Holiday Cookie Swap Recipes and How-To

Epicurious and Gourmet Live editors share their favorite holiday cookie recipes, perfect for gifting any time of year
by Sara Bonisteel, Epicurious;

Photos: Kimberly Sentner; styling: Sara BonisteelPhotos: Kimberly Sentner; styling: Sara Bonisteel

A good Christmas cookie is a memory wrapped in wax paper. It conjures warm thoughts of holidays spent with loved ones and promises of new experiences yet to begin under the tinseled tree. We at Epicurious believe that just as you can never give or get too many presents, you can never have too many holiday cookie recipes in your recipe box. So, 10 editors of Epicurious and Gourmet Live swapped our most beloved family recipes, from Vanilla-Cherry Chocolate-Chip Cookies and red-and-green-sprinkled Santa's Whiskers to Peanut Butter Kiss Cookies and Pecan Pralines. Be sure to scroll down and read our guide to cookie swaps for tips on hosting your own.

Below is our gift to you, 10 treasured recipes in this virtual Christmas cookie swap (click the photos for the recipe):

Simply Splendid Sugar Cookies
Tanya Steel, Editor-in-Chief
"I love this one because it has almost as much whole wheat as all-purpose flour and less sugar than most versions. It's from my book, Real Food for Healthy Kids, and it's our go-to cookie when we are craving something crisp and sweet. We make it every Christmas Eve and leave it out for Santa. It turns out he loves them as much as we do."

Thumbprint Cookies

Siobhan Adcock, Managing Editor
"Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, my grandmother always has a platter of Christmas cookies under wrap and ready to serve--after all, you never know when someone's going to stop by for a holiday visit, and certainly no self-respecting cook would be caught short without five or six different kinds of holiday cookies at the ready!

"When I was younger, I was partial to the frosted wreath cutout cookies with bows made of cinnamon Red Hots, but now that I'm older I love the thumbprint cookies. The bright red jam is pretty and festive, and I like to invite my friends' kids over to roll the dough into balls and press their thumbs in the center."

Peanut Butter Kiss Cookies
Lauren Salkeld, Senior Editor
"Peanut butter kiss cookies have been a Salkeld family favorite for as long as I can remember. They're perfect for us because we're all hopelessly addicted to peanut butter, chocolate, and the peanut butter and chocolate combo. Smooth peanut butter is the norm, but we're chunky fans so we've been known to use that instead. And one year, when we ran out of vanilla, we discovered almond extract lends an extra layer of nuttiness that we really enjoy."

Santa's Whiskers
Sara Bonisteel, Senior Editor
"My Grandma J, Ethel Hughes Johnston, served these refrigerator cookies every Christmas, along with a spread of gingersnaps, rum balls, and sugar cookies. The name comes from the toasted coconut, and if you squint you might catch a glimpse of the old guy in the array of candied cherries and pecans. We grandkids loved these cookies best of all, and I make them every year without fail to bring my late grandmother's spirit to my holiday festivities."

Gingery Chocolate-Chip Cookies
Esther Sung, Associate Editor
"It thrills me to no end that my mom, an immigrant, was baking cookies from scratch many, many years ago as a way to connect with her American-born children. My mom's version called for walnuts, but I prefer to add in chopped crystallized ginger, which brings a lingering warmth with every bite--perfect for when it's chilly."

See more: Rules of Regifting

Bourbon Balls
Carolina Santos-Neves, Assistant Editor
"These were certainly the kids' favorite growing up. Maybe it was because they have no nutritional value, or perhaps it's the bourbon. Our favorite part? Using our hands to mix everything together! If you don't have bourbon around, rum works just as well. And adding a few tablespoons of peanut butter to the mix is highly recommended!"

Viennese Crescents
Patricia Reilly, Senior Copy Chief
"Long ago and far away in the days before digital recipe boxes, a New York Times recipe clipping worked its way into steady rotation in my kitchen at holiday time. Over the years, the recipe became a family favorite, evolving along the way, as such things do. But here's one thing that never changes: I get as much pleasure out of making these cookies--shaping the fragrant crescents by hand--as I do from eating and gifting them."

Vanilla-Cherry Chocolate-Chip Cookies
Kendra Vizcaino, Editorial Assistant
"I love these cookies because they're not too sweet, and they have a variety of textures. If you're in the mood for a cookie with chewiness, crunch, or softness, this cookie has aspects of each."

