I’ve always loved them, what I call my special lemon cookies.
Years ago, when the Boston Globe offices were still in Dorchester, I’d buy them at Lambert’s on Morrissey Boulevard and take them to meetings. People were in a better mood when they ate them, and so was I. The cookies are nut-free, so I never had to worry about people’s allergies.
The brand — Toni’s Own — also makes anisette cookies and a bunch of other flavors, but the lemon was always my favorite. It has a perfectly sweet yellow frosting on top of a light cookie that somehow is filling enough to make you feel like you just had a slice of cake.
They were for special days, only, those cookies. But then the pandemic hit. My body craved comfort food, and I knew what worked.
Since March, I have ordered two cartons every two weeks – I get them in my grocery order from Roche Brothers. I’ve been eating a lot healthier since being being at home (no more massive lunches downtown), but I consider the consumption of two Toni’s Own Lemon Burst cookies at night a contribution to my mental health.
A few months — and many, many cookies — into the pandemic, I wanted to express my gratitude and to find out more about the dessert I love so much. I asked for a Zoom call with Toni Khafif, whose business with her husband, Mohamed Khafif, is now based on Oak Street in Peabody. I wanted to know everything. She told me, but I promised not to reveal her secret ingredients. I will say that on the package it says: “flour, sugar, baking powder, shortening, sour cream, and ‘lemon flavoring'.”
Q How did you start your cookie business?
A We started out of my kitchen. My husband had several convenience stores — White Hen Pantries. I was at home with the kids, and one of his stores had a buffet. One time I just decided to make these cookies. They were the anise, a very traditional Christmas, Easter, every-wedding, every-funeral Italian cookie. As I made them, they just kept selling. Then I started making them for his other locations. Then I literally would make them in one of his locations and sell them to the store next door – and they didn’t know it was me. I was like, wow, I think we might be onto something.
Q How did it grow from there?
Somebody came in and ordered like 150 cookies cookies for a graduation party. The only other place they knew that made [the anisette cookies] went out of business. At the time,  sounded like a lot. My husband and I kind of looked at each other. At that time, he had put a key on the register “that said ‘Toni’s own'” for anything I made. We actually went to the location where that [out-of-business] company made their product, which was in East Boston. We had three small children. We refused to go into debt, we had no money, but off of what I was making at that time, we knew we could afford the rent. So we said, well, why not? And I put $2,000 on a credit card because that’s all I had, and we were dead against going to any banks. Not even maybe a month later, I went to Market Basket and Diane Callahan answered the phone; [she] is like the go-to person for bakery in this area. She just knows her stuff. So she said, listen, I’m really busy. If you want to drop off samples, drop them. I dropped off the case at her door, and I didn’t even get to my car yet and they were at my car saying come back in.
Q Was it the same recipe at the time?
A My recipe has not changed. The only thing that’s changed through the years is [that I used to do everything by hand]. That first order for Market Basket literally took me 24 hours with two friends hand-scooping. We would wake up at night and our hands would be killing us. But as I raised and saved enough money, we would go and get a machine. Little by little, we were able to semi-automate. But it’s still my mother’s recipe.
Q Tell me about your mother.
A My mother was born here, but is from heritage Avellino. She’s one of seven. Born and bred in Everett, as was my father. She always made Italian food. Her father passed away when she was 13. Her mother had a stroke when she was in her 20s, so she kind of had to take over that role. She took her recipes and showed us how to make them along the way. I still say to people, I am not a baker. I just got lucky with the home recipe.
Q The lemon cookies are my thing. How did they get started?
A Diane [of Market Basket] said to me, do you sell a lemon cookie? And I said, “Of course I do” – which I did not. And I went home that day and said to my husband, we’re gonna start doing lemon tomorrow.
Q Did you already have a recipe for that icing?
A No, I just kind of made it the next day. The good thing about the cookie is that people love the base of that cookie. It’s soft. So it’s kind of between cake and cookie, and the icing I just change as far as the flavor goes. So I basically almost use the same thing as I did for my anise, but I use 100 percent [redacted – secret ingredient], so I had to change it a little bit, but it was at that point just trial and error.
Q Now it seems like you’re everywhere.
A We’re in every chain in New England other than Wegmans. We [supply] to four chains in New York and New Jersey. That was my goal. I remember in 2007 my father passed away, and I brought my mother to New York City for their anniversary, just to take her mind off of it. And I looked at a billboard and I was like mom, you’re gonna know I made it when that billboard says “Toni’s Own, bite me.” And she’s like, “You wouldn’t!” I was totally joking but I said, “But seriously, I need to get to New York. If I get to New York and people like the cookies, then I have a good anisette cookie because it’s all Italian in New York.”
Meredith Goldstein eats cookies while writing the Love Letters column. She can be reached at Meredith.Goldstein@Globe.com.