Classic cookies, A not-so-classic tale.
The Cookies by Bess story begins with Bess Hoffman—homemaker, first-generation American, and beloved “cookie lady.” Although only 4-foot, 11-inches tall, Bess was a force—never afraid to speak her mind and go after what she wanted. She poured every energy and passion into caring for her children and grandchildren, managing her home... and baking cookies.
Born in 1907, Bess married her husband Abe Hoffman in 1926 and shortly thereafter moved to Menominee, MI and then to Wausau, Wisconsin in 1941. While raising their four children, Bess began baking in earnest. Lovingly known as the "house executive,” Bess ran her household like a business. She was always busy managing the home and working on her hobbies — she was exceptionally skilled at needlepoint and crochet as well as cooking and baking. Her home was tidy and organized; there was always food on the table, and the cookie jar was always full. In fact, Bess believed that cookies were a vital part of the meal — not a luxury, but a staple. Every household should have a jar full of cookies, she would say.
Bess found baking to be relaxing, almost therapeutic. She had a natural inclination to test new recipes and perfect old ones. In fact, Bess would frequently set the clocks ahead, gently fooling her children into going to bed early so that she could spend her evenings baking. By morning, as if by magic, the cookie jar was full again.
Bess quickly became known throughout Wausau for her talented hand in the kitchen. She made Swedish Butter Nut cookies and award-winning Cinnamon Logs, English Toffee bars and Coconut Crisps. From pinwheel cookies to frosted Christmas cookies, Bess would bake cookies and bars with passion and dedication, and generously deliver them to loved ones in simple tins and wax paper-lined candy boxes. She always had cookies available as treats for her children and indulgences for guests. In fact, Bess is recorded to have baked nearly 20,000 cookies for holiday gifts in 1962 alone. Everyone loved her cookies, and neighbors and friends were always asking for her recipes, which she gladly shared.
Finally, her friends and family urged her to put her many cookie recipes into a cookbook so they could always have them handy in their own kitchens. With her husband behind her all the way, Bess took on the project with her characteristic tenacity and methodical focus. She set to work testing recipes passed down from her mother, recipes shared from friends, and several original recipes of her own creation. She was certain to make each one easy to read and simple to follow, and gently suggested that her readers not strive for perfection — especially when involving children’s help.
In 1960, her book, Cookies by Bess, was published with a fitting dedication that began, “Dear Friend.” The book of more than 200 recipes went through seven printings until 1965, and was stocked and sold in department stores throughout the country. In fact, Bess’ cookie book sold 40,000 copies! The earnings were enough to put her youngest daughter, Susie, through college.
Bess continued baking and testing recipes, and even went on to teach holiday cookie baking classes at vocational and technical schools near her home in Wausau. Bess was an advocate for young women and mothers, and her goal was always to provide simple and rewarding recipes to anyone who wanted to bake. In that, she succeeded, and became known nationwide as Wisconsin’s “Cookie Lady.”
Years later, after Bess and Abe retired and moved to California, their son Rich and his wife Toby felt compelled to revive the book with a brand-new edition. They proposed the idea in 1979, much to Bess’ surprise and delight. Plans quickly developed for a vibrant new book cover, recipe revisions, and a 1980 book tour that would involve 45 appearances in 22 cities and selling another 40,000 cookie books. Bess was 73 years old, but vital as ever. In her mind, “old” was just a term.
“I can’t wait until I get up and make a batch of cookies today. You’d be surprised what that does for your day and you’ll never stop at making one batch.”
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Rich’s daughter, Janet Hoffman, remembers this time well. Janet grew up baking Grandma Bess’ cookies with her mother, Toby. When her parents resurrected the book, and began selling the second edition in 1980, it was Janet’s high-school summer job to pack up the books to mail to Bess’ many fans around the country. She read the letters from men and women, housewives and daughters who had seen Bess on TV or read about her in their local papers. It was as if no time had passed, and Bess’ cookie recipes were just as popular and coveted in 1980 as they had been 20 years prior. The tradition of baking cookies wasn’t lost as Janet began her adult life. She is known for bringing Bess’ cookies to work and family events, and still organizes annual cookie exchanges during the holiday season.
Today, Janet feels an almost tangible connection to her grandmother every time she bakes one of her recipes. She, too, bakes Bess’ Swedish Butter Nut Cookies for special occasions, and her award-winning Cinnamon Logs for visiting guests. And while indulging in the timeless treats, the family’s conversation often turns to Bess — her small but mighty presence, her warmhearted nature, and her endless energy. For Janet, it was a sense of family togetherness, of creating new connections, and of pride in her grandma’s creations that spurred the desire to bring Bess Hoffman’s legacy to a new generation of readers and bakers.
At its heart, Cookies by Bess is about connecting with others. It’s a narrative of family ties, of caring for people, and of tending to friendships new and old. Bess believed that cookies can create bonds and meaningful traditions that extend beyond borders and across generations. Cookies by Bess upholds the idea that making something as simple as a batch of cookies, and sharing it with someone else, is something anyone can do, and a gift we can all enjoy. After all, good homemade cookies never go out of style!
“I don’t try for perfection when baking with children, because you have to make a child feel important, even if they make a mess. They will feel happier if their frosting isn’t perfect, they’ll say, my mommy did it that way too.”