Mad Batter Bakers
133 Jefferson Avenue
People strolling through Liberty Village can often be seen stopping mid-stride, lifting their noses to the air and taking in huge whiffs of the spicy gingerbread smell that fills the air here. It’s not the smell of bread from the nearby Canada Bread factory but the sweet fragrance of gingerbread and sugar cookies from the Mad Batter Bakers on Jefferson Avenue.
Tucked away along a strip of restaurants, Leona Knaup and Mary Young’s bakery can turn out roughly 3000 fully decorated gingerbread and sugar cookies every day during the peak season. And with gingerbread as a specialty, peak season is now, in the last few weeks leading up to the Christmas holidays.
With 10 to 14 staff working full-tilt 7 days a week (“We try to stop at 10 hours”, jokes Knaup), it begs the question of whether Santa’s elves are situated at the North Pole or in Liberty Village.
Peak season for the ladies at Mad Batter actually runs from October to about Easter, and while things slow down over the summer, they keep busy with custom orders for weddings, corporate events and even CD release parties. Knaup points out an oval sugar cookie in her display case resembling a large cameo brooch. Designed by her daughter Alicia, who is in charge of the artistic side of the business, the cookie is designed to look like the most recent album cover by indie-songstress Feist, and the bakery made 40 of the cookies bearing Feist’s profile for a recent party for the musician.
There’s also a wall display of cookies bearing company logos, and a selection of beautiful wedding cookies decorated with exquisite detail, right down to some where Alicia has blended the icing colour to match the bridesmaids dresses.
The rest of the little shop is the embodiment of Christmas, however, as Knaup and her staff get ready for the One of a Kind Show taking place next week. The shelves are full of festive elves, teddy bears, skates, mittens and Christmas trees, all in cookie form.
Gingerbread houses are also represented, although Knaup points out that they only do about 100 of the sweet abodes for the One Of A Kind Show.
“We don’t do as many houses as we used to because it takes so much time,” she explains when we visit the shop. “We do all our own chocolate molds with Belgian chocolate – it’s very time consuming, The only other store that carries them is Pusateri’s because we’ve been in there for 20 years.”
Knaup points out that it’s the individual cookies that fly off the shelves, particularly the flavoured cookies they do only for the Christmas season. From butter almond to lemon white chocolate and maple walnut, the flavoured cookies are incredibly popular, with the cranberry orange cookies being the crowd favourite.
The decorated cookies come in either the soft gingerbread or sugar cookie, but not all designs come in both flavours. “A gingerbread house should be gingerbread,” Knaup asserts. “But the snowflakes we do in both flavours, while Mr. Elf there, he’s only in sugar cookie. There are some things we do in both flavours and there are some things that just seem alien and we won’t do them.”
The different designs also make the cookies more accessible, as many people are afraid to eat a gingerbread house because it’s so pretty and so much work has gone into it. “I know some people who have towns,” Knaup tells us. “They collect the houses year after year and keep them.”
For people who can’t bear to tear down the house, Mad Batter makes what Knaup jokingly calls the recession house (“no landscaping, no back yard”); a regular flat gingerbread cookie in the shape of a house front and eaves, decorated with a front door and a royal icing wreath.
When the company started in the 80s, Knaup was creating the cookies as a fund raiser for her daughter’s school, but as the business expanded she took on corporate orders that required some extra creativity. She needed a flat gingerbread cookie for a gift basket order for a German company and came up with the flat decorated house front instead of a full gingerbread house. Her husband created the recession house cookie cutter, which continues to be a popular choice to this day.
“My husband makes a lot of the cutters that are unique and that nobody else will have.” Knaup tells us. “A lot of people can copy my designs but they won’t have the cutters that I can get.” Indeed, the unique shapes and the artistic decoration are one of the things that cause visitors from the One of a Kind Show to come looking for the shop afterwards.
“We get a lot of aftershock,” says Knaup. “We close the store down during the week of the show and right up until Christmas we get people coming by – people who don’t want to buy the stuff at the show because it’s too early.”
Given that Knaup and Young chose the Jefferson Avenue location 13 years ago specifically because it was off the beaten path (“We were looking for clean working space when we came here, not retail,” she explains), the December foot traffic is an anomaly from the rest of the year. While the shop is open all year, it’s generally only the Liberty Village locals – folks who work at Corus or Nelvana, for instance – who drop by to pick up single items. Knaup mentions the number of people who wander in expecting to be able to buy bread or croissants only to discover that all they sell is cookies.
The space may seem off the beaten path to many but Knaup is happy keeping the shop small and focusing on custom orders and wholesale, pointing out that many people are encouraging her to expand. “Everyone wants us to get bigger. If I get bigger then the company runs me year-round,” she says, explaining that she enjoys the free time, especially in the summer, that running a seasonally-focused bakery allows her. “If it’s not fun anymore, I’m not going to do it. I won’t get bigger than 10 or 12 people. I like to have control.”
Her staff also enjoy the small scale of the business, with the all-female employees ranging in age from 17 to 64, many of whom are local moms working part-time. The equipment is small scale – they use one 20 quart mixer, and the only real machinery is a sheet roller that ensures a consistent thickness to the cookie dough. During our visit with Knaup in the shop, the ladies working in the back sound like they’re having a wonderful time, laughing and talking as they pipe royal icing and add sprinkles to the thousands of cookies they’re creating.
A beautiful (and delicious) cookie is a thing of joy – a delight to give, or receive. At Christmas, when cookies, and especially gingerbread cookies, play such an important role in creating fond memories of the season, a visit to Mad Batter Bakers should be on everybody’s list. And while we may be inclined to save the lovely treats Knaup and her staff create, it’s okay to eat their delicious creations. There’s always more where those ones came from. Just head to Liberty Village, wait for the gingerbread smell to come wafting by and follow your nose.
Mad Batter Bakers will be taking part in the One of a Kind Show at the Direct Energy Centre from November 27th to December 7th. Their products can also be found at Pusateri’s.