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How to Host a Holiday Cookie Exchange

Even bakers who turn out beautiful cookies year-round seem to particularly relish baking them at holiday time. At a cookie exchange, each guest brings a large batch of his/her favorite holiday cookie, and each guest returns with a few of each type. Cookie exchanges define win-win: They’re fun and festive events that provide warm tradition in both the baking and the gathering–and then there are all the yummy cookies you take home! I’ve been a happy guest at my local Girl Scout Leader Cookie Exchange for many years.

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Hosting? Here’s how:

Send Your Invites

Invite enough people to ensure a variety of cookies, but still work within your space. Although there are usually close to 30 people at the cookie exchange I attend, cookie swaps can work with 10-12 guests as well. Instruct each attendee to bring 4 dozen homemade cookies and a large container in which to take their cookies home. Ask people to bring copies of their recipes, or start a group email message after the party to share them. Cookie exchanges can work at various times of day. Mine occurs at 7 pm, so that guests arrive after dinner. If the party is earlier in the day, consider having some filling or savory treats on hand.

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Prepare Your Space

While one long table is best for a cookie exchange, a counter or several small tables will work. Remove chairs and arrange the table/s so that people can walk all around them as they gather their cookies. Have some pretty platters on hand, for guests to place their cookies on, or ask people to arrive with serving dishes. Provide wax paper sheets, so people can line their containers and separate the layers of cookies. Have pens and index or tented paper cards handy, so guests can write the names of their cookies, and perhaps their names, so others can know which recipes they’ll want to collect.

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Line Up Your Guests

When you’re ready, have guests form a single line and prepare to travel around the table, picking up one cookie from each plate as they pass. If you have a lot of guests, have them join the back of the line between each trip around the table.

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Consider Other Foods, Decor and Activities

Cookie exchanges are pretty festive on their own, but that doesn’t stop my host extraordinaire, Mimi, from going all-out with holiday decorations; drinks such as coffee, hot cider and punch; and an ornament exchange game to boot. Here are some other fun holiday games and Christmas games.

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Choose a Great Recipe of Your Own

Should you want to contribute a cookie to the mix, try one of these:

Easy Christmas Cookies  from Martha Stewart

Three Great Christmas Cookies (including the Spritz cookies I grew up making) and My Favorite Orange with Sweet Orange Glaze from Slow Family

Greek Melomakarona Cookies (another favorite of mine) from Food.com

Shopping for kitchen accessories to make the perfect cookies? You’ll find what you need for reasonable prices at Target.com. Through Dec. 24, use promo code KITCHEN and get an additional 25% off Target kitchen items!

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Happy Holidays!

Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman

This post contains affiliate links.

Personalize Your Baking with Fun Cookie Cutters

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I love anything that let’s you customize your projects, so when I saw these special cookie cutters from Chicago Metallic, I immediately bought the set. They are so much fun to use!

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There are three generous cookie shapes with grooves to fit the letters, which follow the same principle of old printing presses – letters get placed into the grooves backward, in order to print the messages in the right direction.

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There was more than enough of every letter. In addition, the set comes with some ready-made strips of common phrases, like Happy, Birthday, Congrats, Holiday, Welcome, From and Love You.

I had been wanting to send my college-age daughter a last care package for the year, so I celebrated the end of the school year and the beginning of summer in cookies. I used the recipe that came with the cutters, and it  made a simple, thick, buttery sugar cookie that stood up to shipping. I’m sure I’ll experiment with other recipes and sayings, because this was so much fun – and most appreciated. I think they’d make terrific cookies for holidays or any occasion. For children’s birthday parties, you could surprise guests with personalized cookies, as a simple party favor (that will surely be appreciated). For an older group, cookies could serve as placeholders.

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Photos: Susan Sachs Lipman

My Favorite Orange Cookie with Sweet Orange Glaze

orange cookies

frosted orange cookie

These are my new hands-down favorite cookies to bake (and eat) – Orange cookies with sweet orange glaze from Brown Eyed Baker. I brought these cookies to barbecues over the summer and I believe they will be just as popular during holiday gatherings in winter. They’re delicious and sweet, with a texture that offers both softness and crunch and a vibrant citrus taste, even without the frosting. The frosting, which I first successfully added, complete with sprinkles, at the suggestion of my daughter Anna, gives them even more of a yummy, sweet orange taste.

best orange cookie

orange cookie recipe

glazed orange cookie

Enjoy with milk, coffee or your drink of choice!

Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman

Happy Fat Tuesday! Mardi Gras Mask and other Cookies

Happy Fat Tuesday! I love these beautiful Mardi Gras mask cookies from Sweetopia.

Wondering how to make pretty iced cookies of all kinds? Check out this cookie decorating tutorial from I Am Baker.

 

6 Fun Family Activities to Enjoy This Weekend

For many, Memorial Day Weekend signifies the beginning of the summer season and a return to outdoor fun. Here are a few great activities that will help you make the most of it.

Make and Fly a Popsicle Stick Airplane

Everyone loves to make and fly airplanes, and the rounded popsicle-stick ends on these make for a fairly safe, satisfying, and easily assembled flying machine.

You’ll need: 5 popsicle or craft sticks per plane.

Stack three popsicle sticks and then fan them out so that one end of each stick is still touching the others. Glue the tops together. Weave a fourth popsicle stick over the first stick, under the middle stick, and over the third stick in the triangle. Weave a fifth popsicle stick the opposite way—under the first stick, over the middle stick, and under the third stick in the triangle. If desired, add a dot of glue at each juncture for extra security, and let the glue dry. Paint your airplane or leave it natural. Take it outside and fly as you would a paper airplane. Hold the middle stick and try to launch it decisively and parallel to the ground.

Camp in Your Backyard

Camping out in sleeping bags is fun any time of year—in a backyard, on a porch or balcony, even on the living-room floor. Play low-tech games, like cards and charades. Make traditional camp treats, like s’mores. If you’re outside, enjoy a game of flashlight tag, played by tagging players with beams of light.

Make Patriotic Cookies

These red, white and blue cookies are festive and fun to make anytime. Enjoy the creative process and enjoy the response when you bring them to a party or potluck. In addition, they taste particularly yummy!

Paint and Plant a Flower Pot

Looking for a simple garden project or a teacher or other gift? Paint a clay flower pot with tempera paint. Let it dry, fill with dirt, and plant your favorite plant or seed inside. You can also cover a pot with seed packets or other paper products and attach them with adhesive material, such as Mod Podge.

Get Your Garden Growing

Memorial Day Weekend can be a great one to get into the garden. There are fun gardening projects to interest every age gardener and lots of easy ways to get a garden started, even if you’ve never been much of a green thumb.

Play an Old-Fashioned Outdoor Game

Will you be with a group of people over the weekend? Get outside and play an old-fashioned game, like Hide and Seek, Duck Duck Goose or Tag. Or play Pickup Sticks with real twigs!

You’ll need: Approximately 41 twigs.

Hold the twigs in a bundle, then release them so that they land in a pile. Players take turns trying to remove one stick at a time, without disturbing any other sticks. When a stick from the pile is disturbed, the next player takes a turn. Some players use a designated stick to remove other sticks. When all the sticks have been removed from the pile, players total their numbers of sticks to determine the winner.

Enjoy your weekend!

Photos: Susan Sachs Lipman, VA State Parks

12 Days of Green Holiday Gifts: Homemade Cookies

Cookies might be the ultimate green and well-received gift — They’re delightful, yummy and fun. They come from the heart. They’re economical. Making and exchanging them can be a fun holiday tradition. And you can always make a few extra for yourself.

Every holiday season I have the pleasure of attending a cookie exchange! Lucky me (and my family.) Each year the women who volunteer to help with my local Girl Scout group have an exchange in which attendees bring 4 dozen cookies and an empty container. The cookies all go out on a table, and we line up (Girl Scout volunteers are orderly) and go around the table, socializing and taking a cookie from each plate until they are all distributed. (A photo from a past exchange is above.)

There are several cookies that have become part of our holiday baking traditions. I usually manage to make a couple of types each year. They happen to be easy to make. Here are the favorites.

Spritz Cookies

I grew up making these every holiday season. My mom especially enjoyed making Spritz cookies and Halloween cupcakes. A certain whiff from an electric beater — she had a great, big Hamilton Beach one that sat permanently on the counter — takes me right back to childhood winters and falls.

