Cookie exchange is one sweet party

By Mary Beth Breckenridge
Beacon Journal staff writer
Wed, Dec. 04, 2002

One does not live by chocolate-chip cookies alone -- or frosted cutouts, gingerbread men or jam thumb prints, for that matter.

No, we want it all, and that's why we love Christmas cookie exchanges.

This season, bakers will be swapping their most treasured goodies in the time-honored tradition of getting maximum variety with minimum effort. For some, it's a practical matter; for others, more of a social time.

In the case of Stow's Jane Haefner and her neighbors, it's a way of connecting with people who might not have an opportunity to become as close otherwise. The group doesn't hold a traditional cookie exchange, but instead gathers for an afternoon of communal baking, frosting, yakking and basking in the holiday spirit.

About five families get together at one house on a Saturday before Christmas for the baking marathon, Haefner said. Some bring baked cutout cookies that are ready for children to decorate. Some bring premixed dough. Others bring ingredients for cookies or candy, along with the necessary equipment, and do all the work there.

Each family brings an appetizer to share, which gives the gathering a party atmosphere. The participants also bring their recipes to swap, ``so don't bring anything you're not willing to share,'' Haefner said with a laugh.

At the end of the day, all the cookies are displayed on a table so participants can divvy up the spoils. A note on each type indicates how many pieces each family may take home.

``We all go home with this huge platter of cookies and bars and other yums,'' she said.

In more traditional exchanges, each participant bakes one type of treat ahead of time, brings it to a party and then swaps with the other guests, often with plenty of eating, drinking and storytelling about the cookies' heritage mixed in. That's the kind of exchange for which Robin Olson has become modestly famous.

Olson's annual cookie party in Gaithersburg, Md., was videotaped for Holiday Cookie Swap with Sara Moulton, a Food Network special that originally aired in 1999 and has reappeared every Christmas season since. Olson knows when the show airs from the visitors who flock afterward to her Web site,, which gets a brief promotion in the show. ``Thousands of people come to my site and crash my server every year,'' she said.

(Warning to Olson: The special is scheduled to air again at 2 p.m. Dec. 14.)

Olson has perfected her exchange to something of a science, complete with rules she has developed through trial and error over the years. For example, she requires participants to tell her ahead of time what type they're bringing, so she can avoid duplication. She also bars certain types of cookies, such as regular chocolate-chip (too common), meringue and bar cookies (too easy) and no-bake cookies (too much potential for germs).

Of course, in good Miss Manners form, she never says a thing to the people who break the rules. Nor does she count cookies to make sure everyone's take is equal. No one's ever complained about not getting enough, she said.

Although the swap is a convenience for harried bakers, it's mostly a social gathering. ``While the subject is cookies, the main reason... is just having a party with my friends,'' she said.

For them, it's become a sweet tradition.

Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or