Mrs. Hanes' Hand-Made Moravian Cookies Keeps a Beloved Baking Legacy Alive
The air smells of sugar and spice and everything nice. There are Christmas decorations on display, gifts ready for giving, and busy people scurrying around in perpetual preparation for the holidays. No, this isn't Santa's workshop at the North Pole; this is the bakery that produces Mrs. Hanes' Hand-Made Moravian Cookies in Clemmons, North Carolina. And, yes, there is a real Mrs. Hanes.
Evva Hanes along with her husband, Travis; their adult children Ramona and Mike; their grandson Jedidiah; and the employees they call their "cookie family" produce incredible Moravian cookies. These crunchy treats are often described as the world's thinnest cookies. Each one is about the thickness of a postcard, full of flavor, and not too sweet. That makes it easy (perhaps too easy) to scarf down a handful at a time, several times a day, especially during the holiday season.
German-speaking Moravian settlers, known for their baking prowess, brought their centuries-old dessert recipe with them when they immigrated to central North Carolina in the 1700s. The recipe itself isn't all that unusual and can be found in a number of cookbooks. What sets Moravian cookies apart is the technique for rolling the dough as thin as possible, which Evva believes can be done only by hand. Every cookie that leaves their bakery is rolled, cut, and packaged by hand, which is why she's willing to put her name and photo on every bag and tin to distinguish them from other manufacturers of these same confections.
Ginger spice is the most well-known flavor, but Mrs. Hanes' treats also come in sugar, butterscotch, lemon, chocolate, and black walnut. The sugar cookies, made from a secret family recipe that's been handed down for nine generations, are similar to traditional tea cakes. The distinctive taste of black walnut is popular with North Carolinians and other Southerners who grew up eating these nuts and remember them with nostalgia. When asked to name her favorite, Evva replies, "Every flavor is special, an honest-to-goodness, old-fashioned cookie."
The sugar cookies launched the family business more than 100 years ago when Evva's mother, Bertha Crouch Foltz, baked them at home and sold them to supplement the income from their small dairy farm. Bertha was renowned for her ability to roll the dough thinner than any other baker in the area. Evva started helping at age 5 and worked alongside her mother until she and Travis took over the business in 1960.
They built a small bakery near their house when the operation outgrew their home kitchen. After seven more expansions, it now occupies 36,000 square feet, but they can still go out a back door, climb a set of wooden steps, and walk home. Inside the bakery is a re-creation of Bertha's kitchen, right down to her Adam Karr woodstove and the wooden table where she rolled each batch, a tribute to the origin and history of their thriving business.
The starting point for every cookie is the mixing room, where three workers load fresh ingredients into a giant mixer that stirs 700 pounds of dense, heavy dough at a time. They then scoop the dough into large storage containers that are too heavy to carry, so Travis repurposed a huge wooden spool that once held electrical wire, adding a stainless steel top and casters so the containers can be wheeled through the space. His resourceful innovations, which are used all over the bakery, are the result of what he likes to call "barnyard engineering."
The next stop is the rolling and cutting room, where the magic happens. Thirty women (only three men have done this job in all the years) stand at individual workstations that resemble drafting tables with angled surfaces each worker can adjust to her liking. The surface is covered with cloth that's pulled taut and tacked in place along the edges, creating a smooth canvas for rolling the dough with wooden pins and stamping out paper-thin cookies. The canvas reduces the need for bench flour and absorbs excess shortening from the dough, which makes them even crisper when they bake. The workers must replace their canvas every three days or so, a task done by hand with the same expertise and finesse used to roll the cookies, a skill that takes weeks to learn. No wonder each finished package includes the tagline: "Hand Made by Artists in Aprons."
Over the years, especially as demand has soared, the family has experimented with machine-rolled cookies (the process used by their competitors), but Evva says that a mechanized process would "detract from how my cookies are supposed to taste. Because we make them by hand, we've never had to change our recipes. Our customers want everything exactly the same. So do we."
Most Moravian cookies are cut into scalloped rounds, though they also make seasonal Christmas trees, bells, and hearts. Each person in the rolling room has her own miniature cutter in a signature shape that she uses to stamp out one tiny cookie that identifies each of her trays. In the unlikely event that something goes awry, perhaps treats that bubble or are a bit uneven, the tiny marker will identify that baker, who can then take quick corrective action. It's simple, edible quality control. The tiny mismatched wafers are bagged and sold at a discount in the lobby. They also play a special role in bakery tours.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 5,000 children visited the facility each year, a community service so important to the Hanes family that they designed the bakery to include window walls for viewing and put strips of brightly colored tape down the wide hallways to remind curious, exuberant children to stay in line and not wander off. Each stop on the tour includes a short lesson in weights, measurements, currency, or basic arithmetic. At the end of every lesson, the guide hands each child one of the tiny cookies from the cutting room, so by the time the visit is over, each one has nibbled every flavor yet no one has had too many sweets. They hope to resume bakery tours in 2021.
The business has 90,000 mail-order customers now, most of whom are seeking cookies for the holidays. Ramona Hanes Templin, Evva and Travis' daughter, says, "From Halloween through the end of the year is one continuous workday." She says it with a smile, but it's true that about 70% of their annual production is sold during about an eight-week window. Storage rooms stacked to the rafters with shipping boxes filled with hand-packed cookies soon empty out as orders pour in. As Travis puts it, "We bake all we can and then sell all we've got."
Many North Carolina families cannot imagine a holiday season that doesn't include giving and receiving Mrs. Hanes' cookies as gifts, serving them at get-togethers, and devouring as many as possible from Thanksgiving all the way through to the New Year. Lifting the lid off a tin of these treats—which often happens on the drive home or on the walk back from the mailbox—is a sign that this year's celebrations are underway. Even Oprah Winfrey counts on them. She named them one of her Favorite Things in 2010, saying, "It wouldn't be Christmas if my pal Quincy Jones didn't send me these wafers."
They also sell cookies at the bakery, so placing and picking up holiday orders in person is an annual ritual for some local customers, as are the treats themselves. Between the cars and delivery trucks zipping in and out, things get so busy during peak season that local law enforcement must direct traffic along the two-lane country roads that lead to the store. Before social distancing, the bustling parking lot had an air of a family reunion, with the same customers gathering and catching up year after year, hugging necks and shaking hands. "We don't make customers; we make friends who like to buy our cookies," says Travis.
The bakery ships its cookies worldwide. Prices start at $24 for two tubes; hanescookies.com.