Cookie Exchange

By Jessica Maher
Photography by Andy Sams

In my family, baking cookies for the holidays is a competitive sport. Outside of a professional bakery, I don’t know anyone else who buys butter by the pallet like my Aunt Ronnie does. The cookie gene has been passed along through many generations, so it seems throwing a cookie/recipe exchange party would come naturally to me…but not so!

The first holiday Cookies and Cocktails party we hosted at home was messy, disorganized and crazy—albeit fun and memorable.

I thought it was a good idea to have guests bring their own cookie dough and bake their cookies at our house to serve them warm. I thought the kids would love to decorate sugar cookies to take home. Ugh, I thought wrong. It was a tornado of dirty dishes, flour and sugar-crazed kids chasing my dog.

I’ve since discovered that the keys to cookie-party success are simplicity, organization and learning how to be a guest at your own soiree. Don’t be a slave to your oven, and definitely don’t take yourself—or your cookies—too seriously. It’s best to pick a theme that your guests will enjoy without too much effort. And if you take a little extra time to map out everything needed in advance, all you’ll have to worry about on the day of the party is whether or not your Champagne flute is full enough or you have crumbs all over your face. (Also consider dropping the dog off at the neighbor’s house.)

TIPS FOR SUCCESS

 

• Pick a fun theme (like favorite chocolate cookies) to set parameters for your guests, and ask everyone to bring about 3 to 4 dozen cookies. Also, don’t limit your cookie-exchange parties just to the holiday season, when everyone has full dance cards. Consider hosting a party in the months leading up to the holidays, so that guests will have some cookie gift ideas.

• Ask guests to e-mail their cookie recipes beforehand and print out little recipe packets to give as party favors (along with boxes of cookies). Alternatively, make a pdf version of the collected recipes that includes any photos you take of the cookies, then e-mail the file to everyone after the party.

• Start your party in the afternoon to allow everyone time to burn off some of the sugar. It’s also a great idea to have activities available to keep it fun—like magnetic darts, bocce ball or croquet.

• Provide savory and healthful snacks, beverages and adult libations to offset the sugar overload your guests are sure to experience. Keep a fresh pitcher of water available to encourage guests to reset their palates.

• Unleash the kids on some cookie “painting.” Be sure to designate a table for it and prepare yourself for the cleanup. For our party, we put an adjustable-height table in the garage and left the garage door halfway open. Place an easy-to-clean cloth or outdoor throw rug under the table, and provide moist towels to wipe down sticky hands and faces. Get everything ready ahead of time—the sugar cookies, royal icing, food coloring (make your own with veggie and fruit juice, or try India Tree natural food coloring), sparkling sugar and tools of the trade like a pastry bag or sandwich bag and tips, palette knife and spoons. A supply of fun aprons makes an instant costume party!

• Hold a secret-ballot poll for favorite cookie of the day. The winner can take home a fancy cookie cutter, a bag of King Arthur flour and the respect of the crowd as ultimate cookie maker of the year.

• Make sure your guests load up on cookies for home before they leave. They can reuse plates they’ve brought with them, or you can provide cookie boxes, available at Make It Sweet (formerly All In One Bake Shop) or the Container Store.


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HILL COUNTRY AUTUMN HARVEST PARTY MENU

Cookies
Pecan Kipferl (Crescent Cookies)
Fig Bars
Meyer Lemon Shortbread

Snacks (click on each below to go to the recipe)
Marinated Mushrooms
White Bean and Rosemary Dip with Whole Wheat Flatbread
Indian Summer Salad with Tomatoes and Peppers

Beverages
Sparkling Gingerade
Pomegranate Kir Royale
Live Oak Oaktoberfest


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PECAN KIPFERL (CRESCENT BUTTER COOKIES) 

Makes about 4 dozen cookies

4¾ c. all-purpose flour
1 c. plus 1 T. confectioners’ sugar (plus ¼ c. for dusting)
2½ c. pecan flour
1 whole egg
½ t. vanilla extract
1¼ lb. unsalted butter, cubed and very cold

Preheat the oven to 350°. Using a paddle attachment, combine the dry ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer. Add the egg and vanilla extract and mix until just combined. Add in the cubed butter—piece by piece—until the dough just comes together. Don’t overmix or the cookies will be too dense! Pat the dough into a rectangle, wrap in plastic or parchment paper and chill for at least 2 hours.

When ready to bake, cut the dough into 3 even strips and roll each strip into a log on a floured surface. Slice each log into 1-inch rounds, then roll the rounds into balls. If the dough is too soft, refrigerate again until well chilled. Roll each ball gently from the ball to the heel of your hand several times, until each ball forms a log and the ends taper slightly. Don’t press too hard. Bend the edges of each cookie in to create a crescent shape. Once all the cookies are shaped and on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or Silpat, refrigerate again until chilled, then bake for about 10 minutes until the edges are just lightly golden—rotating the sheet halfway through baking. Allow to cool for 10 minutes, then dust with confectioners’ sugar using a fine-mesh sieve and allow to cool completely.


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FIG BARS 

Makes 4 dozen bars

1 lb. unsalted butter,
   softened
1 c. sugar
2 whole eggs
4 egg yolks, divided
2 t. vanilla extract
Zest of 2 lemons, finely
   chopped
5 c. all-purpose flour
½ t. salt
Fig jam (homemade, store
   bought or local from
   Confituras)
2 t. whole milk

Preheat the oven to 350°. Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the whole eggs, 2 of the egg yolks and the vanilla and lemon zest and mix until well combined. Add the flour and salt and mix until just combined—don’t overmix or the cookies will be too chewy! Divide the dough in half, pat each half into 2 rectangles, wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least 1 hour.

Roll out the dough into a large rectangle, about an eighth- to a quarter-inch thick, then roll the dough onto the rolling pin and transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or Silpat. Spread the fig jam evenly over the pastry, then roll out the second half of the dough and place it on top of the jam. Trim the excess and chill for 1 hour. With a paring knife, score the dough lightly into 48 bars. Whisk the remaining yolks and the milk together and brush the mixture on the top of the dough. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until golden brown—rotating the pan halfway through baking. Cool on a rack, cut into bars and store in an airtight container.


MEYER LEMON SHORTBREAD 

Makes 4 dozen cookies

4 c. all-purpose flour
1 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
¾ lb. unsalted butter, softened
2 c. sugar
2 eggs
Zest of 2 Meyer lemons, finely chopped
Juice of 2 Meyer lemons
Egg wash for brushing
Meyer lemon sugar (finely chopped Meyer lemon zest combined
   with sugar), for rolling

Preheat the oven to 350°. Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl. In another bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, zest and juice and mix until well combined. Add in the flour mixture in two parts, mixing to combine after each addition. Form the dough into two 12-inch logs, then wrap the logs in parchment paper and chill for at least 2 hours. When ready to bake, brush the logs with the egg wash and roll in the Meyer lemon sugar. Slice the logs into half-inch rounds and bake for 11 minutes on parchment-lined baking sheet—rotating the sheet halfway through baking. Allow to cool for 5 to 10 minutes, then cut each cookie in half to look like a citrus slice and allow to cool completely.