Last night, we saw the first snow of the season fall here in Chicago. The flakes were fat and fluffy, the kind that stick to your nose and are big enough that you can see the ice crystals as they melt on your hand. And as soon as I walked into the house, all I could think was, “How many cookie tins did I get this year – and is there enough for everyone in the family?”
And that thought was quickly followed by, “Holy carp, how am I going to find the time to bake at least 50 dozen cookies?!?!”
See, giving sweets during the holidays has long been a family tradition for us. But with expanding the business – and all the shopping, wrapping, decorating and travel we do this time of year - the thing I’m putting on my holiday wish list is “more time.”
I know you wish you had more time, too. So try this: This year, David and I are planning to “gift” ourselves some time – and have some fun – by hosting a cookie swap party. It’s easy (I swear) and takes very little preparation. And you can have a great reason to your friends and family together for a fun gathering – and leave yourself (and them) with enough baked goodies to keep you covered for the holidays.
Here’s what you do:
Figure out the guest list
Invite a group of friends and family who you think would be interested. Small groups of four or five work – and so can big groups of 20 people or more. Personally, I think 10 to 12 is ideal. When you send out the invitation, ask each guest or family to bring at least 5 dozen of his or her favorite holiday cookies or treats, and – if they’re homemade - to send you the recipe ahead of time.
Pick the date
You’re going to want to host this baking shindig close enough to the holidays so the cookies won’t go stale. But you don’t want it so late, that if the treats need to be mailed out, they’ll arrive in time.
For Hanukkah this year, you might host a cookie swap toward the end of November. For Christmas, I’m thinking of hosting ours the second week of December. And be sure to give your guests at least a couple weeks to prepare, so that they’re not feeling stressed out by the baking request. “Hey! I need you to whip up 5 dozen cookies by tomorrow!” is not the kind of thing you should drop on someone at the last minute.
Figure out what everyone’s bringing
Be clear with your guests on what to do. Seriously. Make it dummy-proof for them. What does that mean? Make sure they know how many cookies to bring, when they need to RSVP, when they need to send in their recipe, etc.
The reason you need the recipe? Partly, it’s to be able to finish up the recipe cards everyone can take home with them. And partly, so you can make sure that everyone’s not bringing the same type of cookie. (I hosted one of these years ago. Invited 15 people over. Ended up with a table full of chocolate chip cookies.)
I know that many people feel strongly that cookie-exchanges should be only for a) cookies and b) cookies made from scratch. But not everyone can bake. Personally, I think that if the idea of baking turns your stomach, then it's fine to support a small local bakery and buy plain sugar cookies from them.
Then, you can take them home - and then make up a batch of Royal Icing and decorate the cookies yourself.
Besides, decorating can be the most fun - especially when you're sharing the experience with your kids or grand-kids. We routinely use our cocktail rim sugars - such as our Metallic Gold, Metallic Silver, Christmas Blend and Candy Cane flavored rimming sugars - to add sparkle to our holiday cookie swap.
My favorite trick right now, as you can see in the photo above: Using our Kettle Corn popcorn seasoning - the ones with the mini candy canes, mini snowflake candies and the mini Christmas tree candies - to add a sweet festive touch to our holiday cookie decorations.
If you are going to have children to your party, be sure to have a kids-friendly cookie-decorating station: a low table with plain sugar cookies and a bunch of icings, candies, and sprinkles for them to use. Kids love this!
Let your guests be flexible with their sweet options
I think mixing up a holiday “cookie” gift box with slices of fruit bread – or homemade chocolate truffles – is awesome. Not everyone agrees - it's just my two cents.
Here are the general “rules” I tell people to follow – adjust them as you like!
- The cookies – or treats – should be tasty.
- The cookies – or treats – should be able to last several days after baking
- Please don’t bring burnt cookies
- Please bring your own tins (unless you - the host or hostess - want to supply everyone with empty tins or charming treat boxes)
Prep your party!
On your largest table, put out festive bowls and platters to hold each of your guests’ party treats. Be sure you also put out tongs for each platter, so your guests can make their selections without touching the cookies with their hands.
In front of each bowl or platter, put up a little place card with the name of the treat and who brought it.
Want to include a recipe card for guests to take with them? Print out our free blank holiday recipe cards, print them, cut them out – and fill them in!
Bring on the food and drink!
While the cookies are meant to be taken home, there is going to be plenty of "testing" during the party. (Or is that just me who actually eats the cookies during a cookie exchange?!?)
Given the sugar-loading, though, you might think about making sure you have some savory foods available, too, like a platter of dips, cheeses and olives. For beverages, you can offer hot tea and coffee - or even a fun holiday punch, such as the recipe we posted for Autumn Apple Sangria.
Time to get baking...
Want an easy, elegant holiday cookie recipe? This is in my go-to list. I found the recipe originally in Food & Wine, but I thought the ginger flavor was a little too overwhelming. So I tweaked it a bit and the results - I think - are really lovely. This recipe is also available in your free recipe card download!
Ginger-Kissed Sugar Cookies (recipe adapted from Kevin Sbraga of Top Chef fame)
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
2 cups all-purpose flour
Salt (just a pinch)
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1/4 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
DCS's cocktail rim sugars
DCS's Kettle Corn popcorn seasoning with holiday candies
Beat butter with flour and salt in mixer until smooth. Add confectioners' sugar, ginger, vanilla and orange zest and beat at low speed until smooth. Divide dough in half and shape into 2 disks. Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 350° and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Roll out the dough to 1/4 inch thick on lightly floured surface. Using cookie cutters or a knife, cut out shapes & arrange cookies on baking sheets. Bake until lightly golden, 14 to 18 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool.
Decorate with Royal Icing, colored sugars and seasonings.