Spritz cookies are made by pressing the soft dough through a cookie press and through various plates with interchangeable shapes. I love the efficiency and fun of pressing out lots of little cookies. Once pressed onto a cookie sheet, you can decorate them with the sprinkles of your choice. I think one of the keys to good Spritz cookies is: Be sure your recipe includes almond flavoring (or add 1/2 tsp. per 4-5 cups of dry ingredients, or half as much as your vanilla flavoring). The other is: Have fun decorating. This can be a very festive and delicious cookie. If you do color the cookies (which I recommend!) you might want to try professional paste frosting colors, which, with a little patience, produce a nice deep color. (You can get a box of 8 small color jars from ChefMaster, available at specialty baking stores, for around $7).

It also takes a little practice to learn to press the right amount of dough out per cookie. (Most presses have adjustable settings.) The good news is you can just scoop dough that didn’t work out back into the press and try again.

This site, from Wilton, offers the classic Spritz recipe, plus links for buying a cookie press. I recommend the reasonably priced Cookie Max.

Butterballs

You may know them as Mexican Wedding Balls, or Russian Tea Cookies. Butterballs are mine (and a lot of people’s) favorite cookie — They’re tasty, melt-in-your-mouth buttery, sugar-coated, and just all-around great, any time of year. I find the ones in The Silver Palate Cookbook to be the best of the best, perhaps because they’re largely sweetened with honey, which provides a great taste and crunch.

Here is the Butterball Cookie recipe, from The Silver Palate Cookbook.

Sugarplums

One more from the Silver Palate team — This one is in The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook: Sugarplums. Mythical, festive, evocative Sugarplums. (As seen in The Nutcracker and The Night Before Christmas.) They are certainly as much fun to pop into one’s mouth as they are to contemplate. The original Sugarplum recipe calls for corn syrup and cognac. I substituted agave syrup, a mild and more natural sweetener for half the corn syrup, and all of the cognac (using a little under 1/3 c. for the cognac portion.) And I did away with the cherry on top, the better to enjoy the pure, undiluted Sugarplum experience.

Enjoy!

For gifting, wrap in cellophane or fabric and tie with ribbons, or place in jars or decorated bags. Or bring to gatherings on plates.

My criteria for a green holiday gift? One that :

Promotes nature play or care of the earth
Uses all or mostly natural ingredients
Fosters observation and/or open-ended active and creative play
Doesn’t use extraneous plastic or other wrapping
Doesn’t break the bank to buy it.

Got any suggestions? Send them my way!

Other Green Holiday Gifts:
Root Viewer Garden Kit

Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman

Three Great Christmas Cookies

Heading somewhere for the holidays and in need of a dessert or hostess gift? Or simply haven’t gotten your fill of your holiday baking? These three relatively simple, festive and classic holiday cookie recipes should help you in either case.

Spritz Cookies

I grew up making Spritz cookies every holiday season. A certain whiff from an electric beater takes me right back to childhood winters.

Spritz cookies are made by pressing the soft dough through a cookie press and through various plates with interchangeable shapes. I love the efficiency and fun of pressing out lots of little cookies. Once pressed onto a cookie sheet, you can decorate them with the sprinkles of your choice. I think one of the keys to good Spritz cookies is: Be sure your recipe includes almond flavoring (or add 1/2 tsp. per 4-5 cups of dry ingredients, or half as much as your vanilla flavoring). The other is: Have fun decorating. This can be a very festive and delicious cookie. If you do color the cookies (which I recommend!) you might want to try professional paste frosting colors, which, with a little patience, produce a nice deep color. (You can get a box of 8 small color jars from ChefMaster, available at specialty baking stores, for around $7).

It also takes a little practice to learn to press the right amount of dough out per cookie. (Most presses have adjustable settings.) The good news is you can just scoop dough that didn’t work out back into the press and try again.

This site, from Wilton, offers the classic Spritz recipe, plus links for buying a cookie press. I recommend the reasonably priced Cookie Max.

Butterballs

You may know them as Mexican Wedding Balls, or Russian Tea Cookies. Butterballs are mine (and a lot of people’s) favorite cookie — They’re tasty, melt-in-your-mouth buttery, sugar-coated, and just all-around great, any time of year. I find the ones in The Silver Palate Cookbook to be the best of the best, perhaps because they’re largely sweetened with honey, which provides a great taste and crunch.

