Read an Excerpt
The Cookie Party Cookbook
The Ultimate Guide to Hosting a Cookie Exchange
By Robin L. Olson, Sally Mara Sturman
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2010 Robin L. Olson
All rights reserved.
What Is a Cookie Exchange?
"Many hands make light work," as the old saying goes. That is the essence of an old-fashioned cookie exchange.
To host a cookie exchange, you invite a group of friends, relatives, and neighbors over to your house to exchange homemade cookies. Every person brings about six dozen of one type of cookie. The cookies are laid out on the dining room table and exchanged. The result is that everyone goes home with an assortment of six dozen different types of cookies. The recipes are also swapped, so that if you take home a new cookie that you really like, you will be able to make it yourself. The cookie party can be given at any time during the year; however, most cookie exchange parties occur in December.
There are as many ways and reasons to host a cookie exchange party as there are people who give them. The party could be hosted as a one-time-only event, every couple of years, or annually. The majority who host a party for the first time are looking forward to making it an annual tradition for their friends and family. We all lead such busy lives, and a cookie exchange is a great time to reconnect with people you may not see on a regular basis.
Even though most cookie exchanges are given during the holidays, which is by far busiest season of year, it's still the best time of year to do this party. On top of "normal life," you then have the added workload of making "Christmas magic" by rushing around, trying to find parking spaces at busy malls, waiting in lines, buying and wrapping presents. You're tired, stressed, your feet hurt, and you're wondering where the meaning is in all of this hustle-bustle.
I might even feel guilty asking you to add one more thing to your long to-do list. However, the cookie party gives back. It rejuvenates, and gives meaning and inspiration to the holidays, embodying the qualities that we all love best — friendship, food, and festivity. There is something about baking that forces you to slow down, and sharing cookies, which is edible proof of time spent for the benefit of others, is healing and giving at the same time. While you are baking, you also know that soon, very soon, you'll be coming over to my house for a party and we are going to have a lot of fun!
The bonus for the guests, especially for those who describe themselves as non-bakers, is that after they leave the party they'll go home with a yummy assortment of six dozen homemade cookies. Store-bought cookies just don't compare. Your non-baking friends will now have home-baked cookies for their families, or they can give out little plates of home-baked love as gifts to their friends, relatives, and associates. Once you've started the tradition of hosting cookie exchanges, the holidays won't seem the same without them!
Each person who goes to a cookie exchange party has her own reasons for attending. For my group of girls, who mostly identify themselves as non-bakers, coming to my cookie party is an opportunity to get a selection of different types of homemade cookies. Some people who attend don't care as much about the cookies, but wouldn't want to miss the party for anything! However, they know their ticket to get in the front door is a tray of home-baked cookies, so they dutifully bake.
Story time is always fun, especially when you have a group of non-baking friends "who killed themselves" to bake cookies to the best of their abilities and get to the party. Do you have a group of "non-bakers"? Here's a party tip: Print out my baking tips and include them with the basic invitation and the Rules of the Cookie Exchange (see www.cookie-exchange.com/baking_tips.html).
While cookies are the focal point of the party, the guests are the real reason to host a party. A cookie exchange enables you to bring together people of various backgrounds, ages, and interests; they all have something in common on that one day. Everyone involved has had to spend the same amount of time, energy, money, and thought to participate. They all brought home-baked cookies, and all have stories to share of the baking adventures (or misadventures!) that they had before they got to my door.
At weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations, the focus of the party is on the one or two people being honored. At a cookie exchange, every single person is highlighted and the focus is on each guest for a few minutes as they talk about their cookies. Everyone is a star! New friendships are forged, and after time they, too, become old friends who enjoy seeing each other, year after year, at the annual cookie exchange.
The History of the Cookie Exchange
In the earliest days of documentation, over one hundred years ago, they were referred to as "cookie parties." By the 1930s, they began to be called "cookie exchanges." The term "cookie swap" wasn't popularized until the 1950s.
Historically, cookie exchange parties have been a ladies-only event. Exchanges were hosted by friends, relatives, neighbors, social groups, clubs, office co-workers, teams, schools, and churches. That's currently changing, as other types of cookie exchange parties are emerging and becoming commonplace now: families with children included, men only, men and women, and cookie exchange parties used as a fund-raising tool. I'm often asked, "How old is the cookie exchange?" and "Who invented it?"
Throughout the millennia, sharing food has been the most elemental form of communication. If one were to encounter a group of semi-hostile strangers who spoke a different language, nothing says "I come in peace" more than outstretched arms containing platters of food. If you're going to nourish someone, it's likely that your intentions are peaceful.
