Cookie Exchange

November 29, 2012

By Raleigh-Elizabeth. White chocolate cherry shortbread cookies found here.

My grandmother was a cookie person. She was one of those old, archetypal Southern women Hollywood is always busy making movies about and never quite capturing. She had house dresses and hostess gowns, she had bridge on Tuesdays and Thursdays, she had Christmas trees in nearly every room, and she had a cookie press.

The old fashioned cookie press she had was nothing like today’s. It wasn’t easy, self contained, and hip looking. Watching her use it, you wouldn’t even believe it cut down on the work that goes into making beautiful holiday cookies. It was a humongous machine that, when in residence on your counter, did nothing but rolled, pumped, and pressed dough into mid-century perfection.

There were no sprinkles or sloppy cans of frosting in her house, either. Royal icing was made on her stove top, by her, and applied to each and every cookie by her and her alone. To Nana, cookies weren’t holiday fun. They were masterfully decorated, belabored works of art. And so it’s no wonder that her daughter (my mother) took to ‘baking holiday cookies’ by marching into the nearest grocery store and buying whatever box of cookies the bakery had on sale.

Christmas tree spritz cookies and recipe found here.

And that’s how I was given my first tray of cookies to take — theoretically proudly — to my very first cookie exchange. I was in the fifth grade, and I couldn’t have been more excited. For weeks, I imagined Nana’s cookie press cookies lined up impressively on a tray and my friends asking me for tips.  And then I saw the beautiful silver tray my mother had laid out – and her, standing astride it, pouring out a box of grocery store cookies.  ”I still think you should just take Oreos,” my mother complained.  ”At least you know people like them.”

Determined to right the family wrong, or, at the very least, to not be the person passing off grocery store cookies as her own, I decided to become a cookie person.  And so, years later, I hosted my own cookie exchange.

It was just for work friends, and I thought it would be a low-key way for us to all celebrate the holidays together. I thought “cookie exchange” and I thought “easy.” I thought “fun and simple.” I thought “who doesn’t like cookies!” What I didn’t think was maybe me.

When you envision yourself hosting a cookie exchange, you hear Bing crooning in the background, your home looking its picture-perfect holiday best, you graciously welcome guests who ooh and ahh over your perfectly decorated and plated cookies. If you’re like me, maybe you also envision someone else coming into to clean all those little cookie crumbs that finish the party in a snowy film on your floor. If you’ve ever held a cookie exchange, you know exactly what I’m talking about. But that’s what you imagine.

Candy cane kisses found here. Not at the grocery store.

In person, a cookie exchange is another reality entirely.

When you get past the nearly explosive amount of powdered sugar that accompanies any self-respecting cookie party, and also the preemptive call to your dentist to schedule an appointment to deal with your newfound cavities, you might come across the same reality that I did: that many of your friends share my mother’s school of thought when it comes to baking.

Of the twelve different types of cookies our small little exchange featured, half came from the ready-made sugar cookie dough we all wish were a little more tasty. The other half, a mix of freezer burn, gelatin, and coconut, never saw an oven at all. If you have a number of cookie exchanges in your future, these kind of cookies might be for you. They’re relatively easy and can be quite pretty, which is at least half the job of a cookie. My favorite cookie exchange discovery is the cathedral cookie, made of colored marshmallows mixed with chocolate and chilled into a log. When sliced, they look like pretty picture windows. I’m not as much a fan of them when it comes to eating, but at cookie exchanges, you learn not to be picky.

The whole event — a hostessing misadventure if there ever were one — took me back to that fifth grade cookie exchange, where, it slowly came back to me, none of the adults really joined us for the cookie part of the party. In fact, if memory serves, they were all enjoying civilized conversation and caviar blinis in the other room. Maybe they were on to something.

So this year I’m planning to do something new: I’m hosting a holiday-themed local food exchange. Instead of cookies, I’m asking everyone to put together a plate full of their favorite party food — be it dessert, dip, or h’ors d’oeuvres — and to source the ingredients as locally as possible. Not only will we support our local farmers and other culinary artisans, but we’ll be protecting our teeth until at least the next holiday party. Maybe Nana’s cookie genius skipped my mother’s generation, but my mother’s practicality certainly hasn’t skipped mine. At least when it comes to cookies.

Tell me: Will you be braving a cookie exchange this year? What’s your favorite recipe to bring? If you’re willing to share, please do! While I’m not hosting a cookie exchange myself this year, I still have dozens of cookies I need to bake: my husband’s unit was just deployed to Afghanistan, and I’m determined to make sure they have the best holiday cookies around!

