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About The Christmas Cookie Cookbook

Attending a cookie exchange, hosted by my friend Marybeth Bayer, inspired the setting for my first novel, The Christmas Cookie Club. Since we love our cookie exchange so much, Marybeth and I wrote a book to help you start your own. That’s how The Christmas Cookie Cookbook: All the Rules and Delicious Recipes To Start Your Own Holiday Club came to be. We want to help you develop your own ritual to share with your friends, family, or community. Since Marybeth and I wrote this together, there are stories from both of our families and friends. In it are our tips, ideas, and recipes for throwing your own great cookie party and cultivating a new holiday tradition.

Warmly written and chock full of anecdotes of great cooking successes, as well as hilarious disasters, you’re guided through the process. First, it provides suggestions and rules for forming the guest list, hyping the excitement, and coalescing a close group of friendly bakers because people are the most important ingredient in a cookie party. Then it provides tips, tricks and tools for baking and scads of recipes for drop, molded, rolled, pressed, and bar cookies as well as a chapter on candy. There are clever ideas on packaging so dozens of cookies can be easily and prettily toted and presented. Unfortunately, we cannot live on deserts alone, so recipes for appetizers, salads, and soups are also included. The intrepid hostess needs attention and the cookbook offers hints for invitations, last minute decorations, and organizing the party flow. Cookie exchanges are becoming another cherished holiday tradition that celebrates friendship and family. This book lets you in on the action. How can anyone resist sweets and friendship?

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Chapter One: Starting Your Own Party

This workbook will outline all of the how-to’s for starting your own cookie party, from choosing the guests and recipes to the crowning glory when the cookies are passed out and each member ends up with 12 dozen different homemade cookies to take home and share with families, friends and neighbors. Our cookie party developed over eighteen years into what it is now. 2010 will be its twentieth year! The party evolved from year to year as we made changes to accommodate all of us, fine-tuning each event, casting aside things that didn’t work so well, and incorporating new ideas that were terrific. Now you’re getting the benefit of our years of trial and error by reading this book. You’ll have advance knowledge of what will make your party successful so it can grow into a treasured tradition.

The evolution of the party.

I made cookies every year for most of my life. When I was a child, I started making Christmas cut-outs for my family. There were seven children in my family and my mom was super busy just taking care of us. She made wedding cakes for extra money and became so well-known for her delicious lemon cakes they were bought for many occasions in addition to weddings… like graduation parties, anniversary parties, etc. Honestly, Mom didn’t bake us cookies, cakes and pies, not for lack of desire, but she simply didn’t have the extra time. I was the one who made pies with homemade pie-crusts. We had a cherry tree in our yard, and every summer, usually around the 4th of July, we would pick all the cherries. I would make 7-8 pies for our family. We ate one or two as soon as soon as they came out of the oven and froze the rest for when we wanted a reminder of summer.

When I asked for cookies, Mom showed me the cookbook and let me try my best. By doing it that way, she expressed confidence in my baking ability. It’s no surprise that my early versions of cut-outs were a little on the thick side! But my sisters and I decorated them with frosting for the holidays and, along with my brothers, gobbled them up without even noticing they weren’t thin and elegant. They tasted delicious. I suspect my love of baking started with seeing my family devour my pies and cookies!

In my twenties, I continued the tradition with a girlfriend. We’d get together for an evening or two and we’d mix and stir up about eight or nine kinds of cookies. It took hours to bake and organize all those different batches. We had lots of fun, laughing and joking as we stirred and cooked. Of course, we’d pour a glass or two of wine and as the night went on the baking became more infused with laughter, jokes, and intimate conversation. Sometimes, we stayed up all night, while our children slept, baking. Then, one year I was invited to a cookie exchange. I had never heard of a holiday cookie exchange. At that particular party, guests brought one dozen cookies to share. When I arrived, there were twenty other women and each carried a plate of cookies. All the cookies were arranged on a table. Another table was filled with hors d’oeuvres and wine and we spent the evening socializing. At the end of the evening, each guest went to the table and chose a dozen different cookies to take home. I remember thinking, “This is so great!”

