Cookie exchanges a chance to give and receive

Christmas and cookies are pretty much synonymous. Bite-size treats are just enough of an indulgence in a season of indulgences, much more manageable than facing a huge coconut cake or a mincemeat pie.

And cookies offer variety. Whether you’re craving a little chocolate, a little citrus or a little spice, there’s a cookie for you. For those of us who love to bake, the holidays provide a perfect excuse to whip up old favorites and to try something new.

Cookie swaps or exchanges are also a Christmas tradition, a chance to share in someone’s favorite family recipes or latest experiment. This Christmas season is the ninth year Lynne Unglo has hosted a cookie exchange at her home in Roswell. A core group of nine women, including Unglo’s mother and sister, attend each year, and occasional guests are always welcome.

“Hosting a cookie exchange was something I always wanted to do," Unglo said. "We experimented the first year with how many cookies to bring and how to present them, and everything fell into place. For us, we have everyone bring platters of cookies, and the presentation of all the cookies on the table is really beautiful.”

Unglo’s friend Kristina Heuman is one of the core group. “Lynne does a great job of hosting," Heuman said. "The wine flows, kids come and go, and we know we will walk away with two or three or sometimes four platters of gorgeous cookies.”

One of the benefits is going home with cookies that can go into the freezer and be pulled out all through the season for holiday entertaining. I was introduced to Unglo’s cookie exchange last year when Heuman brought a platter of her cookie exchange bounty to a business meeting. The assortment of cookies on the platter was a great conversation piece.

Unglo makes sure the party is about more than just cookies. “Lynne always has a table of appetizers, including a delicious baked brie she serves with Granny Smith apples," Heuman said. "It’s one of the things we always associate with the cookie exchange.”

Everyone comes in holiday attire and brings a minimum of four dozen cookies. “Everyone who comes loves to bake and is excited about the holidays. Each year I appreciate how much time and effort everyone puts into the exchange. Some cookies appear each year, but we love new recipes, too. Still, one year I didn’t make my Special K bars and people were disappointed,” Unglo said.

“We almost had a riot,” Heuman said, laughing.

The group has the process of dividing up the cookies down to a science. “We all gather in the dining room where the cookies are displayed and everyone describes what they brought, where they got the recipe, what’s in it," Unglo said. "Two of our friends have children with severe food allergies and they can’t take home anything with dairy, eggs or nuts.”

She provides heavy-duty disposable platters and holiday plastic wrap, and once all the cookies are described, the guests go around the table taking a few of each type. “We usually do two full circles of the table, and then everyone can take what they want of whatever’s left," Unglo said. "Oh, and that’s when we do our sampling.”

Like the other regular guests, Heuman enjoys the anticipation of the event as much as the exchange itself. “I enjoy the process of preparing and baking," she said. "I pull out my recipe books, pick what I’m going to make, maybe try out new recipes. And I block out the day before the exchange to do my baking.”

All across Atlanta the other guests have done the same, ensuring a cookie exchange filled with delicious holiday spirit.

Tips for hosting a cookie exchange

Lynne Unglo and Kristina Heuman put these suggestions together for holding your own party:

1. Consider keeping your cookie exchange to no more than 12 people. That way the number of cookies each person brings is manageable.

2. Invite a variety of ages to the party. Unglo’s party includes at least two generations.

3. Cookie exchanges work best if everyone is like-minded. A group that enjoys baking will want an “only homemade cookies” rule. For others, bringing store-bought cookies is OK if it ensures everyone can participate.

4. Unglo likes to mail invitations to set the mood and includes information on how many cookies to bring.

5. Some cookie exchanges ask everyone to bring their cookies already divided and wrapped so each guest’s portion is prepared. Unglo likes to have everyone bring their cookies on a platter for a pretty display.

6. Provide containers for taking the cookies home as Unglo does or ask your guests to bring their own.

7. Consider offering favors and prizes. Categories could be most creative, best decorated, most gourmet and most kid-friendly cookies. Unglo likes to give cookie cookbooks, holiday spatulas and recipe cards as prizes.

8. Decide if you’ll offer food at your exchange. Unglo provides the appetizers and wine for her party. You can make yours potluck-style and ask guests to bring another dish or a bottle of wine along with their cookies.

9. Ask guests to bring at least one copy of their recipe. You can provide a recipe card with the invitation. You might ask your guests to bring enough copies to share so those who attend can not only leave with the cookies, but the ability to re-create them at home.

