread boys she made. One year, she baked and decorated over 700 of the delicious cookies (which took 10-14 jars of molasses) for her six children, 11 grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and dozens of extended family members. “Everyone knows my cookies!” Roberts exclaims, having made them for school bake sales, neighbors, friends, and for her children’s friends while they were growing up.
It all started when Roberts took a cake decorating class at Mott. She learned how to decorate cakes and cookies, piping designs on them with royal icing. The recipe for her “famous” gingerbread cookies is from a very old Betty Crocker cookbook (with some added secret ingredients of her own). “They taste really good,” says Roberts’ daughter, Karen. “They’re very ‘gingery’ and we all look forward to them every year. I never ate a store-bought cookie when I was a child.”
While Roberts chooses to make the gingerbread boys by herself, the entire family gets together before Christmas for “Cookie Week,” when they fill the tables and the counters with dozens and dozens of decorated sugar cookies. “The house is all cookies,” she laughs, “and all of the kids help with the baking.”
Roberts bakes her cookies in a built-in oven from the 1960s, which has been kept in working condition over the years thanks to her “fix everything” husband, Bill. “The cookies take seven minutes to bake and that’s it,” she shares. “I know the recipe by heart.” Bill is always on hand to find the cookies that have a broken arm or leg. “He is always on the lookout for the broken ones so he can grab them up and eat them!”
Roberts’ gingerbread cookies are so well known, that she was asked to make them for The Whiting’s Nutcracker performance. “I wouldn’t do it,” says the cookie-maker. “It’s for family.”
Now 86 years young, Roberts says it takes her about three days to decorate the gingerbread boys. “I used to do 500 of them very fast,” she laughs. One year, she just didn’t feel up to the task of making all of those cookies. “I’m not that young anymore,” she admits. But her daughter, Pam, who also loves to bake, stepped in to keep the family tradition going.
Roberts not only bakes gingerbread cookies, but also loves to bake oatmeal raisin, molasses, and her favorite: peanut butter cookies. She likes to cook huge family dinners and is known for her homemade noodles that she makes using egg yolks left over from cookie-baking. “I also make apple strudel for the kids instead of birthday cake.”
This year, Roberts finished making the gingerbread boys (which keep forever) in November, prior to her yearly trek to Florida with Bill for the winter months. She packed the cookies in tins and delivered them to family members, including her sister, Helen, who is in a nursing home. “I was so happy to see my gingerbread boys,” she told Roberts. “I can’t remember much, but I remember the gingerbread boys.”
Roberts will continue to make her special gingerbread boys for as long as she can. “I know how much the babies love them,” she smiles.
Photography by Kayce McClure