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1 Mary November 29, 2012 at 7:22 am

I am hosting my first cookie exchange this year, although I have attended them in the past. I am homemade all the way. Since I’m hosting, I chose relatively easy drop recipes – ginger and spice cookies, and chocolate walnut. I will do the sugar cookies with frosting and sprinkles with my kids, when there’s no pressure. We are also keeping it relatively small – just six of us, my neighbors, and I will be making a butternut squash soup for us to enjoy with a couple bottles of wine. It will be more about the gathering – and the bonus is that everyone goes home with an assortment of cookies! Cookie swaps are fun, but I do agree that there are ways to make them more fun and less messy and chaotic.

Best wishes to you and your husband – I sincerely hope he doesn’t have to be gone from home for too long.


2 raleigh-elizabeth November 29, 2012 at 7:40 am

that sounds SO nice, Mary! I love that you’re serving soup, too… I think that’s just a perfect addition to your fete!


3 Sunshine Burns November 29, 2012 at 7:40 am

I remember attending my very first cookie exchange as a newlywed in my husband’s hometown. I was determined to take the very best cookies his old friends and high school sweethearts had ever tried. Hands down the individually wrapped, homemade, oatmeal cream filled sandwich cookies that took hours to make and assemble, were not only the best cookies at the party- they are probably the best cookies anyone at that party had ever eaten. My beatiful little creations shared a table with cookie cutter, over sprinkled cookies and the next year when the invitation arrived for the party, I declined. From now on I only bake for people I really love, not wasting anymore sugar on old girlfriends! :)

Loved this post! And thank you for sharing your husband with our country – so thankful for those who are fighting and sacrificing to defend our freedoms!


4 raleigh-elizabeth November 29, 2012 at 7:44 am

I love this story! You’re making me laugh into my tea!


5 Jenni Bailey November 29, 2012 at 8:12 am

My sweet tooth fell out a long time ago so your local food exchange sounds perfect for me! Unfortunately my mother in law and her friends cannot let a year slip by without a traditional cookie party so a-baking I will go. I think I’ll keep it super easy this year, though, and bring something like chocolate-dipped graham crackers or those ones where you squish a rolo between two pretzels. I find that to be a happy medium between store-bought and blood-sweat-tears homemade.


6 raleigh-elizabeth November 29, 2012 at 8:20 am

I am a total sucker for the rolo-pretzel squish. Jenni, I think that sounds great! And I also think I’m now going to send some chocolate dipped grahams to Afghanistan… I bet those ship well. Thank you for sharing!


7 Simple Simon and Co November 29, 2012 at 8:16 am

My mom still hosts the annual “Cookie Bake Off” which we have adapted from the traditional cookie exchange. The first Saturday afternoon in December, friends and neighbors show up with mixers, ingredients and bowls in hands to make “their special” batch of cookies.

The mess is glorious and there is always at least one batch of cookies in the trash due to super burnt bottoms–but the laughter (there is always lots of laughs), joy and friendship of Christmas is always there. They are some of my favorite Christmas memories…

{And everyone helps with clean up too!}


8 raleigh-elizabeth November 29, 2012 at 8:21 am

what a fun twist! I LOVE having everyone over to bake their cookies on site! I hope you don’t mind if some of us borrow that, too… I think I’m going to have to institute that one in our house! (Although we may have to add in a pie off; we’re all very into pie…)


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14 james November 29, 2012 at 8:30 am

I guess I don’t want to go to a party where I have to bring the food. Is that so wrong? I host one holiday party a year and I serve pretty good food and very good drinks. I expect nothin’ from nobody but their good cheer. These parties sounds like work!


15 Beth November 29, 2012 at 8:32 am

I’m hosting my 9th annual party next week. I have great friends who love baking, so it is a great tradition to have. Savory appetizers are served, kids food and activities in the basement, and Pandora’s Christmas channel is playing. I really enjoy it and my family loves having a variety of cookies around.
I try to make a classic recipe – gingerbread men, peppermint twists. I ask guests to make 6 dozen to share, but I always end up with many leftovers!


16 james November 29, 2012 at 8:46 am

6 dozen?! holy moses


17 Beth November 29, 2012 at 8:48 am

I know – but it’s probably about two batches of cookies. BUT everyone leaves with 6 dozen cookies as well.
I’ve been to cookie decorating parties as well – what a mess!


