The cookie exchange is the party for the way we live — and cook — now. Jam-packed schedules only allow enough time for a batch or two of holiday cookies, so how perfect is it to gather with friends for a few hours and return home with enough cookies to see us through Christmas?
It's surely a sign of the times that three new cookbooks that guide us through hosting and baking for a cookie exchange party have been published this fall. All three include dozens of tips along with cookie recipes, both simple and elaborate.
Be warned, though: Don't go into over-function mode unless you've been invited to a party at Martha Stewart's. Keep your cookies delicious and doable. That's my advice. In the age of refrigerated slice-and-bake cookies, a simple homemade cookie is novel enough, without having to fashion cookies that resemble snow-covered Swiss chalets. For some of us, even a cutout cookie is too much work.
The cookie exchange is a simple concept, except you'll need to do some math. Decide how many cookies guests should go home with and then figure out how many they will need to bring. If eight guests want to tote home six of each kind of cookie, then they should bring 48 cookies. Realistically, everyone should bake more because there will be sampling at the party.
Besides cookies, guests get copies of the recipes. It's a nice touch for them to be e-mailed to the host in advance so she can put together a packet.
The following are party and baking tips culled from the three new books. Though each author puts her own spin on the holiday cookie bacchanalia, they all agree on one thing: The goal of the party is for the host and guests to celebrate the season. It should be fun.
From Cookie Swap! by Lauren Chattman (Workman, 2010, $14.95):
Guests should let the host know what cookies they are bringing so there aren't duplicates.
Make the party about more than cookies and ask guests to bring a new toy for a local toy drive program or sponsor a blanket drive for a homeless shelter.
Set up the swap spot separate from where everyone is gathering and chatting. Have nonsweet snacks and beverages — milk, of course — in the gathering spot.
Let guests mingle for at least 30 minutes before the swapping begins. This lets everyone relax and allows time for stragglers to arrive.
Take photos! Share them via Facebook or other social media sites. Make sure you get pictures of the individual cookies along with the guests having a good time.
Chattman will lead a cookie-baking demonstration class Dec. 9 at Publix's Apron's Cooking School in Tampa. See Page 5E for more information.
From The Cookie Party Cookbook by Robin L. Olson (St. Martin's Griffin, 2010, $18.99):
Make name tags for guests and cookie platter place cards for the table.
Be clear with guests on how many cookies they should bring. As the host, you should expect some no-shows because of sickness or other reasons. Make a few extra types of cookies yourself.
Decide whether you are providing containers or if you will ask your guests to bring them.
Consider prizes for the best decorated cookie platter and have guests vote — secretly, of course — for the best cookie.
Have rules but don't make them so tough that people don't want to come or won't have a good time once they get there. Some exchanges ban chocolate chip cookies and no-bakes because they are more like candy. Decide if you want to be this rigid.
From Very Merry Cookie Party by Barbara Grunes and Virginia Van Vynckt (Chronicle Books, 2010, $19.95):
Sturdy cookies can be made into tree ornaments by making a hole at the top before baking. After they are done, thread a piece of ribbon through the loop. This makes a different offering on the swap table.
As a guest, you'll want to put your best cookie forward. Take care, and time, to do your very best in the kitchen.
If you e-mail invitations, make sure you hear back from everyone, even if that means a followup call. You'll feel badly if someone doesn't get the invitation because her computer was down or it went into the spam folder.
Your guests like to eat cookies but aren't big bakers? Use store-bought cookie dough as the theme and encourage everyone to decorate or doctor them. For example, basic sugar cookie dough can become White Chocolate Macaroons with the addition of white chocolate chips and shredded coconut.
Consider asking your guests to share the stories behind the cookies. Some might be touching family tales and others might be a funny account of how the cookies were made.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.