Christmas Wreaths

Kelly Senyei, Associate Editor, Gourmet Live
"The holidays don't officially begin in my family's home until we fire up the burners for the first (of what's sure to be dozens) of the season's batches of Marshmallow Wreaths. Every year for the past 15 years we've been making this dessert, and some of my earliest memories in the kitchen with my mom are of molding the bright-green mix into wreath shapes and tacking on the cinnamon-flavored candies. In addition to the individual treats, we often craft an entire batch of the mix into one giant wreath for the ultimate festive and edible centerpiece."

Pecan Pralines
Megan Steintrager, Senior Editor, Gourmet Live
"Buttery, nutty, and so caramel-y sweet they make your teeth hurt, pecan pralines have always been a highlight of my Christmas visits to my mom's family in Louisiana. This recipe comes from a family friend who is one of the best cooks I know--and that's saying a lot when you're talking about denizens of South Louisiana. Made with two homegrown Louisiana ingredients--sugar and pecans--plus butter and cream, they're a sweet bite of bayou country."

by Esther Sung

When it comes to traditional Christmas foods, it's hard to deny the cookie's rightful place at the holiday table. After all, cookies are Santa's snack of choice. For the rest of us, giving and receiving cookies is a delicious and inexpensive way to share the holiday spirit with friends and family. So why not make it even more fun by having a cookie swap party? A retro concept that's come full circle, the cookie exchange simply requires a host to invite guests, each of whom who bakes enough cookies to both share at the party and offer others to take home. For inspiration on hosting and participating in a holiday cookie exchange, we turned to Barbara Grunes, co-author of Very Merry Cookie Party: How to Plan and Host a Christmas Cookie Exchange (Chronicle Books). Grunes and her co-author, Virginia Van Vynckt, demonstrate just how easy this party concept is. With a little advance planning, everyone can walk away with beautiful edible presents.

See more: Healthy Comfort Recipes for Any Day

hosting & planning tips:

* Count Your Cookies
With a cookie swap, it's important to get a final head count as early as possible to determine how many cookies each guest should make. Eliminate paper invites and use free electronic invitation services (such as Pingg, Socializr, Punchbowl, or Evite) or use social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter, all of which make it easier to keep track of who's coming.

* Variety Is the Spice of Sweets
Prevent repetition--and competition--among the guests by asking them to let you know in advance what kind of cookies each plans to bring. If possible, keep the list public to all the guests via e-mail, online party planning tools, or social networking sites.

* Balance It Out
When it comes to planning food and drink, remember that while the cookies may be the heart and soul of the party, people will probably also want something savory. At an evening exchange, "sliders, meatballs with marinara, crab cakes with mustard sauce, and crudités are party foods that will offset the sweet quotient," says Grunes. For a mid-morning swap, she suggests breakfast-type items, such as mini quiches, finger sandwiches, and a fruit salad. Coffee, tea, and hot chocolate are good drink options, regardless of the time of day.

* Make It an Even Trade
With a final head count and cookie list in hand, it's time to determine how many everyone will need to bake and be able to take home. If it's a small group of four, asking each person to bake and bring a dozen cookies will yield a manageable quantity. For a larger group, the number of cookies each guest needs to contribute goes down. Also, some types of cookies may be "worth" more than others. According to Grunes, one or two Stained-Glass Ornament cookies may be worth at least half a dozen butter cookies.

* Bake for a Cause
The holidays are about giving to others, so add a charitable aspect to your cookie exchange. Have participants bring extra cookies that can then be sold at work, a parenting group, a nearby shopping center, or your house of worship. Some worthwhile charities to support include Cookies for Kids' Cancer, Heifer International, and Meals on Wheels.

* Dough Boys and Girls
Adults shouldn't have all the fun. When preparing for the party, Grunes suggests getting the kids involved--and occupied--with "sprinkling, frosting, filling thumbprints, dipping in chocolate. Decorating is a fun activity and of course, it doesn't have to be picture-perfect when they're young."

* Create a New Signature Cookie
Even if you're making your famous, oft-baked brownies for the swap, dress them up in a special way for the holidays. Splurge a little on specialty or unusual ingredients such as fancy sea salt or pistachios, or add an unexpected decorative flourish like flavored icings, multi-colored sparkling sugars, or metallic dragées.

Another way to step things up for the occasion is to try a new type of cookie, something especially fancy or particularly appealing to the eye. We feature three recipes from Very Merry Cookie Party that are sure to make an attractive--and delicious--presentation at the party.

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