Here is a copy of the recipe, from The Silver Palate Cookbook.

Sugarplums


One more from the Silver Palate team — This one is in The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook: Sugarplums. Mythical, festive, evocative Sugarplums. (Blame it on The Nutcracker and The Night Before Christmas.) They are certainly as much fun to pop into one’s mouth as they are to contemplate. The original recipe calls for corn syrup and cognac. I substituted agave syrup, a mild and more natural sweetener for half the corn syrup, and all of the cognac (using a little under 1/3 c. for the cognac portion.) And I did away with the cherry on top, the better to enjoy the pure, undiluted Sugarplum experience.

Here’s hoping you have a warm and yummy holiday!


Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman

Build Your Dream Gingerbread House Part One

It’s the rare person whose imagination isn’t captured by the delight in creating a gingerbread house. There’s the architecture aspect, as the house’s pieces are baked and fitted — and icing-caulked — together in a variety of ways. There’s the decorating, which can be done with all manner of bright candies and objects and patterns that can recall familiar items — or not! And there’s the very satisfying, whimsical, one-of-a-kind structure that results.

Here are some tips and ideas from around the web for creating gingerbread and other candied houses.

From Wilton, comes this extremely informative and creative guide to decorating gingerbread houses that covers multiple styles.

Celebrating Christmas offers recipes, ideas, and enough blueprints for homes and landscaping (from ponds to flower-lined paths) to satisfy your inner general contractor.

Gingerbread House Heaven is another site with lots of ideas and beautiful pictures for inspiration. Think you can’t light a gingerbread house with real lights, for instance? Think again. This site shares how, in addition to offering instructions for melted-candy windows that will make the light glow realistically through. Roofing textures and various recipes for edible clay are among the many other things covered.

If you’re still seeking good gingerbread recipes and building how-tos, Simply Recipes has plenty.

Rather skip the headaches of building and just move in? Here are lots of turn-key house ideas, like using milk cartons or other bases, as a way of getting right to the decorating fun.

With small children, especially, the easiest and most pleasing thing to do is cover a short milk carton with frosting and let them stick on candies and other foods to decorate. The milk carton (or a village of them) can sit atop a piece of foil-covered cardboard that can also be frosted. And, of course, you can buy a pre-assembled gingerbread house and get right to the decorating.

Some decorating ideas include:

Gumdrops, cut in half – edging or decorations
Jelly beans – edging or decorations
M&Ms – ornaments or decorations
Fruit loops – decorations
Nilla wafers, crushed or whole – walkways
Ritz crackers – walkways, shingles or siding
Gummi bears – decorations
Chocolate soldiers – decorations
Chocolate kisses – bells or decorations
Chocolate nonpareils – shingles or decorations
Candy canes – gates or decorations
Licorice, small pieces – edging or bricks
Necco wafers, whole or broken – shingles, walkways, decorations
Pretzel sticks – fences and logs
Shredded wheat cereal – thatched roofs
Graham crackers, halved, and candy canes – sleds
Graham crackers – shingles
Upside down ice-cream cones, frosted and dipped in green sprinkles – trees
Brown sugar – dirt
Confectioners sugar – snow

And, for the modern home, orange-half barbecues and ice-cream cone satellite dishes!

Here’s hoping you enjoy a fun and creative holiday!

Photos: Public Domain, Wilton, Susan Sachs Lipman

Stay tuned for Part Two: Gingerbread Workshops

Fourth of July or Groovy Colorful Cookies

Looking for a fun, easy 4th of July, summer or anytime colorful cookie? When we are, we often find ourselves turning to this recipe for “Beautiful Colorful Cookies” in the book, Williams-Sonoma Kids Cookies. It makes a tasty shortbread-like cookie, with a great crunchy texture.

But, of course, the real star is the unexpected, high-impact colors. We use professional paste frosting colors for wonderful results. You can get a box of 8 small color jars from ChefMaster, available at specialty baking stores, for around $8.

You’ll need:

1/2 c. butter, softened
1/2 c. confectioner’s sugar
3/4 tsp. vanilla extract
1 c. flour
Food coloring

(This will make about 22 cookies. We suggest doubling the recipe.)

