Jennifer Brooks
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Steven NaSalle remembers what it was like to be deployed to a war zone, half a world away from home at the holidays.

He remembers the care packages that arrived, with Christmas inside.

“It just gives you a warm feeling, knowing someone’s thinking and caring about you,” said NaSalle, an Air Force and Gulf War veteran, who serves as commander of American Legion Post 57 in Chaska. “It makes your day.”

So a veteran from Chaska joined forces with an immigrant baker from Plymouth and a bakery in Rush City. Together, they hope to send a taste of the holidays to some of the estimated 200,000 Americans serving overseas right now. A sweet reminder that someone in Minnesota is thinking of them.

Operation: Cakes for Troops 2019 wants to send Hiltrud Steimel’s cakes around the world.

“A sweet greeting from Minnesota,” said Steimel, who grew up “a child of the war” in the rubble of postwar Germany, grateful to the American soldiers who held the Soviet troops at bay.

She remembers those first hard Christmases in America in the 1960s, an ocean away from family, tearing into care packages from home.

“I missed my family, I missed my parents, I missed my grandparents’ baking,” she said.

Mailing comfort and joy to others this holiday “was something I really wanted to do,” she said.

Her cakes are a classic German Gugelhupf. She followed her great-grandmother’s recipe for the rich Bundt-style cake she knew from experience would travel well. She sent these cakes to the troops a dozen years ago.

Back in 2007, Steimel raised enough donations to send 500 cakes overseas. In return, she received photos of soldiers, grinning and showing off their sugar-dusted cakes like treasures.

This year, when she decided to try it again, she teamed with the Chaska American Legion and Rush City Bakery, hoping to raise enough donations to send even more cakes out into the world. Maybe 750 cakes this time. Maybe 1,000.

Gugelhupf is a traditional holiday cake and Steimel wanted the troops to get the real thing, baked in authentic German cake forms. Rush City Bakery owners John and Rebecca Bourgeois spent hours online, Steimel said, searching for Gugelhupf pans.

She made a few tweaks to the recipe — she left out the hazelnuts to accommodate nut allergies — but the bakery will be making the cakes with the same sweet cream, fresh eggs and mounds of raisins Steimel chose for her own family. She also sells the cakes through her Rhineland Cake and Wine Co., labeled as “My Daughter’s Favorite Cake.”

When her daughter went off to college, this was the cake Steimel packed into care packages for her.

Hundreds of orders have come in so far for the $40 cakes, NaSalle said. Some are from families, sending a cake to a son, daughter or spouse. Some donate to surprise a stranger. They’re sending them to bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, Asia, Africa. If it has a military post office, it could get a cake.

But they need those orders early. To guarantee a cake by Christmas, the Gugelhupf need to hit the road by Dec. 10 or 11. Which means donations need to be in before Dec. 3 to the Operation Cake site: rhinelandcakeandwine.com/troops.

A portion of the donations will come back to Chaska to help veterans going through hard times closer to home, NaSalle said. Legion programs help veterans with everything from a tank of gas for travel to a job interview to a scholarship to get their kids to college.

A cake might seem like a small gesture to thank troops who are heading into our 18th Christmas at war. But there’s no such thing as small kindness. There’s just kindness.

Once a month, NaSalle gets a note in the mail, in a child’s handwriting.

Youngsters from his church, St. Hubert’s, send monthly cards to disabled veterans in the community. Happy, chatty letters, filled with stories about what they’re learning at school or how their team did at the big game that week.

NaSalle writes back to each and every one of them.

Like a cake in a care package, it’s a sweet reminder that none of us is as alone as we sometimes feel.

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com • 612-673-4008