A cookie exchange is our kind of party.
“You make a little and end up getting a lot,” says Erin Clarke, executive chef at Casa Luca downtown.
And that’s our kind of math.
Pretty much everything Clarke knows about cookie exchanges she learned from her mother, Becky. The chef grew up in Annandale , where her mom participated in, and hosted, many of the holiday season events for almost 35 years.
Becky Clarke says her interest in cooking and baked goods goes back to her childhood in Pitcairn, Pa., when family members often exchanged sweets during the holidays.
About 40 years ago, Becky Clarke went to her first official cookie exchange, urged to attend by a friend after a particularly trying time in her life. “It was very meaningful to me,” Becky Clarke says. She remembers what she took to the party: chocolate drop cookies.
In the years that followed, cookie exchanges became a way for Becky Clarke to get together with friends she may not have seen that often. She would decorate the dining room, polish the silver — and have her husband usher the kids upstairs.
Still, that didn’t stop the young ones from sneaking treats after the fact. Erin Clarke fondly recalls the giant Tupperware container her mom had — still has — that would be filled with cookies from the exchange and stored on the screened-in back porch so it would stay cool. The idea was to have a bunch of treats on hand so that the family could put out a nice plate for visitors. The chef readily admits to swiping from the stash with her brother and sister.
Becky Clarke and her husband now live in Oak Island, N.C., and although she bakes a lot for social events there, her days of hosting cookie exchanges have passed. The good news: Her daughter plans to carry on the tradition this year by hosting her first one.
If you’re considering putting on your own exchange, here are some tips from the Clarkes:
Hold your exchange before, but not too much before, Christmas. Becky Clarke says 10 days to two weeks in advance of the holiday is a good time. It’s slightly before the mania of hosting relatives or traveling sets in and perfect timing if the point is to have sweets on hand to serve to guests.
Prepare a bit of food other than cookies. Leave the cookies for the actual exchange. Becky Clarke liked to make a cake to cut up and serve to her friends. Have wine or coffee available, as well.
Do some advance math . . . You want enough people to make all the cookies, but not so many that you’re overwhelmed. Becky Clarke recommends 15 as a nice number. Figure on guests bringing a dozen or half-dozen of their cookies for each person, depending on how many people you’re having. Be sure to tell guests the quantity they should be baking.
. . . but don’t micromanage. Let guests bring whatever kind of cookie they want. If you’re really concerned that everyone might bake the same thing, suggest that your friends use a family recipe that means something to them. That might help cut down on the duplication.
Put some thought into what you bake. Delicate cookies are a no-no. You want something that won’t break or crumble and that has a good shelf life at room temperature or in the freezer.
It doesn’t have to be just cookies. Think about candy (marshmallows, fudge), bark and brittle. They’re all durable and easy to make in large quantities. Bars (blondies, brownies, etc.) are good that way, too.
Have appropriate supplies on hand (or ask guests to bring them). Provide cards and markers so guests can label their treats, including any specific dietary information (gluten-free, vegan, contains nuts, etc.). Decide whether you want guests to bring their treats in one container or already packaged up for everyone.
If the former, suggest they bring a second container for collecting treats, or provide zip-top bags or festive tins, along with wax paper for layering goodies. An advantage of the latter: It makes it easier for everyone to get everything, meaning there won’t be that one guest who’s sad no one’s picking up his or her cookies.
Have fun. A cookie exchange should not be something that stresses you out. Because, hello, cookies. Remember: “There’s no set way to do them,” Becky Clarke says. Plus, as she used to tell herself, you’re with friends: “It’s not like you had to have everything perfect.”
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