The humble roots of the American Thanksgiving come to mind. The Pilgrims felt indebted to the Native Americans for teaching them how to live off the land. To show their appreciation, the Pilgrims invited the Indians over for a three-day celebration, and foods were shared from the harvest. Many parties are celebrated and forgotten. But this feast wasn't; it launched a tradition celebrated by millions annually. What does that have to do with a cookie exchange? It's completely natural to ask strangers to your feast: PEOPLE + FOOD = SHARING.
We'll never know who first thought of the cookie-only exchange. However, the tradition of sharing foods has been going on for thousands of years, and will continue, for survival and celebration, for thousands more.CHAPTER 2
How to Host a Cookie Exchange
There are no absolutes on how to host a cookie exchange. You can throw the party any way that you choose, and customize it so that it fits your needs. Once you learn the basics of organizing a cookie exchange, you can then go up and down the sliding scale from simple to elaborate.
A lot of planning goes into creating a cookie exchange party. As the event date gets closer, sometimes the details become overwhelming. The more you take care of in advance, the better off and more relaxed you'll be on party day.
Things to Consider Before Hosting a Cookie Exchange
Before you host your first cookie exchange:
How many people do you want to invite? Take into consideration how many guests can comfortably fit into your home.
Invite anywhere from one-third to twice as many guests as you actually want to attend, as calendars fill up quickly during the holidays. Not everyone will be able to attend.
By September and no later than October 15, decide the date for your party and send out a Save the Date notification by e-mail, postcard, or magnet. A Save the Date will improve your attendance. If you don't send a Save the Date, 50 percent will come. If you do send a Save the Date, 70 percent will come.
Send the actual invitation four weeks before the party.
How many platters of cookies can fit on your dining room table? Do you have room to set up extra folding tables, if needed? Is there enough room to accommodate guests walking around the table to gather cookies?
Decide what kind of refreshments and foods to serve at your party.
Think about whether you want to arrange a craft activity, play games, or hold contests.
Are you going to give prizes and/or parting gifts?
Decide how many cookies to ask for from each guest. How many cookies do you want to end up with? Be realistic about your group's baking capabilities.
Decide if you want open cookie platters or prepackaged. There are pros and cons to both methods.
Decide if you're going to have a cookie theme for the party. Cookie theme examples for first-timers are: Family Favorites, Heritage Cookies, must have (or not have) chocolate in the recipe, and Christmas Classics. Use your imagination!
For hostesses who have given several cookie exchanges, contemplate implementing a party theme. (This is different from a cookie theme.)
Decide what rules or guidelines to apply. This is highly recommended for best quality so that everyone goes home happy.
The last consideration you need to decide upon is: What time to host your party? Based on a poll of nearly 500 votes on my Web site, cookie-exchange.com, 57 percent prefer afternoons, 33 percent prefer evenings, and 10 percent prefer a morning party. Do what is most comfortable for your lifestyle and that of your friends.
I'll share what I do, because on the sliding scale from simple to elaborate and easy to complicated, the way I give my cookie party falls right in the middle, and the majority of hostesses give their parties in a very similar way.
My favorite range of guests for a cookie party is fifteen to twenty-five, so I'll invite thirty-five to forty. This number of guests allows time to chat with everyone and catch up with those I may not have seen for a while. If you have the space, larger parties (thirty plus) are fun in their own boisterous way. Just be aware that it will be more work to get everyone organized for the swap and that you probably won't have time to chat with every single person at the party.
When you get a group of women in one room who haven't seen each other for a year, it can be quite a gab fest! For larger parties (eighteen plus), when I have to gather everyone into different rooms for the actual cookie swapping or to initiate games, I'll ring a gold Christmas bell to get everyone's attention before making announcements. It's a lot more elegant — and effective — than attempting to yell above the crowd.
After everyone has chatted, mingled, and eaten, which is about an hour into the party, I'll gather everyone into the den to play a couple of party games and hand out prizes to the winners. After that, I'll call the cookie swap to order. (This begins the last hour of my three-hour party.) I'll ring my little gold bell and guide the guests into the dining room, where the cookies are laid out on the table.
After everyone has gathered around the table in front of their cookies, I start by thanking everyone for attending my annual cookie exchange and give an overview of how we're going to do the actual cookie swap. I'll announce that everyone will have a chance to talk about their cookies and the story behind them.
Then I'll say, "Whoever is new here, please raise your hands!" We all cheer and clap and welcome the newest "cookie swap virgins" to the party. Some women get nervous when they realize they'll be expected to speak aloud, so this first-timers' welcome really helps break the ice for them.
