Islander’s lifelong love of baking leads to sweet career
Her kitchen smells like warm ginger, vanilla and buttery dough baking in an old-fashioned oven.
A menagerie of cookies shaped like angels, Santas, candy canes, stars, bells and reindeer are cooling on racks while islander Susie Sanclemente prepares for the most artistic aspect of her occupation: adding personality to her creations with icing and colorful decorations.
Christmas is the busiest time of the year in her Galveston kitchen. Sanclemente will make and decorate more than 50 dozen brightly trimmed delicacies.
For Sanclemente, 69, cookies are more than a cottage industry, they’re a decades-old passion.
“I’ve been baking for as long as I can remember,” she said.
“My maternal grandmother, who we called Big Mama, always had her pantry stocked with everything for baking. I would sneak out of bed early on Saturday mornings knowing I had the freedom to bake whatever I wanted. She wouldn’t get up until the aroma of something freshly baked was in the air. Then she would say, ‘Oh my, Susie, what have you made us this time?’”
Sanclemente was born in Fort Worth and attended Keller schools north of the city. She was in Girl Scouts and the 4-H club and took homemaking all four years of high school.
“When the occasion called for it, I baked cookies for school and church activities, but nothing like the ones I make now,” she said.
Creating whimsical cookies is her sweetest career, but Sanclemente has pursued other vocations along the way. She completed beauty school in 1966 and worked as a hairdresser until 1979. She was married and had three children, and when that marriage ended, she went back to school and earned her Licensed Vocational Nurse certification and later an associate degree in nursing.
When her children were young adults, she met and married Carlos Sanclemente and moved with him to his home in Colombia.
“I started baking cakes and cookies for my husband’s family from the time I arrived there,” she said.
“I was given an old Wilton cake decorating book by a friend, along with muffin tins and baking tools, so I began to make my own cookies.”
Around this time, Sanclemente began collecting cookie cutters, perfecting recipes and experimenting with designs.
She got a job at the Universidad Santiago de Cali teaching English as a Second Language, and to supplement her income, she began selling her elaborate cookie creations.
“In Colombia, they have a holiday where godparents give special treats to their godchildren,” she said.
“On the street corners, vendors sell special decorated candies on a stick. That set me to thinking, and I made decorated cookies on a stick to sell at the market. They became a big hit.”
After 13 years in Colombia, Sanclemente came home to Texas to be with her children and grandchildren.
Initially, she lived in Brenham, where she sold baked goods at the farmers market. When family members moved to Galveston, she came along, setting up shop in a tidy kitchen and selling cookies at the Galveston Island Market and on her Facebook page, Grandma’s Bake Shop.
She now has more than 400 cookie cutters neatly divided into bins for the seasons, holidays and special occasions.
“I have experimented over time in order to improve my product and have come up with a sound recipe that I think is delicious,” she said.
“I always use the same brand of ingredients since this has proven to make a soft, buttery cookie.”
Once, she created her own designs. But Pinterest has helped her to try new patterns, she said. Her favorite cookies are red velvet, white chocolate chip, raisin/oatmeal and peanut butter. She still decorates with royal icing, which is made from powdered sugar and egg whites.
Sanclemente cools, paints and decorates the cookies, lets them dry overnight, and then wraps them individually to keep them fresh.
“I know some people think there’s not much involved in making cookies, but it does take time,” she said. “I roll out the dough between sheets of parchment paper before I freeze it, which makes for a nice cut cookie. The last cookie in a batch is always just as soft as the first cookie because I never add extra flour when rolling.”
Grandma’s Gingerbread Cookies
Recipe originally from Wilton Cake Decorating magazine
1 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1⁄2 cup molasses
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons each ground ginger and cinnamon
1 teaspoon each nutmeg and cloves
5 to 5 1⁄2 cups flour
Cream shortening and sugar together. Add eggs one at a time and molasses, mixing well. Sift together 2 cups of the flour with the salt, soda and spices. Add to the wet ingredients, mixing well. Add and mix the rest of the flour a little at a time. Divide dough into 2 rounds, cover and chill. Roll out between 2 sheets of parchment paper to 1⁄4-inch thick. Put on a tray and freeze overnight.
Heat oven to 350 F. Cut out cookies and place on parchment-lined baking sheets. Bake for 8-10 minutes. Cool 10-15 minutes before moving to cooling racks. Decorate with royal icing.