They are the Rachael Rays and Paula Deens of the neighborhood, culinary superstars who hand out homemade treats stashed in their pocketbooks and consider the act of making cake from a box to be sacrilege.

Josephine Bruno, 85, of Plymouth Meeting, fits the profile.

"I guess I'll make about seven or eight batches of pizzelles" - 500 of the waffle cookies, Bruno said nonchalantly before a pizzelle-making marathon in her kitchen Sunday. "I'll have a couple of irons going."

Bruno and cooks like her are part of a group so beloved for their know-how that food historian William Woys Weaver calls them folk artists. They have become such mainstays in their communities that during the holidays, their lives can turn into a baking, icing, butter-creaming frenzy.

"These are the generals, the linchpins, the creative people that make sure things happen," said Weaver, author of 15 books. They have learned from relatives, cookbooks, and trial and error. They cook in basement kitchens, in the wee hours, and often, for whoever asks.

Nancy Quinn, 81, of West Chester, will make about 500 holiday cookies - 10 varieties - including one her mother named after a Revolutionary War general.

Alberta "the Cake Lady" Johnson, 84, of Willingboro, is in the midst of baking 30 cakes this month in what she describes as a calling and a "ministry."

"It just lets people know that you care," said Johnson, who learned the basics from cookbooks as a military wife stationed with her husband in Japan.

Johnson has delivered her banana nut cakes in the rain and mailed cakes to relatives stationed in Iraq. Bruno's fans are more local. Her pastor, Msgr. Charles Sangermano of Holy Saviour Parish in Norristown, can't get enough of her stuffed olives.

On Sunday, Bruno poured batter into two pizzelle irons, with her daughter-in-law Mary Ann Bruno, 59, and sister Dolly Braccischi, 82, pitching in to help. The licorice smell of the anise-flavored Italian cookies filled the house.

Bruno will give them to her hairdresser, her pastor, and a bunch of others. She says she was inspired to cook by her mother. Quinn says her own mother was also an inspiration, especially at Christmas.

"Can you imagine having seven children who got up at 5 a.m. to open presents? Then she'd make breakfast. We'd go to church and come home. She'd take a nap and then get up and prepare a buffet for 20 people."

Quinn, herself a mother of seven, has taken some of her mother's recipes and collaborated with her sister to create a cookbook of 800 family recipes.

"I think tradition matters in food and holidays," said Quinn, who baked cookies on Wednesday with her husband of 60 years, William. "Food draws people in."

A county away, the Yardley kitchen of Amy Winston offers proof of the power of food in a different kind of Wednesday gathering.

Winston, a stay-at-home mother and volunteer coordinator, hosted nine children and seven mothers in her kitchen for what friend and master home cook Jane Cohen describes as an ongoing mitzvah (Hebrew for "good deed"). The two women, who are Jewish, led a group that packed homemade meals and baked cookies for Aid for Friends, a charitable group that supplies food for senior citizens and shut-ins.

Winston organized the party to help fill a shortage of meals she suspected would hit between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Cohen often contributes a main course for volunteers to eat when they gather to pack the food.

Cohen, who re-creates dishes she eats in restaurants and has started a children's cooking program, has a dessert phobia. If she's asked to bring it, dinner guests will be eating fruit.

But baking the sweet stuff is the specialty of Verline Still and Lillie Gorham. Every Sunday, the hungry members of Grace Temple Baptist Church in Lawnside crowd around Still because they know she's packing treats.

They tap her on the shoulder, and Still, 84, reaches into her handbag and gives out zipper-locked bags of lemon bars, bread pudding squares, or cookies.

Some impatient fans even settle for Still's homemade cookie dough. The retired insurance supervisor always has a few batches in the freezer.

Gorham, of West Philadelphia, gets so busy baking cakes and cookies that the retired nutrition instructor sometimes cooks past midnight. She once fell asleep and dozed while rum cakes burned.

"Now, I set an alarm clock," Gorham said.

Gorham's sister and some of her former students, now in their 40s and 50s, help out in the basement, where Gorham has a second kitchen. But don't expect any frosting flourishes or sugar-spun designs.

"I don't do decorations. You have to go to the bakery for that," Gorham said. "I make the kind of cakes you just want to sit down and eat."

Contact staff writer Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@philly news.com.