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  • Writer's pictureellencdonker

MAKE THE HOLIDAYS SWEETER by Karen Donovan

How to host a successful cookie exchange


I love cookies. I love baking them, and I love eating them. But mostly I enjoy spreading “cookie love” by baking them for others to enjoy. The ego boost when someone takes a bite and swoons over something I’ve baked is like no other.

One thing I love even more than cookies is the holidays: parties, concerts, decorations, family, friends, presents, Hallmark movies, indulgent food, decadent desserts. What’s not to love?

When I first heard about cookie exchanges, my heart skipped a beat. Here were parties that combined two of my favorite things: the holidays and cookies.


A cookie exchange is when a group of friends, family members, colleagues or neighbors get together and bring cookies to share. You can have every person bring enough cookies so everyone at the party can enjoy one or two of each type, or you can have everyone make a set amount so that attendees can go home with samples of each.


My first cookie exchange was years ago with the Newcomers Club. Each of us submitted a recipe ahead of time and showed up with six dozen cookies. We must have returned home with only a few of each, because 28 people attended, but we had an amazing variety of cookies to try. I still have that “book” of recipes, and although I haven’t made any of them lately, it’s fun to read through them, remember the evening and marvel that so many of the attendees are still friends so many years later.


I got inspired to have my own cookie exchange after finding Robin L. Olson’s website and her Cookie Party Cookbook. Olson’s words of wisdom gave me the confidence to email that first invitation. I change the words of a Christmas carol to tell people the “when and where” details and the number of cookies to bake – usually six dozen.


When I get flack from people who say they cannot imagine baking “that many cookies,” I remind myself that not everyone buys 25-pound bags of flour and has 40 pounds of butter in their freezer. I advise the complainers to make cookies that are small so their batter goes further.

Because a cookie swap is not just a cocktail party, I devise cookie-themed activities. It’s fun to make up a few games, such as asking people to name the ingredients in gingerbread cookies or unscrambling the names of classic cookies.


I like to have people vote for their favorite cookie; because nobody has sampled all of them yet, the prettiest cookie usually wins. Presentation does matter.


With games come prizes. I favor things that are inexpensive and cute yet useful, such as miniature spatulas, cookie cutters, holiday sprinkles and candies.


As guests arrive, they add their cookies to my empty dining room table, and it gets transformed into the most amazing dessert buffet. With my guests’ hands free of cookies, the priority becomes nibbles, beverages (I’m a sucker for a signature cocktail) and games. If anyone has a story involved with their cookie, I ask them to share it.


I had a friend who attended for the first time last year and was crushed because she chose a cookie for sentimental reasons (her mom used to make the recipe every Christmas), while some other guests chose a recipe simply because it looked easy.


Once everyone is settled in, it’s time to “swap” by walking around the table with a container (I remind people to bring one with them) and taking some of each cookie. If cookies are left after the first round, a second trip is in order.


Some people who throw cookie parties have rules about what is acceptable to bake. They might ban chocolate chips, for example. But I feel that if people are going to the trouble to bake for you, don’t make their job harder. Just appreciate their effort. I do insist that cookies be labeled for people who have food sensitivities and dietary restrictions.


A useful tip: Do not leave the baking to the last minute. Things happen. I have one friend who has had “oven issues” over the years. As her kids got older and she had fewer distractions, things improved, but during those early years her offerings were sometimes sparse and on the crispy side.


Another friend, who was new to this country and had never heard of cookie exchanges, underestimated how long baking so many treats would take. We were ready to swap when she flew in the door with three half sheet pans filled with warm, uncut brownies that were stuck to the metal. I’m not going to say that I wasn’t annoyed to have to go back in the kitchen and scrape her brownies out of the pans.


I took a breath then, and I remembered that cookie exchanges are as much about enjoying the moment with people you care about as they are about stocking your cookie jar.


Karen Donovan worked for 18 years at the Kings Cooking Studio honing her cooking, baking, and dishwashing skills (somebody has to clean up after class). She is planning this year’s cookie exchange and hunting for a good sale on butter.


