Jehosephat, it’s Christmas! II

As Christmas comes hurtling toward us, I’m getting geared up for baking and cooking and baking and cooking. Also, some baking, and then some baking.

I bake sandwich breads and sweet almond bread and cinnamon rolls. I make caramel corn and Chex mix. I make dips and paté and savory jams to take to parties and family gatherings. I make butterscotch sauce with bourbon or brandy. I make brittle (peanut brittle, natch, but last year I also tested out chili-spiced pumpkin seed brittle and a garnet-colored Shiraz and almond brittle) and chocolate-covered almond toffee.

And then there are cookies.

Every year, I envision giving friends and families beautiful platters all kinds of cookies and sweets… and every year, I end up making one giant batch of biscotti and calling it good, and then I daydream about next year, when I’ll surely make chocolate sandwich cookies and jam thumbprints and frosted sugar cookies and shortbread and and and…

If you, like me, dream of a giant platter with a half-dozen kinds of cookies but always run out of time and patience, consider a cookie swap as a way to amass a cache of cookies without all the planning and the work and the cursing oh the cursing. (… or is that just me?)

What exactly is a cookie swap? It’s just what it sounds like: each person bakes a big batch of one kind of cookie, then you all get together and swap cookies. Doesn’t get simpler than that, does it? You can make it as small or large as you want, just remember that size matters. If you have a dozen participants, each will end up with a dozen kinds of cookie; three participants, three kinds of cookies.

A recent discussion over at The Kitchn reminded me that different people have different goals for cookie swaps. For some, it’s a competitive event or a foodie’s chance to shine; for some, it’s all about collecting as many fancy-pants cookies as possible.

For me, a cookie swap means relaxing, getting together with friends, and taking a little holiday pressure off each other’s shoulders. That’s why I only do cookie swaps with my closest, most relaxed friends, and I make sure we all have similar expectations. It’s also a great idea to propose a cookie swap as an alternative to exchanging gifts, not as an additional responsibility. This way, all the participants cross off one more item on their Christmas list and head home with all their cookie-making done!

So, on to the how-to. Hosting a cookie swap is easy enough, but here are some ideas to guarantee a successful swap! My cookie-swap motto: it needn’t be fancy!

The cookies:

My friends and I choose categories, but not specific recipes. Someone might volunteer to bring a nut cookie, a sugar cookie or shortbread, a chocolate cookie, a mix-in cookie (like chocolate chip or M&M cookies), a fruit cookie, a jam cookie, whatever. That way, we avoid overlaps but keep our freedom to exercise our whims.

– It’s nice (though not necessary) if each contributor writes or prints up a simple label for their cookies, and makes enough copies so every participant can take home a copy. It needn’t be fancy; this is just a simpl way to keep track of what you’re collecting and avoid allergic or dietary problems. The bigger the swap, the more helpful this is.

Encourage your guests to bring tins or Tupperware to pack up their plunder, but it’s also a good idea to have some packaging on hand to give away, just in case. Some cheap or free packaging possibilities:

– I always scrub and save any disposable (and ideally free) packaging that comes with groceries or take-out: plastic clamshells, the plasticky biodegradable takeout containers from the fancy market, aluminum trays from baked goods, salad bar clamshells, whatever.

– Parchment paper! Lining the takeout containers with parchment gives the cookies a little cushioning for transit.

– But there’s nothing wrong with just providing heavy-duty paper plates and plastic wrap or foil.

– have some extra Ziploc bags or a new roll of foil on hand, just in case.

A cookie swap can be as utilitarian as you want, but for me it’s a chance to kick off my shoes and steal a few hours with friends in a hectic season. Cookies are a great excuse to have a happy evening with your bestest friends, so you might as well treat it like a party! Some ideas:

– if space allows, set up the cookie-swap table away from the main seating area. That way, people can circulate around it more freely.

– I like to offer wine, beer, chilled water, and at least two nice non-alcoholic drinks. Ginger beer and juice spritzers are favorites around here; neither is too too sweet.

– Be sure to offer a few savory nibbles; everyone has been eating cookies before and during the party! Something simple and salty is good, like pretzels or crackers with a nice dip*, or a dish of homemade hummus and crudités, or a cheese and fruit tray with bread or crackers. Anything savory will be a hit.

– Without much extra work, you could make it a dinner party. Nothing fussy or fancy: try serving a big crockpot of chili or soup and a pan of cornbread. (If you don’t have enough bowls for a crowd, serve the chili in coffee mugs or ramekins.) Then everyone is sent home with a full belly and a lot of cookies! Well-fed guests are less likely to eat up the entire cookie buffet, which is a bonus.

And I can’t say it enough: it needn’t be fancy. That goes for the invitation to the swap, for the cookie packaging, for the food you serve, and for the cookies themselves. Sometimes, friends who aren’t terribly at home it the kitchen get a little intimidated at the prospect of making dozens of cookies. Remind them that they could whip up two batches of Tollhouse cookies, or make four-ingredient shortbread, or whatever. The simplest cookies are delicious and beloved.

Remember, this is supposed to be relaxxxxxxxxing, so only good friends, only real friends, only the hair-down, shoes-off kind of friends get asked to participate. We get enough holiday stress out in the world; no need to invite it into your home and feed it cookies!

This post is an adaptation of a comment from a post on The Alchemist, Cookie Exchange, and Holiday Expectations, for which Alchemy Gen awarded me the great moveable-type cookie-cutter set seen above.

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