Thursday, 6 December 2012

Holiday Cookie Swaps

Cookie  swaps are a wonderful part of the holidays. They give you the opportunity to get together with friends and family, share recipes and enjoy food. And it doesn't hurt that when it's all over you'll have a variety of tasty holiday treats that you didn't have to find the time to make yourself. Since cookie swaps are my absolute favourite type of party - holiday or otherwise - here are some tips and ideas to get you started on the road to cookie swap bliss.

The Basics 
Invite your guests early. The holiday season is a busy time of year. The more notice you give people, the more likely they'll be able to make it.

Invite about 6-10 people. Asking your guests to bake for more than 10 people can be a bit much.

Tell your guests to bring one dozen cookies for each participant (plus an extra dozen for sampling if you choose to go that way). Ask them to tell you what they'll be baking so you can avoid duplicate recipes. Also ask them to print out a copy of the recipe for each participant. If you're cookie swap has a theme (see below), let your guests know. 
The Set-Up
To sample or not to sample? There are two schools of thought on this. Some cookie swaps offer a variety of treats to eat during the swap, but the cookies that guests bring are left for taking home. Others ask guests to bring an extra dozen to sample at the party. I definitely prefer sampling! Part of the fun of baking for someone is watching how much they enjoy eating it. So eat it! An extra dozen isn't too much of a burden for your guests and they'll appreciate being able to try everybody's goodies and talk about them at the swap. 
If you choose to sample, set aside a table specifically for these cookies. Arrange them on attractive platters and cake plates to achieve different heights and don't forget to take lots of pictures. If you're having a sample table, you can ask your guests to package the take-home portions of their treats in advance so you and your guests don't have to worry about wrapping up cookies at the party.
Still on the topic of cookies, don't forget to provide labels for the cookies. Larger labels are better so you can ask each guest to write out the name of the cookie, who made it, and why they picked that recipe to share. 

Not sampling? Don't want to ask guests to spend money on all that packaging? Include a packaging station at your party. You can ask guests to bring their own containers, boxes or bags to put all of their cookies in or you can provide cardboard cake boxes, dollar store plastic containers, or cellophane bags. Put these items on a table of their own so guests can pick them up throughout the party and package up their take-home dozens.

Sips and Nibbles

Even if you are sampling the cookies at your party, you'll want to give your guests something to eat and drink. It doesn't have to be an over the top sit down meal, just some snacks and nibbles. Plan your menu according to the time of day you're hosting your party. If it's mid-morning to early afternoon, try breakfast or brunch foods like quiche squares, fruit and hash browns (kick these up with some Parmesan or a sprinkling of traditional holiday flavours like cranberry and cinnamon). If it's later in the afternoon, what about tea sandwiches and veggie sticks? For an after dinner party, choose a few appetizers and some savory nuts.
When it comes to drinks, time of day doesn't matter much. Coffee, tea and hot chocolate always go well with cookies. Add some snowman marshmallows (stack three marshmallows on a skewer then use royal icing or melted chocolate to add a snowman face, hat and scarf), chocolate covered spoons with candy can pieces, and cinnamon sticks to give the drinks a festive touch. If you're feeling really ambitious, you can bake some mini gingerbread houses that will fit over the rims of mugs. You can also provide some cold drinks, spiced cider, or even an alcoholic option (morning mimosas, anyone?).

Cookie Swap Extras
A Theme
Any cookie swap is a good cookie swap, but why not add something extra to your party this year by hosting a swap with a theme? Ask everybody to bring a traditional family cookie recipe, cookies in a colour theme (a table full of blue and white, red and gold, or shades of green looks gorgeous), or tell them to interpret a Christmas carol (you can choose one or let them choose any carol they'd like) in a cookie. If your friends are big foodies and like a challenge, you could even assign each of them a secret ingredient or two that they have to bake with.

It's a nice touch to offer a prize or two at your swap. It can be a door prize, or after everybody has tasted each cookies, you can ask them to vote on the best cookies and provide a prize for the winner. You know your guests best, so you'll be able to pick out a prize that will suit your group of swappers, but some ideas are a cookie book, a small gift basket of baking items, a gift certificate to a local bakery or gourmet cookie shop, or an interactive prize.

Interactive Prizes
Ask each guest to bring something like a cookie cutter, their favourite kitchen utensil, their favourite cookie ingredient (example, candied ginger), or whatever you choose. Make sure to keep these items small and inexpensive (so no, you shouldn't ask them to bring their favourite kitchen appliance). Package the items up into one or two gift baskets then use them as prizes.

'Tis the Season to Give
Invite your guests to bring non-perishable food with them to donate to a food bank. Or let them know in advance that you've chosen to support a particular charity this season and invite them to make a donation at the party. Depending on the charity you choose, this could be a monetary donation, a gift of time, an unwrapped toy for a child, or whatever your charity needs - if you want to give your guests donation options, contact the charity in advance and ask them what they could use.

My Favourite Cookie Swap Recipe: Apple Walnut Cookies
1      c  butter
3/4 c  granulated sugar
1      c  brown sugar
2         eggs
1      t  vanilla
3     c  flour
1/2  t  baking powder
1/2  t  baking soda
1      c  walnuts, chopped
2         apples, peeled and diced

Stir together dry ingredients. Set aside.
Cream butter and sugars. Beat in vanilla and eggs.
Stir in dry ingredients. Stir in walnuts and apples.
Form into 1" balls and bake on parchment lined baking sheets at 350F for about 12 minutes, or until golden brown.

Because of the fresh apple in these cookies, it's a good idea to let recipients know they should be stored in the refrigerator.
Makes about 3 dozen.

Cookie Swap Swap-Out
Want to host a party but you've already been invited to a ton of cookie exchanges this year? Why not try something a little different and invite your friends to a Loaf Swap, Candy Swap, Ornament Swap, Cupcake Swap or Tart Swap.  Do you have an idea for a creative swap?

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