Fudgy Red Velvet Crinkle Cookies

Makes 20 cookies. Adapted from Sarah Kieffer’s Vanilla Bean Blog

Ingredients

1½ cups (213 grams) all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/8 teaspoon baking soda

¾ cup (150g) plus 4 tablespoons granulated sugar

½ cup (100g) light brown sugar

2 large eggs plus 2 egg yolks at room temperature

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 tablespoon red velvet bakery emulsion (available on amazon.com) or red food coloring

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

½ teaspoon salt

¼ cup (57g) unsalted butter

3 ounces (85g) semisweet or bittersweet chocolate

¼ cup (25g) cocoa powder

1/3 cup (35g) confectioners’ sugar


Instructions
  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line three sheet pans with parchment paper.

  2. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and baking soda.

  3. In a large bowl, whisk together ¾ cup (150 grams) of the granulated sugar, the brown sugar, eggs, egg yolks, canola oil, red velvet bakery emulsion, vanilla and salt.

  4. Melt the butter and chocolate in a small, heavy-bottom saucepan over low heat, stirring frequently to prevent scorching. When the mixture is smooth, remove it from the heat. Add the cocoa powder to the chocolate and whisk until completely combined, about 45 seconds (the mixture will be thick).

  5. Add the warm chocolate-butter mixture to the egg mixture and whisk together until combined. Add the flour mixture and gently combine. Cover the dough and chill it for at least six hours or overnight.

  6. In a small bowl, combine the confectioners’ sugar and the remaining 3 tablespoons of granulated sugar. Use a cookie scoop to divide the dough into 1½-tablespoon portions, and roll the dough in the sugar mixture. Place cookies on sheet pans and bake one pan at a time, rotating halfway through baking. Bake until the edges are set and the cookies are puffed but still soft in the center, 12 to 14 minutes. Move the sheet pans to a wire rack and let the cookies cool to room temperature. Cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to three days.

Pinwheel Cookies

Makes 48 cookies. Adapted from preppykitchen.com.

Ingredients

3⅓ cup (400 grams) all-purpose flour

1½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup (227g) unsalted butter

1 cup (200g) granulated sugar

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 ounces (56g) unsweetened chocolate, chopped


Instructions
  1. Bring to a boil a small pot filled with 2 inches of water. Reduce heat to low. Place the chopped chocolate in a heatproof bowl and set over the pot, making sure the bowl doesn’t touch the water.

  2. Stir until chocolate is fully melted. Turn off heat and remove the bowl from the pot.

  3. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt.

  4. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about three minutes.

  5. With the mixer on low, add the eggs, one at a time, until fully incorporated, scraping down the sides as needed. Beat in the vanilla.

  6. Slowly add flour mixture and mix until fully incorporated. Divide the dough in half, leaving one half in the mixing bowl.

  7. With the mixer on low, add the melted chocolate to the dough left in the bowl; mix until fully incorporated.

  8. Place the chocolate dough and the plain one on separate sheets of parchment paper and press into a half-inch-thick square. Place another piece of parchment on top of each dough and roll out dough into 13-inch by 9-inch rectangles. Refrigerate the dough until firm but pliable, about 30 minutes (if dough becomes too firm, let it rest at room temperature until it becomes pliable).

  9. Remove the top piece of parchment from each dough rectangle. Flip the chocolate dough on top of the plain dough, line up the edges and remove the remaining parchment piece.

  10. Starting from one long side, roll the dough up, jelly roll-style, using the bottom parchment as a guide. Tightly cover the dough roll in plastic wrap and twist the ends until tight (this gently presses the dough together and gets rid of any air pockets still inside the log). Refrigerate for at least two hours until firm.

  11. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Unroll the chilled dough and trim the edges, making a 12-inch-long log. Using a sharp knife, slice half of the log into 24 cookies about ¼-inch thick. Wrap remaining dough and refrigerate until ready to use. Place cookies 1½ inches apart on the prepared baking sheets.

  12. Bake for seven to eight minutes or until the edges just start to brown. Let the cookies cool for two minutes and then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Repeat the process with the remaining dough.


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