A few pointers

These cookie recipes work perfectly in a busy holiday schedule. You can make the dough ahead of time and leave it in your refrigerator until ready to bake. The cookies that need decorating can be made up to 2 days ahead of time, and are actually better after the flavors have a chance to mellow. All the cookies here can be frozen, well wrapped, for up to one month.

How to decorate Christmas cookies

1. The easiest decoration for Christmas cookies is a sprinkling of powdered sugar. Put the cookies on a wire cooling rack placed over a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Fill a fine sieve with powdered sugar and gently tap on the sieve while moving it over the cookies to create a fine dusting. If this is done while cookies are warm, they may absorb the powdered sugar, requiring a second coating. The parchment-lined cookie sheet will make cleanup a breeze.

2. The next easiest decoration is colored sugar. Before baking your cutout cookies, sprinkle them with colored granulated sugar. Press down lightly to make sure all sugar is firmly seated, then bake according to the recipe’s directions. To make your own colored sugar, in a small bowl, combine 1/4 cup granulated sugar with one drop of food coloring. Stir until all sugar is evenly colored. Add more drops of the same color to make more saturated colors. You can mix colors, too. For example, if you want orange sugar, mix one drop of red food coloring with one drop of yellow food coloring. Leftover colored sugar can be stored in an airtight container indefinitely.

3. To make a drizzled chocolate finish for your cookies, warm 3 ounces chocolate with 1 teaspoon vegetable shortening. You can do this in the microwave or in a small saucepan on your cooktop. In either case, be sure to stir frequently as chocolate, especially white chocolate, can burn quickly. Set your cookies on a wire rack over a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Use a fork to drizzle the warm chocolate over your cookies, moving quickly to keep from dropping too much chocolate in one spot. While drizzle is warm you can sprinkle the cookies with colored sugar, chocolate jimmies, finely chopped nuts or edible glitter. When chocolate cools and drizzle is firm, move cookies to storage container or serving platter. Leftover chocolate drizzle can be stored in the refrigerator indefinitely. Just warm it gently when ready to use.

4. To decorate cookies with frosting, make your colored frostings and put each in a piping bag fitted with a piping tip. Unglo finds a small star tip is the most versatile, good for everything from facial features to stars on a Christmas tree. Fill the bags about halfway full and squeeze out the air. Roll the top down until the frosting is just ready to come out of the tube and stand each tube in a small glass so it will stay upright. If you want a base coat of frosting, use a small offset spatula to cover the cookies with a thin, even layer of frosting. Then decorate with colored frostings. Using light pressure on the tube, squeeze out just enough frosting to make a small star. One star makes an eye, a double row of stars that touch each other makes a beard. Leftover frosting can be refrigerated in the piping tubes. Put all the tubes in a zippered plastic bag and refrigerate for up to two months. When ready to use again, bring frosting to room temperature. The frosting at the tip of the tube will be hardened. Firm pressure will pop that bit out and the remainder of the frosting will be ready to use.

Heavenly Cutouts

Hands on: 1 hour

Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes plus decorating time

Makes: 66 cookies

Unglo has happy memories of rolling out Heavenly Cutouts dough with her three siblings and decorating the cookies together during the holidays. “I think those memories and the desire to share something homemade with friends and family are the reasons I look forward to planning the cookie exchange each year,” she said.

Your yield for this recipe will vary according to the cutters you use. This recipe will make a generous amount of frosting. Wrapped tightly, any leftover frosting will keep in the refrigerator for up to two months. Use this same recipe to make charming cookies at Valentine’s Day and use up the remainder of your frosting. Vary the extracts in the dough to suit the occasion. Peppermint feels right at Christmas while almond or lemon extracts would be good at other times of the year.

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1 egg

1/4 cup sour cream

2 teaspoons vanilla extract, divided

1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract

3 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt, divided

1 cup vegetable shortening

1 pound (3 cups) powdered sugar

3 tablespoons milk , as needed

Food coloring, if desired

Sparkling sugar, if desired

In the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl, beat butter and sugar until light, about 3 minutes. If using a hand mixer, this may take a little longer. Add egg, sour cream, 1 teaspoon vanilla and peppermint extract and beat to combine.

In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Slowly add flour mixture to butter mixture and beat until a stiff dough is formed. Divide the dough in quarters and wrap each quarter in plastic wrap or foil and refrigerate 4 hours or up to 2 days.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Remove one dough quarter from refrigerator. Lightly flour counter and roll dough out to 3/8-inch thick. Cut out shapes and place them on prepared baking sheet. Gather up scraps and form a ball; wrap ball in plastic wrap or foil and return to refrigerator. Continue with remaining dough quarters. When scraps have chilled, they can be rerolled and cut. Bake 8 minutes or just until edges begin to turn brown. Cool before decorating.

