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It's Christmas cookie central as West Central Industries churns out thousands of cookies for holiday tables

Mounds of cranberry and white chocolate cookie dough march across a baking sheet, one of several stacked up assembly-line fashion in the kitchen at West Central Industries in Willmar.

More cookies -- sugar cookies, peanut butter cookies, holiday M&M cookies -- wait for their turn in the oven.

By this time next week, the West Central Industries food service will have baked and delivered thousands of homemade Christmas cookies for the holidays.

It's a tradition that's been carried on for more than 15 years.

"Last year was the biggest year," said Renee Nolting, food service director at West Central Industries.

The tally for 2007: 1,178.5 dozen cookies -- that's more than 14,000 individual cookies, for anyone who's counting -- and 108 holiday breads.

Orders probably won't reach the same level this year, but the kitchen is hectic nevertheless with the mixing, baking and packaging that started shortly after Thanksgiving.

Tuesday and Wednesday were the busiest days for Nolting and her crew. They had 125 dozen cookies that had to be baked and delivered, "all in about a two-hour period," Nolting said. On top of that, there were 119 Meals on Wheels to prepare, plus all the meals for Kandiyohi County's senior dining program, the lunch program at Willmar's Community Christian School and the West Central Industries dining program.

"You wonder how you fit it all in, but you do," said Cindy Cameron, the lead cook and chief baker. "Everybody pulls together."

The cookie operation started in the early 1990s with the realization that many clients of the Meals on Wheels program, which is operated through the West Central Industries kitchen, might like the chance to buy freshly baked cookies for the holiday season.

"If you can't cook for yourself, chances are you can't cook for the holidays," Nolting said.

It didn't take long for word to spread to the rest of the public. Orders were soon being placed for people's Christmas parties, cookie exchanges and business open-house events.

"That's how the numbers grew," Nolting said.

She and her staff don't scrimp on the ingredients. They use real butter and eggs.

Each cookie is formed by hand and baked either the day of delivery or the day before.

The cookie varieties -- 14 this year -- are selected from recipe books and magazines, then adapted for mass quantities. Cameron's recipe for 20 dozen sugar cookies, for instance, calls for 4 cups of powdered sugar, 4 cups of granulated sugar, 4 cups of butter, 8 eggs and 18 cups of flour.

Cookies that are best sellers remain on the list year after year, Nolting said. Others are added or subtracted, depending on what appeals to customers.

Date-filled cookies were dropped from the list a few years ago, but there were so many requests that they were reinstated, she said. Cranberry white chocolate and cherry Yuletide cookies are new this year, chosen from among four recipes that the kitchen staff tested on West Central Industries staff and clients.

At one time, the kitchen also produced fancy cut-out cookies, "but the demand was so high we couldn't keep up," Nolting said.

Customers can order holiday breads as well, from a menu of flavors that includes cappuccino chocolate chip, cranberry orange, butter rum and prairie harvest.

Prices were raised slightly this year to meet the higher cost of baking supplies, but customers can still buy a dozen cookies for between $4.25 and $4.50, and a loaf of bread for $5.75.

Because many of the ingredients can be in short supply as Christmas approaches, Nolting stocks up ahead of time. She orders 400 pounds of flour and 200 pounds of sugar. By the middle of this week, the baking had consumed an estimated 60 pounds of butter and 30 dozen eggs.

"We smell baking cookies every day for six weeks straight," said Charlie Oakes, executive director of West Central Industries. On many days, the table in the board room is taken over by the cookie-packaging phase of the operation, he said.

Jamin Johnson-Schneider, West Central Industries JobLink coordinator, accomplishes much of her own holiday baking by going down the hall to buy cookies.

"It tastes just like mom's," she said. "It's a very cool thing and a very handy thing for those of us who don't do this ourselves. It's so handy for a working mom."

As a bonus, all the profits go back to the Meals on Wheels program to help subsidize the service. Last year Meals on Wheels, which also is supported by the city of Willmar and the United Way of Kandiyohi County, delivered almost 30,000 meals to older people living independently. The program is growing and likely will provide 32,000 to 33,000 meals this year, Nolting said.

In an era of rising food costs, it takes effort to keep the rates affordable for Meals on Wheels, Oakes said. "It's been a real challenge. Food costs are 8 percent higher than last year."

Nolting said the money that's netted from cookie sales has been cushioning the impact.

"Last year you could tell that it helped," she said.