I loved the idea that a group of women gathered together, shared cookies and recipes and got to know one another. But a dozen cookies with my large family didn’t do the trick! I wanted to expand the concept so we each brought more cookies to the exchange and were able to return home with all the cookies we needed for the holiday season. The first exchange I hosted was more like an open house and many of the women who came didn’t know one another. It became a great way for my girlfriends to meet each other. I couldn’t invite every woman I knew, but chose guests based on their love and interest in baking cookies. I also talked with each prospective guest to find out if they would enjoy the idea of sharing cookie recipes with others. My idea was to ask my cookie ladies to bake a favorite family recipe and then share the source of the recipe. I also thought we could talk about the special memories attached to that cookie.

Why did I want to do it this way?

I was recently divorced, a single mother, and needed to form new traditions to celebrate the holidays. I guess I wanted to broaden my definition of family to include my friends. So the breakup of my marriage was the stimulus for the cookie party. I invited a bunch of old friends and some of my sisters to my first party. All the guests loved it and from that point…a cookie party legend was born and, in the process, a beloved annual tradition was cemented in my life.

Your wonderful guests!

The most important aspect of a cookie party is your guests and the fun you are going to have together. My cookie party is really about women giving to each other. It’s a celebration of girlfriends and the party itself helps seal the bond. So choose women who know each other, or who you think will enjoy each other, and like to bake. Several of the women who are with me today have been with me since my first party. Somewhere along the way, we started joking that we were the “cookie bitches”. I’m not sure how that appellation came to be, maybe because I was teased for rules and became the “cookie bitch”. Then, I was promoted to the “head cookie bitch”. It seems that groups often turn a negative term into an endearing positive for use only within the group. If anyone else calls us that… Beware. But within the group it’s all about love and belonging. Now the word encompasses all my wonderful ladies at the cookie party.

When I add a member (now I have a list of people waiting to be part of the exchange), I make sure she will enjoy the women who are already “members”, and baking cookies. That way, new guests will be a great addition bringing new recipes, creativity, and enthusiasm. And also the continued establishment of new friendships that gather in other events throughout the year. These are important elements. Unfortunately, no matter how much I enjoy someone, or my other “cookie bitches” like and have fun with her, she won’t make a great addition to the party if she hates baking. Sometimes, a friend will try because she so wants to be part of the fun. But if she hates having to cook 13 dozen of the same cookie, it won’t work. She’ll be miserable thinking about the party preparations. It will be drudgery for her, while for the rest of us, it’s so much a part of the fun.

There are other ways to include friends who don’t want to be part of the exchange. I have a good friend who tried it, but left because she didn’t like baking and she is now our party photographer. I always give her a cookie tin full of that year’s treasure trove as a form of payment for her services. The most important ingredient in the party is the love and good cheer that is shared. Cookies, though we all want them to be delicious and very presentable as gifts, are the excuse that brings us all together.

I never wanted to have an exclusive party where any woman felt unwanted or left out. That smacked of those cliques in middle school and high school that could be so demoralizing. We were certainly way beyond that petty insecurity and hurt. Yet there’s a limit to how many dozens of cookies we’re willing to bake. I started with 12 women. There were times when I added one or two extra women, but the group felt it was too many. My own party members insisted that we keep the group at an even 12. They didn’t want to bake more than thirteen dozen of the same cookie. I have bowed to this rule faithfully. However, other people hear about my party and want to be a part of it and I can’t extend an invitation to them because I am limited to 12. I add them to my waiting list and every so often I have an opening in the party to offer to a new cookie bitch.

I have suggested that people form their own party. Several women told me they want to be a part of my cookie exchange because they hear about the fun we have and taste the great cookies we give each other. I hope this book will show them, and you, how to duplicate the party so anyone who wants a party can plan it. So, how do you find 12 women to begin your very own cookie party? This was a process for me. I included from the start my closest girlfriends. The friends who baked cookies with me during those all night sessions were my first members. We had so much fun baking together, listening to music, eating yummy appetizers; I just expanded on that idea. I invited people I met as I lived my life the rest of the year. Two members I met in my investment club. One of my sisters was a member for a few years until she moved out of state. Some guests left the state but still make it back to the cookie party every year. One of my dearest friends even comes from Virginia every year to be a part of this group of women! It gives her a chance to see all her old girlfriends for a loving reunion.

