Not Your Mom’s Cookie Exchange

Christmas, Entertain, Holidays, Holidays, Menu Ideas

This post comes to us courtesy of cooking instructor Jodi Liano.


A holiday highlight for me was always my mom returning home after a cookie exchange. She’d leave the house with dozens of decorated sugar cookies and return home with a huge box full of different cookies. Red and white striped candy cane cookies, green tinged Nanaimo bars, buttery spritz, and of course those peanut butter drops with the chocolate kisses in the center…it wouldn’t be the holidays without cookies.


When I moved to San Francisco I wanted to start my own holiday tradition and bring back the old fashioned idea of a cookie exchange. It started small, 12 or so friends, a light dinner, and plenty of sweets. As the years have gone on the guest list has grown, and the cookie baking bar has been raised so high that my friends plan their recipes months in advance.


It’s a simple party to throw, and so incredibly festive. Here’s my step-by-step guide to hosting a holiday cookie exchange:


Make a guest list and pick a date.

I suggest doing this well in advance since the holidays get so crazy. I use an electronic invite because I really believe it helps create the vibe of the party. When my friends RSVP, there are always comments about last year’s cookies, cries for easy recipes from the non-bakers, and a bit of boasting from the pros. Reading through it is half the fun. This is where you set the “rules” too. For me this means no store bought cookies — they need to be festive (no chocolate chip here) and made by hand.


Plan the meal.

Next, I like to serve dinner, but with a guest list of 30+ people it has to be easy. I suggest a big pot of winter soup, such as Butternut Squash or Curried Cauliflower (great when you need to make it ahead). Toss a salad with greens, toasted walnuts, sliced persimmons, and walnut vinaigrette and pick up a few fresh loaves a bread from your favorite bakery. Stock plenty of wine and champagne and have lots of glasses on hand. If I’ve learned one thing over the years, it’s that cookie bakers like their vino!


Tell your stories. 

When guests arrive they bring their cookies (or candies) on serving plates. Before diving in, each baker tells us what she made and the story behind it. Sometimes the story is as simple as finding a recipe on the Web, but usually it’s much more than that — a traditional recipe from grandma, a project with the kids, or the quickest recipe available after the first batch was a failure. We’ve heard it all.


Prepare the packaging. 

I make sure I have pink bakery boxes (you can easily order them online or buy them from a local bakery) and lots of waxed paper so when it is time to dive in, people can stack their cookies in boxes to take home. I usually embellish the boxes with a holiday stamp or sticker just to make it a bit more personal. If each guest brings about 5 dozen cookies, you should have more than enough for everyone to take at least 3 home of every variety.


Revel in the spirit of the season. 

Sure, the party is all about the cookies but, after more than eight years of getting together I feel like it has grown into so much more. We’ve shared our weddings, babies, divorces, new businesses, moves and promotions. Women who never knew each other have become fast friends. I know it’s a hit when I start getting emails around November 1 asking for the date. We all know it is the sweetest way to ring in the season.


All photos courtesy of Laura Morton. 


About the author: I am a cooking instructor and food writer from San Francisco. Originally from Seattle, I moved to SF in 1998 to pursue a career in food. After culinary school I worked at Rose Pistola and the Blue Plate in SF, Sunset Magazine, the Food Network in New York, and Bay Cafe, to name a few. My passion is teaching cooking and I’ve made a career doing just that at Tante Marie’s Cooking School San Francisco. I’ve also written three books for Williams Sonoma-“New Flavors: Vegetables”,”Cooking From the Farmer’s Market” and “Eggs”. I’m a huge proponent of family dinner so most nights you’ll find me eating at home with my husband and son. When I’m out in SF, I’m probably eating a Panna Pie at Pizzeria Delfina, a Rainbow Salad at Burma Superstar, Chopped Liver at Bar Agricole, or Coffee Ice Cream with Jimmies from Swensen’s .

9 comments about “Not Your Mom’s Cookie Exchange

  1. Not You Mom’s Cookie Exchange | Food Wednesday

  2. Mary Elizabeth Roarke

    Hi, I loved your cookie exchange story and pics, especially the section on “Tell your stories… each baker tells us what she made and the story behind it.” This is exactly the idea for my cookbook series… people share their recipes and tell the stories of the memories they evoke… We are currently in the process of collecting recipes for our 6th book and I would be honored to feature some from you!

  3. Kent Goertzen

    This is making me want recipes of the cookies that got featured in the photos.

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  7. Emily

    Fantastic article and so timely – my friends and I gather regularly for great reasons and even great causes. The holiday cookie exchange is a great chance to give back to charities like Cookies for Kids’ Cancer, which encourages individuals to host bake sales and cookie exchanges to support childhood cancer research. Takes the spirit of the season to another level.

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