18 raleigh-elizabeth November 29, 2012 at 9:49 am

I do love getting to go home with all the cookies… Are you sure you don’t want to invite me this year? I could bring the savory appetizer!


19 Kimberly November 29, 2012 at 8:54 am

I also tried to “win the cookie exchange” once and it ended in frustration for me as well. So I stick with cookies that are tasty and easy to mass produce. Last year I baked Chocolate Filled Snowballs and the year before I did Glazed Lemon Cookies with some red and green sprinkles on them. This year I’m claiming that Candy Cane Kisses recipe above!! Mwah ha ha!

So thank you very much for that, and thank you to your husband for his service! :)


20 raleigh-elizabeth November 29, 2012 at 9:50 am

Oh Kimberly, I think we have an even trade! You do those candy cane kisses (which are delicious, I can vouch for that), and I’ll make the chocolate filled snowballs. I think they might ship okay!


21 Veronika November 29, 2012 at 9:15 am

This is such an easy cookie to make, and the cinnamon makes me feel like it is a holiday cookie (I’ve never made it with ginger), but for something simple and super delicious it fits the bill! I have been craving them for a month now….I need to make them already!

Also, I’ve never done a cookie exchange, and, alas, I feel I would be far too picky to enjoy one.


22 raleigh-elizabeth November 29, 2012 at 9:51 am

Veronika, those look delicious! Thank you for sharing!


23 Jenny November 29, 2012 at 10:07 am

Holiday parties are so much fun! This year, I am hosting my second cookie decorating party for my piano students. They come over and decorate the sugar cookies that we then serve at their holiday piano recital the following day. Basically, it’s going to be a HUGE mess of sprinkles and frosting, but the kids have a blast and it’s a lot less stressful than a grown-up party. The kids are happy eating the leftover icing on graham crackers so no need to fuss over fancy h’ors d’oeuvres.


24 raleigh-elizabeth November 29, 2012 at 11:12 am

Jenny, I think that sounds like so much fun! What kids wouldn’t want that kind of celebration with their piano teacher! (Our piano teacher had a strict no-fun rule, I’m afraid.) I hope it goes great and that the recital is a huge success!


25 Grace@ Sense and Simplicity November 29, 2012 at 10:15 am

I have never been to a cookie exchange and I usually decline them when I’m offered as I wonder about the quality of the cookies. I’m a homemade girl and make my cookies in November and freeze them. That is my contribution to Christmas dinner so I think it only fair that I do a good job and make high quality cookies since I don’t have to do the turkey etc.

My favourite cookies are the shortbread recipe I got from my grandmother and she probably got from her grandmother. You can read about it in this post: This year I added orange and cranberries to half the batter and I love the change ( By the way, shortbread last really well if you are looking for cookies to send overseas.


26 raleigh-elizabeth November 29, 2012 at 11:14 am

I am going to make your shortbread recipe this weekend, Grace. It looks just perfect. Thank you so much for sharing it with us!


27 Amy November 29, 2012 at 10:32 am

This year I will host my 7th cookie exchange. At my party the guests bring 3 dozen cookies. The fun part is the festive table looking so yummy and the lunch! I always make a super delicious lunch. It’s my gift to my friends and a highlight of my Christmas season! After reading the comments I wonder if everyone loves my party as much as I do! Ha! Well, they all usually come.


28 raleigh-elizabeth November 29, 2012 at 11:15 am

Amy, I am sure your cookie party doesn’t feature Peg Smith’s Grocery Store Cookies That Were Probably Already Stale, like mine did. And I think the idea of adding a lunch to it – instead of just a cookie soiree – makes it a really festive, fantastic event. Let us know how it goes! But I’m sure it’s going to be a hit! I, for one, would happily come and eat your cookies… and I’d even promise to make my three dozen myself, too.


29 Lori H November 29, 2012 at 12:01 pm

I love the idea of a food exchange instead of a cookie exchange. Every cookie exchange I have been to, there are a few people who just buy some cookies. Then, by the time I get home, confectionary sugar and sprinkles have migrated from some cookies to the others, so they all look alike. Not my favorite event, especially with a diabetic husband and I don’t need the calories, nor my kids the sugar. I would love to see and hear how your event goes!


30 raleigh-elizabeth November 30, 2012 at 11:38 am

Thanks, Lori! Hopefully it will be a hit! I think people will be happy for savory in the midst of all the sweet, at the very least.