So what is it about us that make this party so special? I don’t know that we are, it’s just that we love each other, know each other, and share this wonderful night together. All the years together have increased our knowledge and comfort with each other, cementing our bonds. We are all very complex women who have busy, complicated lives. All of us work outside the home. Some are self-employed. Some are single; some are married; some have children. We are gregarious, and friendly, love to try new things, and appreciate an additional excuse to get together for food and wine and laughs. We are grateful for our girlfriends. This group is an all-woman’s group. But I do not think a cookie exchange has to be all women. It could be couples…or all men. I would love to see that!!

Daring to set a date!

Generally, the first thing I do is decide on a date. The first year, it was chaos trying to find a date that would work for everyone because I invited people at the last minute. After spending hours on the phone checking times with a group of people with busy schedules, I realized what would be best was to pick a date that would work every year. Therefore, we choose the first Monday of December so everyone knows a year in advance and doesn’t make any plans for that Monday because that is THE COOKIE PARTY. The only time that particular rule changes is when the first Monday falls immediately after Thanksgiving. We have tried a couple of times to cook on the weekend after Thanksgiving and it turns out to be too hectic. So, on the years that the first Monday of December falls after Thanksgiving, we move it to the following Monday. With all of our busy lives and schedules, it’s easiest to pick a recurring date that everyone knows so we can plan around it. The early date has helped make the cookie party extra special because it’s the first big event that we attend for the holidays. So the cookie party kicks off the holiday season!

The fact that it’s early has an additional advantage. Our cookie baking is complete. We actually start searching for our recipes in the summertime. Because so many of us socialize together, I’ve overheard some of my guests talk about what they are thinking about baking during an Independence Day party! Or wonder what I think would be yummier, an apricot thumbprint or a lemon shortbread? Because we’re all so conscientious about the quality of our cookies, we’re very serious about deciding which cookie we’re going to present each year. I start buying cookie magazines and watching food shows that deal with cookies to get new ideas for both the cookie and packaging too!

Cookies Cookies Cookies!

If a new cookie bitch –lovingly called a cookie virgin– is uncertain about a recipe, she’ll generally ask me if it’ll work. My friends are serious about the cookie recipes so my style is to be reassuring rather than critical about the cookies. If they see a cookie recipe in a magazine or cookbook, they make a note of it and consider it for the cookie party. We do the hunting and gathering for the perfect treat long before I send out the invitations. Some of us have probably tried a couple of recipes, maybe we’ve been served a cookie that we love, and bug the hostess for the recipe. And as I have mentioned, I try several different types of cookies before I decide on the cookie for that year. We all love being creative and take pride in our cookies.

Over the course of 20 years I have exhausted my supply of family recipes; however, occasionally I will re-make a recipe that was very popular. For example, one of the recipes that I use every year is peanut brittle. I have a wonderful family recipe that I’ve made for years and have never given out. It was our sacred family peanut brittle recipe. However, that recipe is actually in this book so you have the opportunity to make that recipe if you love peanut brittle. Because I have baked all my recipes, I scour various holiday magazines and books for new ideas. I tend to lead by example and never allow myself to make just a “plain Jane” cookie but pick something that is fairly spectacular and that takes some work and fussing. I hold myself to high standards: to make the absolute best cookie every year. So, I often make two or three different cookies in the very beginning of the season before I choose the cookie to bake for the cookie party. One year I also made truffles for the party, and that recipe is in this book. That year I made four different kinds of truffles and everyone received all four varieties of truffles in cute little boxes. This was time-consuming, intensive work, but they were beautiful and very well received. I enjoy every minute that I spend on the preparation and presentation, and put on music and dance while I’m cooking. I love to please other people and get pleasure from their enthusiastic appreciation.