Adjust oven to 350.
Put butter, confectioner’s sugar and vanilla in large bowl and beat, on medium-high speed, until creamy.
Add flour and beat at low speed to form smooth dough.
Divide dough in equal parts, one for each color you’ve chosen, and add food coloring until you get the colors you want.

You can then either employ the “log” method of designing your cookies …

… Or the “blob” method.

Here, logs are placed together ..

… and then gently twisted.

The process is very much like working with fimo clay.

This is the blob version, in which the log is created by putting rolled balls of dough together and gently rolling to combine.

The trick to both is twisting or rolling gently, so the colors don’t mix too much and each remains distinct. You can cut a slice to see if you’re happy with your pattern.

Cut slices about 1/4″ thick. If the dough is too soft, refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Place slices on ungreased cookie sheets about 1″ apart and bake for approx. 10 minutes or until set.

Cool and enjoy!

Here’s how the cookies can look with subtler colors. Happy 4th!

Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman

12 Days of Green Holiday Gifts: Homemade Cookies

Cookies might be the ultimate green and well-received gift — They’re delightful, yummy and fun. They come from the heart. They’re economical. Making and exchanging them can be a fun holiday tradition. And you can always make a few extra for yourself.

This week I had the pleasure of attending a cookie exchange! Lucky me (and my family.) Each year the women who volunteer to help with my local Girl Scout group have an exchange in which attendees bring 4 dozen cookies and an empty container. The cookies all go out on a table, and we line up (Girl Scout volunteers are orderly) and go around the table, socializing and taking a cookie from each plate until they are all distributed. (A photo from the exchange is above.)

There are several cookies that have become part of our holiday baking traditions. I usually manage to make a couple of types each year. They happen to be easy to make. Here are the favorites.

Spritz Cookies


I grew up making these. In fact, my mom really enjoyed making Spritz cookies and Halloween cupcakes. A certain whiff from an electric beater (she had a great, big Hamilton Beach one that was permanently on the counter) takes me right back to childhood winters and falls.

Spritz cookies are made by pressing the soft dough through a cookie press and through various plates with interchangeable shapes. I love the efficiency and fun of pressing out lots of little cookies. Once pressed onto a cookie sheet, you can decorate them with the sprinkles of your choice. I think one of the keys to good Spritz cookies is: Be sure your recipe includes almond flavoring (or add 1/2 tsp. per 4-5 cups of dry ingredients, or half as much as your vanilla flavoring). The other is: Have fun decorating. This can be a very festive and delicious cookie. If you do color the cookies (which I recommend!) you might want to try professional paste frosting colors, which, with a little patience, produce a nice deep color. (You can get a box of 8 small color jars from ChefMaster, available at specialty baking stores, for around $7).

It also takes a little practice to learn to press the right amount of dough out per cookie. (Most presses have adjustable settings.) The good news is you can just scoop dough that didn’t work out back into the press and try again.

This site, from Wilton, offers the classic Spritz recipe, plus links for buying a cookie press. I recommend the reasonably priced Cookie Max.

Butterballs

You may know them as Mexican Wedding Balls, or Russian Tea Cookies. Butterballs are mine (and a lot of people’s) favorite cookie — They’re tasty, melt-in-your-mouth buttery, sugar-coated, and just all-around great, any time of year. I find the ones in The Silver Palate Cookbook to be the best of the best, perhaps because they’re largely sweetened with honey, which provides a great taste and crunch.

Here is a copy of the recipe, from The Silver Palate Cookbook.

Sugarplums


One more from the Silver Palate team — This one is in The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook: Sugarplums. Mythical, festive, evocative Sugarplums. (Blame it on The Nutcracker and The Night Before Christmas.) They are certainly as much fun to pop into one’s mouth as they are to contemplate. The original recipe calls for corn syrup and cognac. I substituted agave syrup, a mild and more natural sweetener for half the corn syrup, and all of the cognac (using a little under 1/3 c. for the cognac portion.) And I did away with the cherry on top, the better to enjoy the pure, undiluted Sugarplum experience.

Enjoy!

My criteria for a green holiday gift? Items meet all or most of the following: Promotes nature play or care of the earth, Uses all or mostly natural ingredients, Fosters hours of open-ended creative play,  Doesn’t use extraneous plastic or other wrapping, Doesn’t break the bank to buy it.

Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman

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