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A&E >  Food

Sweet gesture

Cookie exchange a great way to give – and receive – this holiday season

Christmas is all about giving, but it’s also nice to receive. That’s what makes Christmas cookie exchanges such a popular holiday activity. Whether you host an intimate group of friends or make it a gala event, cookie swap parties are a great way to celebrate the season.

For the past four years, the folks at Ronald McDonald House Charities of Spokane have hosted a cookie exchange at Patsy Clark’s Mansion. “It’s fun, festive and a great way to get a sampling of cookies while supporting Ronald McDonald House,” said Colleen Fox, director of marketing and communications.

Fox said they’re expecting 100 guests for the fifth annual event next Wednesday. The popular party is already sold out. “We’ll be serving Christmas cosmos, wine and appetizers.”

And of course, cookies.

Invitees bring five dozen treats – four dozen to swap and one dozen to sample. Part of the fun is the auction to be first in line to choose an assortment of goodies to take home.

Guests are also asked to bring an item from the RMHC wish list and are encouraged to make a donation through a special “Share-A-Night” opportunity. Fox said events like this make it possible for the house to collect top-priority items.

One-hundred guests might be a bit too much for most of us to manage, but smaller parties can be just as fun. Deer Park resident Meegan Ware has helped organize cookie exchanges for MOMS Club of Spokane-North, as well as hosted cookie swaps for friends and family.

“I started doing cookie exchanges in 2000 because I wanted a lot of different cookies and I didn’t want to make them all myself,” she said.

Connie McLaughlin, of north Spokane, is also an experienced cookie exchange hostess. “The best part is connecting with friends. It’s a warm Christmas gathering and you get cookies to take home,” she said.

Ware and McLaughlin both stress that organization and presentation are key ingredients whether you’re hosting or attending a cookie swap party.

Recipe for a fun Cookie Exchange:

Cookies: “Make sure everyone brings homemade treats,” Ware said. “No store-bought cookies. Choose a special Christmas recipe, not chocolate chip or brownies. You don’t need to spend 10 hours on one cookie, but make something festive and fun.”

McLaughlin added, “Take cookies that you’d want to receive and take home to your family.” She often bakes Pecan Tassies, tiny nut-filled tarts that look pretty on a Christmas plate.

Ware usually makes Nutmeg Logs. “In the past I’ve tried taking new recipes, but then I’m asked, ‘Where are your Nutmeg Logs?’ ” she said. Alas, she can’t divulge the recipe. “It’s an old family recipe from my husband’s side of the family. I’m not allowed to share it!”

Count: Both hostesses agree that six dozen cookies is a perfect amount to bring. Five dozen should be packaged for the swap, and one dozen left out for guests to sample. If you have a large gathering, you can number each dozen for the swap. For instance, when your first guest arrives, write number “1” on each dozen of the packages she brought for exchange, and so on. If you’re guest No. 1, when you leave you’ll take cookie selections 2 through 10.

For smaller groups your guests can grab their selection on the way out, or you can pass them around as you sample them.

Containers: “Flimsy paper plates can be a problem,” McLaughlin said. “Cookies dropping everywhere!” Bring your cookies in decorative Christmas tins or sturdy plastic containers. Dress up your packages with ribbons, bows or Christmas wrap to add to the festive feel. Also, bring a sturdy box or basket to haul your goodies home.

Cheer: Hosting a Christmas cookie exchange needn’t be a lot of work, but simple things make your guests feel welcome. McLaughlin has a cheery fire burning in the fireplace and Christmas music playing softly in the background. For a small friends or family group, Ware serves simple fare like soup and bread in addition to the baked goods.

Whether attending a large party like the Ronald McDonald House cookie exchange or hosting an intimate gathering in your home, a cookie swap is a great way to launch the holiday season. Ware said, “I enjoy the camaraderie of getting together and exchanging homemade gifts.”

Russian Tea Cakes

From Connie McLaughlin, of north Spokane

1 cup butter

1/2 cup powdered sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 1/4 cups flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

Powdered sugar, for rolling

Cream together butter, powdered sugar and vanilla. Add flour, salt and nuts. Mix together and roll dough into small 3/4-inch balls

Bake at 400 degrees for 10-12 minutes

Cool and then roll balls twice in powdered sugar.

Yield: 3 1/2 to 4 dozen cookies

Pecan Tassies

From Connie McLaughlin, of north Spokane

For the crust:

6 ounces cream cheese

1 cup butter

2 cups flour

For the filling:

2 tablespoons butter

1 1/2 cups brown sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla

Dash of salt

2 eggs, beaten

1 1/2 cups chopped pecans

Cream together cream cheese, butter and flour. Divide dough into small balls. Press dough into greased mini muffin tins to look like little pie crusts.

For the filling: Cream together butter, brown sugar, vanilla, salt, eggs and pecans. Fill each crust with about 1 teaspoon of the pecan mixture.

Bake at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes.

Yield: 48 cookies

Cinnamon Shortbread Stars

Ami Kunz-Pfeiffer, Ronald McDonald House Charities development associate

2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons Vietnamese (also called Saigon) cinnamon

8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

1/2 cup powdered sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Whisk together flour and salt and cinnamon. Set aside. In the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter until fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Add sugar, and continue to beat until pale and fluffy, occasionally scraping down the sides of bowl, about 2 minutes more. Beat in vanilla. Add flour mixture, and mix on low speed, scraping sides if necessary, until flour is just incorporated and dough sticks together when squeezed with fingers.

Turn out dough, forming into 2 disks; wrap each in plastic. Refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Roll out 1 disk to a 1/4-inch thickness. Cut out shapes using star cookie cutter, and transfer to prepared baking sheets. Reroll scraps. Repeat with remaining disk. Indent cookies with desired stamps. Refrigerate until firm, at least 30 minutes. Bake until firm and golden, 13 to 15 minutes. Let cool completely on a wire rack.

Glaze cooled cookies with a light glaze and sprinkle with sugar crystals.

Yield: Varies

Peppermint Meltaways

From Meegan Ware, of Deer Park. Originally from Taste of Home.

1 cup butter, softened

1/2 cup powdered sugar

1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup cornstarch

For the frosting:

2 tablespoons butter, softened

1 1/2 cups powdered sugar

2 tablespoons 2 percent milk

1/4 teaspoon peppermint extract

2 to 3 drops red food coloring, optional

1/2 cup crushed peppermint candies

In a small bowl, cream butter and powdered sugar until light and fluffy.

Beat in extract. Combine flour and cornstarch; gradually add to creamed mixture and mix well.

Shape into 1-inch balls. Place 2 inches apart on ungreased baking sheets.

Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes or until bottoms are lightly browned.

Remove to wire racks to cool.

For the frosting: In a small bowl, beat butter until fluffy. Add the powdered sugar, milk, extract and food coloring if desired; beat until smooth. Spread over cooled cookies; sprinkle with crushed candies.

Store in an airtight container.

Yield: 3 1/2 dozen

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