Dozens of reasons to enjoy a cookie exchange

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Above: The assorted cookies I brought home from our recent cookie swap. For a cookie swap, you bake only one batch but end up with a beautiful assortment of delicious cookies. (Photos by Laura Groch) 

If you’ve never taken part in a cookie exchange before, let me recommend this enjoyable way to share the holiday spirit. And it’s not too late in the season to organize one.

I don’t remember where I first heard about cookie exchanges or cookie swaps, but I do know that the idea immediately struck me as a winner: Bake one batch of cookies, get together with a group of friends, and divvy up the cookies. Go in with snickerdoodles, come out with chocolate chip, peanut blossoms, rugelach, Mexican wedding cakes and more, depending on the group.

I enlisted my officemates to try it out, and it worked so well that we started a December tradition. Not only was it fun, it was efficient and saved buckets of time when everyone was being pulled in several directions at the holidays. This year found me swapping with another group of friends, who were also pleased with the results.

As I said, it’s not too late for you to enjoy the fun, creativity and rewards of doing a cookie exchange. (How about organizing one for a Saturday-or-Sunday-before-New-Year’s get-together!) All you need are 1) a batch of homemade cookies; 2) a few friends, relatives or colleagues (make sure one of you is good at math!); 3) about 90 minutes to make the exchange in whatever place you designate; and 4) an extra container to put your shared cookies into while others are taking from your batch.

The basic idea is to divide the cookies by the number of bakers, then each one takes that number of cookies from everyone else. So if you have 6 people, you bake, say, 4 dozen cookies (48). Forty-eight is evenly divisible by 6 (6 x 8 = 48). Everyone keeps 8 of his or her own cookies, takes 8 from everyone else’s batch, and you go home with 48 cookies, the same number you brought in, except you now have six different kinds.

At least, that was the way this recent cookie exchange was supposed to work. But I managed to goof up the neat calculations by not counting myself in the group. We really had 48 cookies each to be divided among 7 bakers. (Oy.) So — we instead took 7 each, then divvied up the remainder. Which is what you might have to do, too. (Or you can reverse-engineer it: Choose a number, say 6 cookies apiece, multiply it by the number of cookie swappers, then everyone bakes that amount.)

We used to have as many as a dozen people, and we’d each bake as many as 6 dozen cookies (also a nicely divisible number). Something always happens, though. One person always bakes more, another bakes fewer — recipes are variable, after all, and so is the human hand. But someone else always manages to figure it all out to everyone’s satisfaction.

The cookies don’t have to be fancy — not at all. Of course, if your specialty is an elaborately decorated cookie, go for it. Just don’t be disappointed that others can’t match your baking prowess. Remember, they’re all still tasty cookies!

The one big rule is that the cookies must be homemade. It’s not fair to those who actually made dough and shaped and decorated it (or even just dropped spoonfuls onto a cookie sheet). They put effort into their cookies, no matter how simple (or blobby). It’s just not right to hand over a machine-made cookie in exchange for an individually made little work of art.

And they are all works of art, I can assure you, from the humble oatmeal cookie to the sophisticated palmier. The sight of them arrayed on a plate will gladden your heart as much as anything by Picasso or Renoir or Wyeth.

Or Norman Rockwell, for that matter. Bringing together different people and traditions and recipes to share them with each other is about as American as it gets, in my view — and it also reflects the spirit of the season.

Really, there’s no good reason why the Christmas/Chanukah/Kwanzaa time of year should hold a monopoly on pretty cookies. In fact, we’re already planning a Valentine’s Day cookie exchange.

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Above: Cranberry Refrigerator Rounds (OK, they’re a little oblong) are what I made for a recent cookie exchange. (Photo by Laura Groch)

I made this refrigerator cookie for our recent cookie swap, but used cranberries this time instead of apricots. It’s from “Gifts From Your Kitchen,” by Better Homes and Gardens (Meredith, 1976).

APRICOT REFRIGERATOR ROUNDS

1 cup butter or margarine

1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup finely chopped dried apricots (or cranberries)

1/2 cup finely chopped nuts

Cream together butter and brown sugar till light. Blend in egg and almond extract. Stir together flour, baking powder and salt; stir into creamed mixture. Stir in apricots and nuts. Shape into two rolls 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Wrap in waxed paper. Chill well. Cut in 1/4-inch slices; place on ungreased baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes. Makes 6 1/2 dozen.

Notes: I used butter, not margarine, and about 1/4 cup of nuts (I used walnuts) instead of 1/2 cup. A knife will do to chop dried apricots, but I used kitchen shears to chop the cranberries.

(c) copyright Laura Groch 2013

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Sweet potatoes make the grade

I know, I know, they’re fantastically good for you, but those traditional mounds of mashed sweet potatoes with their marshmallow topping (and how did that get to be an American tradition, anyway?) usually leave me cold.

Oh, I regularly serve them at the holidays — but no one else in the family seems to like them that much, either. I’ve mashed ’em with butter and brown sugar, candied ’em with cashews and peaches, and even done the marshmallow thing. Still, I usually have piles of them left over.

Until this year. I think I’ve finally found the recipe that makes them a hit. Brown sugar and butter, yes, but not overly much, plus a hearty helping of apple made this sweet-potato dish disappear at Thanksgiving.

I found it at allrecipes.com, submitted by Tamby Plue, bless you, whoever and wherever you are. It’s easy, yet different — and it tastes delightful. (A heap better than marshmallows, imho.)

Sweet Potato and Apple Casserole — exactly what it says — layers parboiled sliced sweet potatoes and fresh apple, with a little brown sugar and butter in between. I cut mine into quarters, boiled them enough to tenderize but not pulverize them, then sliced them and layered them with the apple. I did mine in two more layers than the recipe called for, possibly because I used a smaller dish (8×8 square). So the amount of sugar and butter was distributed a little differently. You can adjust that to your own taste, of course (I routinely use less butter than called for, and skipped the pecans too).

This was good with turkey, but would go well with other poultry or ham. Check it out here:  http://allrecipes.com/recipe/sweet-potato-and-apple-casserole/ Enjoy!