PROVINCETOWN — On a summer day around noontime you can locate Relish by the crowd of people waiting outside. In handsome tank tops or flowing beach gowns they gather, placing their orders in the little shop at 93 Commercial St. and then waiting patiently outside for beach-day sustenance.
You order a well-built sandwich and a cold drink — that’s all you actually need — but right by the register waits the coup de grace, an irresistible array of baked goods. Last time I was there I bought two completely perfect miniature key lime pies, one to share with friends and another to eat entirely by myself.
But come fall, this is the kind of Outer Cape place where business wanes. It’s weekends only in October, closed outright in November. Behind closed doors, though, a different season is being cooked up.
“It was over 4,500 cookies this year, in a very small kitchen,” says Frank Vasello, the shop’s proprietor, who started selling Christmas cookies by mail about 10 years ago. “At a certain point, we run out of places to put cookies. There’s trays all over the place, icing drying everywhere, and when you’re boxing cookies, the krinkle paper flies all over. You can imagine.”
The iced cookies are sold by the dozen, or sometimes by the hundred, and they’re sent all over the country. “We write the little cards to order, and a lot of them will say, ‘Here’s a taste of P’town for you,’ ” says Vasello.
The cookie operation keeps four to six people busy. In the summer, Sue Hale is the baker and Mark Buccholz is the savories chef, but in November, everyone is on cookie duty. Vasello’s husband, Nathan Butera, helps, and so does his mother, Catherine Collins.
Last year was tough, partly because of postal service problems, says Vasello. “There were packages going all over the place, to all the wrong places,” he recalls. “A box that was supposed to go to Billerica took 14 days, and when we checked the tracking number, it was in Georgia!”
This year Vasello reorganized the project. For two weeks, it was all mixing batter, rolling it onto sheets, cutting shapes, and freezing them; then there were two weeks of baking and icing. There were 2,400 cookies in individual bags before the shipping materials came out.
A switch to UPS helped make everything smoother. “They’re more expensive, but they pick up, which is awesome,” says Vasello.
What Makes a Christmas Cookie?
The sugar cookies are the mainstay of the delivery business. They come in fanciful shapes and brilliant colors: snowflakes, polar bears, Christmas sweaters, and more. A box of twelve of these fancy iced cookies goes for $60.
The West End storefront opens for Thanksgiving and Holly Folly weekends. And, partly to have something for passers-by, Vasello added small boxes of mini cookies to the mix.
The $25 box included seven different flavors this year, including chewy ginger molasses cookies, creamy eggnog sandwiches, and crunchy pistachio cookies. The black walnut wedding cookies are one of Vasello’s favorites.
“They’re beautiful, like little white snowballs,” says Vasello. The black walnuts have an intense aroma that is nothing like regular walnuts, he adds. “You can’t use 100 percent black walnuts — it would be too strong. It’s a unique flavor, a celebratory cookie.”
Vasello says that, “like most art school students,” he went to work in restaurants after graduation. He was lucky to be in Boston when Michaela Larson and Jodi Adams were changing the way the city ate, and he picked up an appreciation of good food, he says, “by osmosis.” But how did he become a baker?
“I can follow a recipe,” says Vasello.
I asked Vasello for some food history. Why do we associate some flavors with Christmas and not others?
“As it gets colder, the spices come out: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves,” says Vasello. “You don’t think of cloves in the middle of summer.”
Less obvious is that Christmas is a time for everything premium. “At Christmas, in Europe, you would pull out all the stops,” he says. “It’s a time to make things that are too expensive to eat year-round.”
Nuts were costly when these confections were invented, and for that matter so were sugar, spices, and tropical ingredients like ginger and oranges. The Christmas flavor palette is largely a matter of people sharing their very best and rarest.
It’s easy to forget, now that sugar is everywhere, that sweetness itself used to be a gift.
So, How Are They?
Being a proper news-gathering outfit, the Independent did not fail to investigate taste. The cookies, we can report, are delicious.
My pick-up box offered flavors that were well-balanced, not heavy-handed. Ginger cookies are often brassy, for instance; these were velvety. The eggnog creme had a luxurious, lingering softness. Sweetness was never overwhelming, so each flavor could step forward.
Several family members were convened to share the box, including this reporter’s stepmother, a retired baker herself. She could taste the high quality of the ingredients and detected careful blending, and she particularly praised the black walnut cookie.
For this year, the iced cookies are all gone, or very nearly so, says Vasello. It’s getting too late for the mail. Though he admits he’s still got a few boxes stashed at the store.
“Our last big order will probably go out Monday,” he predicted last week. “And then we’re pretty much done until May.” Then, after a pause: “Unless we do Easter cookies. They’re actually my favorite,” he adds, “because you can use so many bright colors, oranges and yellows. And the little lambs are so cute.”