ON THE JOB: Baking up a batch of Irish tradition

SANDUSKY Behind every batch of cookies and muffins is Susan Gibson. Rising before daw
Annie Zelm
May 24, 2010



Behind every batch of cookies and muffins is Susan Gibson.

Rising before dawn, she's filling aluminum pans with a sour-cream-based batter while sipping from large cup of coffee.

She adds fruit preserves to each pan, creating her own flavors like "ripe raspberry," "sour lemon" or "golden peach."

Today, she adds an orange-colored preserve to make "awesome apricot" and finishes with a layer of cream cheese icing.

"It's a beautiful batter -- easy to work with," she said, her voice carrying traces of an Irish accent as she works quickly across the table inside The Occasional Cookie and More, 1220 Hayes Ave.

The bakery opened in March 2006 after sisters Patti Rausch, 52, and Ginger Cusano, 58, purchased recipes from former bakery owners Ruth and George Smith.

Susan, 48, entered the mix as a long-time family friend -- "practically one of the sisters," she says.

The Ireland native moved to the United States with her two children 18 years ago, seeking a fresh start after a rocky relationship with her former husband. She knew no one except for Patti -- her grade-school pen pal with whom she maintained contact for decades.

Susan moved in with Patti and brought with her a collection of Irish recipes, ranging from Guinness bread and shamrock cookies to Irish whiskey cake.

"I remember baking with my grandmother as a child every Saturday, watching her mix up all that bread batter and making cakes," she said. "I still do some of her old recipes."

While Susan stays near the ovens and the 30-quart Hobart mixer -- the machine that churns out nearly every element of the bakery's offerings -- Patti takes charge of decorating, and Ginger serves customers at the front counter.

Susan measures out each portion of dough with an ice cream scoop, but keeps a close eye on each batch because certain factors -- especially the weather -- can have an undesirable effect on the outcome.

"We're our own worst critics," she said. "Things that look delicious to most people make us cringe because they're too flat or not quite right."

Baked goods that don't get the gals' stamp of approval are donated to Victory Kitchen. All others are packed into boxes and delivered throughout the community.

"For a small bakery, we really do a lot of work," Patti said. "The cookies sell so darn fast, we can't keep up with them, and everything we do is by hand."

Patti, who also works in the emergency room at Firelands Regional Medical Center, recalled baking and packaging 1,200 star-shaped cookies for the hospital's Grand Gala event and staying as late at 11 p.m. on some days to finish an order -- only to return at 5 a.m. the next day.

"You can get a bit frazzled sometimes," said Susan, who admits she's been known to break into bouts of Irish dancing and singing at times to break the monotony. "It's a tight spot, and I'm very territorial -- but it's just as well ... we're all friends."