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!