31 Susie B November 29, 2012 at 1:59 pm

Thank you for bringing up this cookie exchange issue. I am a baking snob- and am invited to a cookie exchange every year. I don’t think it’s very fair to bake your heart out and come home with 120 cookies made from store-bought dough or bought from Costco. Last year I had the “stomach flu”, but I can’t go that route twice. It is a big chunk of money to go out and buy ingredients for 12 dozen cookies, and I really don’t want someone else’s 12 dozen (yes, that’s how many we have to bake and receive). I don’t understand why we can’t just bring a dozen or two to share at the party, and then head home?


32 raleigh-elizabeth November 30, 2012 at 11:39 am

Susie – I think that’s actually a winning idea. Plus, it’ll keep moms like mine from scoffing at the idea of suddenly having the time to bake six or twelve dozen cookies. Maybe a dozen cookies, everyone gets to taste the ones they want, simple as that? Provide a recipe to take home at the most? I wonder what other people think about this idea!


33 Jillian l November 29, 2012 at 1:59 pm

That was a wonderful little essay. Thank you! :)


34 Jane November 29, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Thank you for this lovely dose of realism, yours and the stories from your commenters that it inspired. We don’t have a tradition of cookie exchanges in Australia as far as I know (they would be called biscuit exchanges anyway!) but we had a vaguely similar event at my last workplace when we all took part in Australia’s Biggest Morning Tea, a fundraiser for cancer research. We weren’t really a baking kind of workplace but it was personal for us that year as our colleague was in hospital being treated for breast cancer (successfully :-)). Ironically she was also the best baker so the rest of us did our best, or did what we could, to live up to her, with a lovely array of dishes of various degrees of skill. In the case of one young man that meant bringing in a sliced Mar Bar. Hmm.
Happy Christmas and very best wishes to your husband for a safe return from Afghanistan.


35 raleigh-elizabeth November 30, 2012 at 11:41 am

What a heartwarming story. I have never heard of the Biggest Morning Tea, but now I’m reading about and it sounds just great! I love how the whole nation comes together on it, too! I’m so happy your coworker is doing well now!


36 cheap life insurance March 7, 2014 at 6:48 am

It’s a real pleasure to find someone who can think like that


37 Amy Hackworth November 29, 2012 at 5:01 pm

Loved this, Raleigh Elizabeth!


38 Jess November 29, 2012 at 10:23 pm

Hi there, how do you go about sending cookies to troops overseas? Can people who live outside of America do it too?


39 Jillian in Italy November 29, 2012 at 11:57 pm

There’s no “Christmas cookie culture” here in Italy. It’s all about the Panettone! I did do a cookie evening once for my local friends and neighbours where I made 8 different kinds of cookies for them to try and take home (we decorated some sugar cookies as well when they were here). They loved it! It’s really nice showing other cultures special parts of your culture and traditions.

These were their favorite cookies…


40 raleigh-elizabeth November 30, 2012 at 11:42 am

Jillian, those cookies look divine! I’m going to make some here, so thank you for spreading the love to this side of the pond! And at lots of panettone for me – it’s one of my favorite treats, too!


41 julia [life on churchill] November 30, 2012 at 6:41 am

The women from my small group are getting together to bake cookies for a few elderly people in our church. I was invited to a traditional cookie exchange and to be honest 6 dozen cookies is a bit intimidating!


42 raleigh-elizabeth November 30, 2012 at 11:43 am

Right? It’s a LOT of cookies when you start thinking about it! And as another commenter said – the cost can really add up!


43 Theresa DePaepe aka Mama November 30, 2012 at 11:35 am

Thank you so much for mentioning the Cathedral Cookies in your post! They are easy, fun, and also good to eat. They have been on our list for many years (decades really). I have several other fun Christmas cookies and treats on my site, too. Enjoyed your post!



44 raleigh-elizabeth November 30, 2012 at 11:44 am

Yay! Another cathedral cookie fan!!! I’m thinking of making them with homemade marshmallows this year… have you ever tried that?


45 eileen December 3, 2012 at 10:28 am

My newish (to me) favorite and very easy holiday cookie is from the smittenkitchen blog; its called nutmeg maple cookie or something like that. You can roll out the dough and cut out cookies or make logs to slice and bake. The cookies have the nicest maple flavor (which I associate with the holidays) with a hint of salt underneath. They can be rolled in decorative sugar or sprinkled on top to look festive. Check them out, I do not think anyone will be disappointed. Also, the dough can be made in advance; I have kept some of it in my freezer for months and after defrosting, they bake well with no loss of flavor. Seriously, a good cookie!


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