Tales of a Suburban Cookie Swap
Plus recipes, cookies paired with flavors of the Finger Lakes Wine Country, and cookies around the world!
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The holiday season is all about tradition, and there is no holiday tradition as sacred in Suburbia as good old-fashioned one-upmanship. When it comes to Christmas, you can’t just keep up with the Jones’ — you gotta blow the Jones’ out of the water! Some flex their Suburban prowess by stringing up the most extravagant holiday lights, while others compete over who can give their family the most lavish gifts. But where I grew up, we didn’t just send one another holiday Glamour Shots with a resume of our family’s accomplishments that year, we outdid each other in a different way: the annual cookie swap.
The first year of the cookie swap no one knew what to expect. The invitation instructed guests to bake and portion out enough cookies for each attendee so that, at the end of the night, everyone would go home with a variety of different cookies. It was 1999 and the cookies were rather simple. There were a couple of classic chocolate chip cookies, a homemade fudge, some snickerdoodles, and gingerbread men. One poor soul brought slightly burnt Pillsbury plop-and-drop sugar cookies with holiday designs, which would have been overlooked had she not done the same thing every year afterward, earning her cookies the nickname “Karen* Cookies” (*name changed to protect her identity).
A few years later, the cookie swap was no longer about coming together and sharing cookies, it became a fierce competition to bake the block’s best Christmas cookie and spend the following year as reigning neighborhood cookie champion.
It quickly became the most anticipated neighborhood event of the year. Having the best cookie was valuable ammunition on the Suburban Battlefield, and the cookie swap was an opportune moment to reload on that sweet, sweet social currency. Who made what cookie became the talk of the town well into the following Spring and attendees formulated strategies of how they’d up their game the following year. As early as September my mom would be researching cookie recipes, studying all possible cookie outcomes as if she were Anya Taylor-Joy’s character in The Queen’s Gambit. By 2005, families were placing bets among themselves on who’d make that year’s Karen Cookie, a deep cut insult that, for the love of all that was holy, had to be avoided at all costs. The spite was palpable.
Upon arrival to the cookie swap, everyone’s cookies were put prominently on display as if they were elaborate exhibitions at the World’s Fair. Husbands would emerge from the man cave basement to watch in awe at that year’s sugar-coated pageantry. A parade of children traipsed by, eager to get first dibs on that year’s tastiest and prettiest cookies. It was a soiree of sweets.
Heritage recipes like Italian Pizzelles or Danish Butter Cookies always got Honorable Mentions, but never got Best in Show like the more contemporary Peanut Butter Cup Cookies or S’mores Cookies. Door prizes were won by a random drawing, and though there were never official winners declared, everyone knew, judging by the chatter, which cookies reigned supreme.
It’s been over 20 years now, and the dust of the Christmas Cookie Wars has pretty much settled, though no official ceasefire has been declared. I might be biased and engaging in some friendly fire here, but my mom, who appeared on this season of Food Network’s Christmas Cookie Challenge, might just be reigning Christmas Cookie Champ of our block. (I mean seriously — go to my mom’s Instagram and LOOK AT THESE COOKIES!)
But the annual cookie swap has led to some legendary desserts — looking at you, Kathy’s Candies — that are now passed around the neighborhood.
The block I grew up on has become pretty tight over the years. It’s natural for people who have been in close proximity to know one another after 20 years, but the neighbors I grew up with are so friendly toward one another that they’ve gone on MTV Spring Break-level vacations with one another. Most people want to get away from their neighbors, but my neighbors have gone as far as renting a mansion in the Outer Banks together, and a few winters ago they all flew down to the Dominican Republic for an island vacation. But before these epic group vacations, my neighbors bonded over the annual Christmas Cookie Swap. It was a friendly, but often heated, competition that brought them together and, whether out of pastry pride or fear of going down in the books for having that year’s Karen Cookie, brought out the best in them.
Though cookies from scratch are always lovely, when it comes to making mass quantity cookies, I’m all about semi-home made. Here are a couple of simple recipes that are great for cookie swaps!
Cream Cheese Cookies
1 8 oz. package of cream cheese
1/4 cup of butter
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
1 18.5 oz. package of cake mix (yellow or devil’s food chocolate)
Cream butter and cream cheese together.
Add egg and vanilla. Mix until thoroughly blended.
Add cake mix in 1/3rd at a time, mixing well.
Chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Bake at 350°F for 8 - 10 minutes.
Once cooled, dust with confectioners’ sugar.
Chocolate Chip Mint Cookies
3 1/4 cups of flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup of butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs + 1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon peppermint extract
Green food coloring
Mix together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and cream of tartar.
In a separate bowl, beat sugar and butter together. Add two eggs and one egg yolk. Continue to mix and then add peppermint extract.
To the butter, sugar and egg mixture, add a few drops of green food coloring.
Once butter, sugar, egg, peppermint extract, and green food coloring are thoroughly mixed, slowly add dry flour mixture.
Once dough is mixed, add chocolate chips (which can literally only be measured with your heart’s content).
Refrigerate dough for one hour before portioning out onto cookie sheet.
Bake at 350°F for 8 - 10 minutes.
Cookies with a taste of the Finger Lakes Wine Country
My mom pairs her Salted Caramel Snickerdoodle (featured on Food Network) with three incredible drinks made from Finger Lakes Wine Country wine and spirits. She’s got a White Russian with Finger Lakes Distilling’s Vintner Vodka for an adult take on cookies and milk, a Spiced Apple Cider with Eve’s Cidery’s Autumn’s Gold, and a Holiday Mulled Wine with Wagner Vineyard’s Seneca Red.
Around the World in seven cookies
Saveur takes readers on a sugar fueled jaunt across the globe through seven different cookies. I fancy Middle Eastern desserts, so the Iraqi Lemon and Cardamom Cookies stands out to me. Fruit with aromatic spices like cardamom or even cinnamon and nutmeg are beautiful pairings. Which cookie do you want to try? Or is there a cookie you think should be on this list?
What is Figgy Pudding?
We recently answered that question on WHYY’s Delishtory. It’s way too complex to simply earn one by caroling on someone’s front stoop.
If I have to know of the existence of this Twitter account, so do you. Whoever is behind @UpcomingOreos is dedicated to conceptualizing the most absurd Oreo cookie flavors imaginable. And yet, they’re still only slightly less absurd than the actual Oreo flavors Nabisco continues to release.
Kae Lani Palmisano is the Emmy® Award-Winning TV host of WHYY's Check, Please! Philly, a show that spotlights restaurants throughout the Philadelphia region. She also hosts and helps write Delishtory on WHYY, a digital series that dives into the history of foods we love. Kae Lani is also a food and travel writer who enjoys exploring the history and culture of cuisine.