Since I'm the hostess and want to set the example, I'll introduce my cookie first and tell the story behind it, plus share any problems I had in baking it. Then, I'll turn to my left, and say, "Okay, Joyce, your turn!" Have everyone state their name, the name of their cookie, and their baking story. Examples: "My grandmother passed down this recipe" or "I burned the first two batches, and then switched recipes" or "I sent my husband to the store at midnight because I ran out of ingredients." This part is fun, because there's always a story behind a baking experience, the stories are always different, and there's always a lot of laughter.
After the last person has spoken, everyone steps forward to the table, elbow to elbow, with empty containers in hand, and we slowly walk around the table clockwise, everyone taking three to five cookies from each platter. You can provide the containers or ask guests to bring their own. By the time we've rotated around the table three times, the cookies are gone and everyone goes home with the same number of cookies they came with. After the exchange, everyone sets their containers down on the dining room table. I provide the plastic wrap and advise everyone to take off their name tag and stick it on top of their cookies to avoid confusion.
Keep your camera handy, and take pictures of the cookie table before the exchange starts, and remember to take group photos as well. A common regret from others is that they get so busy during the party, they forget to take pictures. A solution is to enlist the help of a few friends to bring their cameras. Another option is to purchase several disposable cameras, leave them around the party area, and invite guests to snap away.
The party will start to wind down after the swap, and soon it will be over. My family will come home and attack the leftover appetizers and cookies, which they always look forward to. I'll make some tea and nibble on my cookies, while reflecting on the things that I liked best about the party, and also what I may want to do differently the next year.
Two to Three Months Before the Party
1. Pick the date for your party by September and no later than October. Send out a Save the Date notification by e-mail, postcard, or refrigerator magnet. Not everyone does a Save the Date, but I do recommend it for best attendance. Sending a Save the Date allows your guests to mark their calendars early so they don't schedule over your party. If you decide to send magnets by mail, use a holiday-themed note card and sturdy envelopes. Hand-write or make a sticker that says "Hand Cancel" so the postal machines don't ruin them.
2. If this is your first party, you might consider making phone calls to friends in October to explain the concept, as they might not know what a cookie exchange is.
3. Buy or make the invitations. Some hostesses are using online invitation services alone or along with paper invitations. The online method (such as Evite.com or MyPunchbowl.com) can be a great way to track RSVP's and everyone can see what cookies other guests will be bringing.
One Month Before the Party
4. Send invitations out the first or second week in November, at least one month before your party. Send the online invitation shortly after the mailed invitation.
5. Use technology to your advantage. Stay in touch with your group by sending friendly e-mails with baking tips, recipe links, and ideas. Share some of the fun things you're planning!
6. Create a holiday music mix on your iPod, or arrange your Christmas CD collection.
7. A small percentage of hostesses only serve drinks such as hot chocolate, coffee, tea, and soda, and then sample the cookies at the party. This is a very good way to have a low-cost cookie exchange. However, it is very common to serve appetizers and/or main courses at the party and only swap the cookies, not eat them. If you plan to serve food, research your recipes and make a menu and a list so by the time you go shopping, which should be two to three days before the party, you'll have a well thought-out plan. Planning saves time as well as money by eliminating frantic last-minute purchases. Whatever can be done days ahead, like casseroles and dips, should be.
8. Do some research and decide which activities or games to play. Set aside a box with all the materials you'll need for games: pencils, pens, clipboards or magazines to write on, and props. Some hostesses opt to do craft projects. These could easily be set up in October or November and stored in a box until needed.
9. Make a contest box, wrap all prizes, and store until needed. Hold contests for Best-tasting Cookie, Best-looking Cookie, Best Theme Outfit, Best Cookie Platter Presentation, or Most Creative Packaging.
10. Purchase or hand-make parting gifts as a thank-you for participating. Parting gifts are an old-fashioned ritual that goes back to the beginnings of the cookie exchange. It's optional, but it is very common to do so. Wrap and store gifts in a box in a handy place until needed. Pull them out the day before the party and set up a table display near the front door.
11. As soon as holiday paper goods like paper plates, napkins, cups, plasticware, and tablecloths become available, buy them for the best selection. Alternatively, you could buy them for 50 percent off at the after-holiday sales to use the following year. If you're going to store them in an attic, a garage, or a basement, store in airtight plastic containers to keep the items clean and pest free.
Excerpted from The Cookie Party Cookbook by Robin L. Olson, Sally Mara Sturman. Copyright © 2010 Robin L. Olson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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