Make frosting in a medium bowl, using a hand mixer to beat together shortening, powdered sugar, remaining teaspoon vanilla and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Beat until smooth and add enough milk to make the consistency you prefer: stiffer for spreading with a spatula, looser for using a piping bag. For colored frosting, divide total amount into small bowls and add one drop of food coloring at a time until frosting reaches your desired color.

Frost cookies after they are cool. Allow decorated cookies to sit one hour before moving.

Adapted from a recipe provided by Lynne Unglo.

Per cookie: 106 calories (percent of calories from fat, 46), 1 gram protein, 14 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 6 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 9 milligrams cholesterol, 49 milligrams sodium.

Dairy-, Egg- and Nut-free Chocolate Crinkles

Hands on: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Makes: 48 cookies

Holiday cookies can be delicious and still be allergy-free. No one will miss the dairy, eggs or nuts in these delicious chocolate balls. Using applesauce will give you a softer, sweeter cookie. Pumpkin puree will make a denser dough that doesn’t need refrigerating before shaping and yields a deeper chocolate flavor. These cookies will keep well wrapped for up to one week but may need another dusting of powdered sugar when ready to serve.

1 3/4 cup granulated sugar

1 cup unsweetened applesauce or pumpkin puree

1 cup cocoa powder

1/2 cup canola oil

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoons salt

3/4 cup powdered sugar

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat sugar, applesauce or pumpkin, cocoa powder, oil and vanilla extract until well combined.

In a medium bowl whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the wet and mix until combined. If making cookies with applesauce, transfer dough to the medium bowl, cover and refrigerate four hours or up to 2 days. If making dough with pumpkin, cookies are ready to shape right away but can be refrigerated up to 2 days.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Put powdered sugar in pie plate.

Scoop out dough and roll into 1-inch balls. Drop into plate of powdered sugar and roll until completely covered. Place on prepared cookie sheet, 2 inches apart. Bake 10 minutes or until just cookie is set. Do not overbake. Cool on a wire rack. Dust with additional powdered sugar if needed.

Adapted from a recipe provided by Jennifer Boettinger, from a recipe on

Per cookie: 84 calories (percent of calories from fat, 26), 1 gram protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 3 grams fat (trace saturated), no cholesterol, 32 milligrams sodium.

Caramel-Cashew Thumbprints

Hands on: 30 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Makes: 48 cookies

These cookies can be made nut-free by simply eliminating the chopped cashews. They will still be delicious and no one will miss the nuts. Because of their sticky caramel tops, if you’re making these cookies for a cookie exchange, bake them at least a half day ahead of time. They’ll keep, well-wrapped, up to one week.

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

2/3 cup packed light brown sugar

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

1 egg white

1 teaspoon water

1 1/2 cups chopped roasted, salted cashews

16 individually wrapped caramels (about one-third of a 14-ounce package)

3 tablespoons heavy cream

3 ounces white chocolate

1 teaspoon vegetable shortening

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine butter and brown sugar and beat until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add egg, vanilla and salt and blend on low speed 1 minute. Add flour and beat on low just until ingredients are combined. Wrap dough in plastic wrap or foil and refrigerate at least 1 hour or up to 2 days.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees and line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper. In a pie plate, beat egg white and water until foamy. Pour cashews into a second pie plate.

Scoop out dough and roll into 1-inch balls. Drop each ball into the beaten egg white and roll to cover, then into the cashews and roll to cover. Arrange on baking sheet 2 inches apart. Using your thumb, make an indentation in the center of each cookie. Bake 12 minutes or until edges are set.

While cookies are baking, make caramel filling. In a small saucepan, heat caramels and cream over low heat, stirring until caramels melt, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat but keep warm.

As soon as the cookies are done, move them to a wire rack and fill each indentation with caramel filling. Allow cookies to cool completely.

Make white chocolate drizzle in a small saucepan, combining white chocolate and vegetable shortening. Warm over low heat just until chocolate is melted. Using a fork, drizzle chocolate over cookies. Allow cookies to cool completely before moving. Caramel topping will be sticky for 6 hours.

Adapted from a recipe provided by Allison Adams, originally from Cuisine at Home Holiday Baking Magazine, December 2009.

Per cookie: 87 calories (percent of calories from fat, 53), 1 gram protein, 9 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 5 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 11 milligrams cholesterol, 24 milligrams sodium.