Concern over my whereabouts were never more apparent than the week leading up to my visit to Donna Purdy’s house. Every time I left my desk or came in at an odd hour, the question began to fly: “Did you visit The Cookie Lady?”
Our staff dubbed Purdy “The Cookie Lady” after receiving an email from her friend suggesting a story about the most amazing little treats made by the Stonington resident.
Each batch of the sour cream sugar cookies (butter cream was too fragile, she says) are decorated with an intricate design based on a particular theme. Purdy’s cookies are so funky and cute and interesting, you almost don’t want to eat them.
A retired teacher/administrator, Purdy began making cookies in earnest in 2004, when a visit to her four grandchildren was no longer a quick drive.
“Cakes don’t travel well and cupcakes don’t mail well, so I decided to go with cookies,” she says. “When they were young, I had carte blanche, but then the requests starting coming in.”
First up was the orange and white fish Nemo, star of the 2003 computer-animated film “Finding Nemo.” Ten days after that initial batch, Purdy rolled out several dozen butterflies, in purple/pink and yellow/green patterns.
Sending cookies to her grandchildren allows Purdy to be present in their lives, even if she can’t see them every weekend.
“Working full time, I was not able to travel and share their birthdays with them in person. The cookies replaced my physical presence and allowed me to be a part of their special day though I was hundreds of miles away,” says Purdy, who retired from the Groton school system in June 2010 after 38 years.
“My disappointment at not being with the grandkids on their special day has turned into a new tradition between ‘The Grands’ and me.”
You’d think decorating was the most crucial part of the cookie-making process. Not so. For Purdy, it’s the packaging.
Each cookie is wrapped in a plastic baggie and secured with a twist tie. Then each baggie is shrouded in bubble wrap before being placed in a bubble-wrap lined box.
“Sometimes the packaging does take awhile,” she admits, “but it looks so much better, especially for birthdays, if they come out of the box unbroken.”
Three of the four grandkids’ birthdays fall between the seventh and 18th of December, so from the end of November until Dec. 15 (which leaves three days for mailing) she’s “really cranking them out.”
She always asks the mothers if there is a theme related to each child’s birthday celebration, then she gets to work.
For one grandchild, Purdy created a notepad and pencil for her ninth birthday. Other favorites have been the Disney animated racecar, Lightning McQueen; Pegasus; a pair of lips; and a viola (two of her grandchildren play the instrument).
And this year, she made a herd of buffalo for her dad’s 93rd birthday.
All of the cookies are topped with royal icing so that they can dry hard before being shipped. Through trial and error, Purdy learned that butter cream doesn’t stand up to the rigors of the postal system.
Usually the treats go to family members, but friends and co-workers have also benefited from Purdy’s late-night baking sessions. She recently baked watermelon slices, complete with the black seeds and green rind, for a former co-worker who often brought muffins in to share.
“I get a lot of ideas from cupcake books,” she says, “then I try to personalize it for the people that I’m giving it to.”