Regardless of how many women you invite, each party member brings one dozen cookies for every other member. This is the basis for how and why this party works out so well. It sounds daunting to cook thirteen dozen cookies, but I’ll let you in on a little secret…it is infinitely easier to make several dozen of one recipe than it is to make several recipes which take a variety of ingredients, different preparation and baking times. When I was baking cookies by myself, I would end up with as many cookies as I could bake in that evening. Because of the cookie party I know I am going the end up with 13 dozen cookies.

Enticing Invitations.

When I run into women during the summer, I’ll sometimes mention the cookie I’m considering making that year. Or maybe I’ll tell them about a new cookie recipe book I found. This serves as a reminder, but also helps to hype the party. I usually start sending out invitations at the end of October or the very beginning of November. I send them via email. I used to send snail mail invitations, but now everyone is reachable on the computer and that saves a lot of time. I send a notice at least four weeks in advance so people can prepare. The first email invitation goes out as a basic welcome back and a reminder that it’s time to do cookies, as well as the date and time. I also mention any changes in the party for this year, and generally ask to hear back from them confirming that they are, in fact, planning to come. We need to know if someone will not attend because we need all 12 women to get our 12 dozen cookies. And we don’t want to miss one of our friends.

The blessings of being the hostess. (and the trials too.)

I have both an advantage and added pressure as a result of this party and it’s basically the same thing. As the hostess, I decorate my house on Thanksgiving weekend so my home is completely decorated for the party and the rest of the holiday festivities. And I mean completely decorated. Christmas was always a special time for my family and my parents did their utmost to create a sense of magic and excitement for us. With seven kids, we didn’t have scads of presents, but what we did have is a family full of love and togetherness. It wasn’t religious, although we did attend services, but the time was focused on family. We decorated the house together, even if it was construction paper chains, and popcorn and cranberry garlands. By the time we were finished, our house looked magical. The holidays were coming! The most exciting time of the year.

I’ve replicated that in my own home. I have a tree that I decorate using ornaments I have collected over the years. Some I’ve made, some were given to me as gifts from women coming to the party. I also have a couple of ornaments that were given to me by the charities we donate the cookies to each year. Those ornaments have a special meaning for me and they’re added faithfully to my tree every year. Twinkle lights dance on the outside of my home along with wreaths on both my front and side door. Quilt making is a hobby of mine and I have several holiday quilts displayed here and there throughout the house. My beloved teddy bear collection is arranged with care under my tree and my growing collection of wooden Santas is placed throughout my house.

My house is small so I’m almost out of room! I’ve come to the sad and practical conclusion that I can’t make or receive any more decorations. I can only replace and update! My house is decorated to the hilt when my guests come through the door so they know that the holidays have indeed arrived! I want them to recapture that childhood sense of magic.

As the hostess, once the work of decorating and baking is finished I can focus on the real fun: being with my friends, having small dinner parties, cocktail parties and family gatherings. I don’t have to worry about getting my baking done or the house decorated. I simply enjoy the season. It’s perfect!

I have suggested moving the party around to other homes. But this idea never caught on and we’ve never done it. Everyone expects to come to my house, and I love having them here. So my home has become part of our tradition. I have moved two or three times over the years and they simply follow me around!! For you newbie’s that will be starting your own cookie parties, I will make a couple of suggestions. At your first gathering ask for suggestions from your guests on how the party should be structured. If you decide to move the party from house to house, decide that first year where the party will be held the following year while you are all together. Trying to figure it out by email or phone the following year is too difficult and time consuming. You could put everyone’s name in a hat and draw for the next location or perhaps someone will volunteer each year. About 4-5 weeks before the event, send out a reminder email to confirm that all your guests will be returning. If not, you will have ample time to invite a new guest or two. Also, the guest at whose house the party will be will have plenty of time to ready her home for the upcoming festivities. I want to wish you all good luck with your new cookie party that is sure to become a celebrated yearly event as mine has.

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