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Cookie swaps sweeten the holidays if you can avoid the jams (video)

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Participants of The Current of Gazette cookie exchange pride themselves in their presentation./Christie Rotondo Participants of The Current of Gazette cookie exchange pride themselves in their presentation./Christie Rotondo
The Yule Blog, Dec. 20
5 days until Christmas

For many people, participating in a neighborhood or office cookie exchange is a holiday tradition.

It can be a huge undertaking, and there is some risk involved. But the payoff can be well worthwhile: You make one kind of cookie – albeit lots of them – and in return you get dozens of cookies, plain and fancy, in many varieties and flavors.

The Current and Gazette Newspapers has had a cookie swap for about 10 years, maybe longer. Participation runs anywhere from 10 to 18 people.

It was the brainchild of the publisher, Rick Travers, who has a notorious sweet tooth and a penchant for baking.

The task of organizing the exchange has fallen to graphic artist Sindy Hartman, who joined the exchange six years ago and has been organizing it for four or five. The week before Thanksgiving, she issues a call to the office bakers via email. She keeps track of how many people sign on and what type of cookie they will be making, and sends count and cookie updates periodically.

“I email to those that previously participated; it is pretty much the same people every year. Sometimes I add other people to the email just to see if I can get any ‘newbies’ who are willing to join,” said Hartman.

“Rick actually started it because of his love of baking; I just keep it going,” she said. “No one seemed to be thinking of doing it, so I decided to jump right in and take over. I enjoy it every year and look forward to it.” 

Hartman picks an exchange day; it’s usually about a week before Christmas. This year it was Wednesday, Dec. 18. Everyone makes a half-dozen cookies for each person on the list. There are no other rules – she tries to keep it simple.

“This year I have a couple of people that are in it but still don't know what they are making,” she said about a week before the scheduled exchange day. “That's fine; we will all be surprised by cookies we didn't know we were getting.” 

She said some people make the same cookie every year; others prefer to change it up.

The publisher’s peppermint bars are in high demand, and he makes them faithfully every year, plus some extras to share in the office.

“That’s why I joined the exchange – to get Rick’s peppermint bars,” graphic artist Robin DeWeese said.

Hartman’s specialty is chocolate-drizzled macaroons, but she only makes them every other year.

“Last year I did a key lime cookie. But some, like Rick and Robin, usually do the same cookies. Why mess with success?” she laughed.

DeWeese's favorite cookie to make for the swap is apricot-filled pecan-encrusted thumbprints, a perennial favorite. Another staffer in the production department, Chris Cusick, opted to try dark rum balls this year. Rumor has it that those who tried them had to have a breath test before they could be cleared to drive home.

But the cookies are only part of the fun. Finding new ideas for packaging them keeps the swap fresh, according to Hartman.

“Every year I look for something different and unique to use. Sometimes I use bags, sometimes boxes, or if I can get enough of the mini loaf pans, they work great. I just go nuts over this,” Hartman said.

From left, employees Tricia Springfield, Elaine Capsel, Robin DeWeese and Chris Cusick collect their cookie packages./Christie Rotondo From left, employees Tricia Springfield, Elaine Capsel, Robin DeWeese and Chris Cusick collect their cookie packages./Christie Rotondo Occasionally problems pop up. They include too many people changing their minds on the type of cookie and whether they are in or out, DeWeese said.

“One year the count changed after some people had already purchased the baking supplies and found they had to go buy more – that was also the year Marc's wife, who makes the fabulous Linzer hearts, decided it was just too much work,” she said. Linzer hearts are nutty layer cookies filled with raspberry jam.

I have heard cookie exchange horror stories – people substituting packaged grocery store cookies for home-baked, or making cookies that others find inedible.

One year I participated in an exchange where a woman burned a batch of cookies and made up her bags with 10 cookies instead of 12. While I was sympathetic, the swap organizer was unforgiving. She insisted on taking two cookies from each of the bags that were going to the offender and giving them back to the original bakers. Fair’s fair, she figured.

What really spoils an exchange and makes everyone groan are the no-shows – those who commit to making cookies and then don’t follow through or bother to tell anyone in advance. That gets you put on the naughty list, or maybe even blacklisted. 

We know you’re all waiting for it, so here’s the recipe for peppermint bars and a video of Travers baking up a batch in his kitchen.

Peppermint Bars

1 cup butter
1 cup white sugar
1 egg
1/4 teaspoon peppermint extract
5 drops red food coloring
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup finely crushed peppermint candy canes
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/3 cup coarsely chopped peppermint candy canes


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9- by-13-inch pan.

Cream butter and sugar. Beat in egg, peppermint extract and food coloring. Add flour and salt and blend well. Stir in 2/3 cup finely crushed candy canes.

Spread evenly in greased pan and bake for 25 minutes or until firm.

After removing from oven, immediately sprinkle with chocolate chips. Cover with a cookie sheet for 1 minute until melted, then spread chocolate evenly and sprinkle with 1/3 cup coarsely chopped candy canes. Cool completely before cutting into 1-inch squares.

Note: You can substitute plain chocolate bars for the chips; you will need 10 bars five-eighths of an ounce each.

Recipe from allrecipes.com

The Yule Blog is a day-to-day countdown to Christmas featuring a new story each day. Click the links below to read other stories in the series.

Nov. 29: Best shopping apps put you where the buys are.

Nov. 30: Small Business Saturday gives independent shops their turn to shine.

Dec. 1: Before there was 'Elf,' there was 'The Santaland Diaries.'

Dec. 2: Historic Smithville has plenty of old-fashioned Christmas spirit to go around

Dec. 3: Earth-friendly gifts help preserve the world's green assets.

Dec. 4: Great gift ideas for the cook

Dec. 5: Let Cape May kindle your Christmas spirit

Dec. 6: The worst and the weirdest Christmas films

Dec. 7: How to take the perfect holiday portrait

Dec. 8: Will South Jersey have a White Christmas in 2013?

Dec. 9: Don't risk a home fire this winter

Dec. 10: In the kitchen with grandma: How to make 6-layer Neapolitan cookies

Dec. 11: 12 (relatively) new songs for Christmas

Dec. 12: Best all-time Christmas movies, Part 1

Dec. 13: Best all-time Christmas movies, Part 2

Dec. 14: How to make Razzleberry Dressing

Dec. 15: Last-minute make-it gift: Peppermint Patty Martini

Dec. 16: Dennisville Christmas House Tour connects past and present

Dec. 17: Snow day survival guide

Dec. 18: Best all-time Christmas songs

Dec. 19: 5 handy gifts for the home baker

Dec. 20: Cookie swaps sweeten the holidays if you can avoid the jams

Dec. 21: When will Santa get here? Track his flight Christmas Eve with NORAD

DEc. 22: Presents for pets - and pet lovers

Dec. 23: Best children's books get to the heart of Christmas

Dec. 24: Feast of the 7 Fishes is a Christmas Eve tradition for many Italians

Dec. 25: People all over the world celebrate the birth of Jesus


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