Thursday, December 17, 2009

The first rule of cookie exchange is:

At this joyful time of year, I can’t help but ask this question: How did something as simple as a cookie exchange become so labor-intensive?

Full disclosure: I’ve done this only once in my life, at my sister-in-law Amy’s house. It was a lovely gathering, as is every event Amy hosts. And I left with some very yummy cookies in my very own pretty shopping bag. But it was obvious that I was the Roseanne in the room, trying to fit in with a bunch of Marthas, and I mean that in the nicest way about every woman who was there. They all seemed to have a real, almost innate, grasp of this whole thing. I did my best but was basically clueless and unprepared.

For every man reading this, or every woman like me who is obviously missing some kind of girl gene, I’ll explain. Like many things in life, the concept of the cookie exchange is fabulous. But a cookie exchange party is one of those things that sounds way better than it actually is; kind of like Spanx, or mixing rum and Tab in college.

The idea here is that a bunch of girl friends, co-workers, congregation members, bowling teammates, workout buddies, walking companions, den mothers, sorority sisters, family members, or any other connected or unconnected group of women – in other words, pretty much any group of women who could almost randomly gather together – meet in someone’s home, sometime before Christmas Day.

The exchange masquerades as a real timesaver for women, something that will replace hours in the kitchen surrounded by cookie sheets, flour, colored sugar and something called cheesecloth, which I can’t really define. The exchange offers a way women can add real variety to their cookie trays without dragging out the faded, dog-eared recipes and buying dozens of ingredients they’ll use once and then shelve until next Christmas. The exchange presents a challenge for women like me.

It kinds of delivers on its promise. You bake once; one kind of cookie; and end up with dozens or assorted cookies for family and friends to enjoy. Here’s how it works. Each woman chooses – and reports to the group before they gather together – the kind of cookie she’ll bring to the exchange. Nothing ruins a cookie exchange faster than two or three women baking and sharing the same Snickerdoodles with the group. I chose to bake and contribute Scottish Shortbread.

If you know anything about baking Scottish Shortbread cookies, you know that they require a long (in terms of cookie-time) time to bake, you have to cut out the shapes with a cookie cutter or other forms, not simply drop them by the spoonful onto the cookie sheet, and you need to make a lot of dough to make a dozen or two cookies.

Tip number 1: choose a scoop and drop cookie. You’ll thank me when you aren’t using a rolling pin to create your exchange recipe.

In addition to offering cookies at the exchange, women literally exchange recipes. At Amy’s house I received recipes from every woman who attended. They were designed – not just printed or written out. They were decorated with holiday graphics. They were laminated. I’m not kidding.

You won’t be surprised to hear not only did I not have the recipe with me, with adorable, festive copies for everyone, I could barely remember it. “ummm... Sugar, flour, butter...maybe a little salt.”

Tip number 2: If you’re not going to hand out recipe cards, make sure you’ve at least memorized the recipe.

Tip number 3: Based on the Tyler Durdan school of discipline: First rule of cookie exchange? Know the rules of cookie exchange. This is one bit of wisdom that is apparently part of female DNA that I’m missing. When you attend a cookie exchange, you bring one dozen cookies each for every woman who attends, plus a “dozen for the table.” In my case, that meant I was to bake and bring 13 dozen.

Maybe it’s exactly like Fight Club. Maybe the first rule of cookie exchange is you don’t talk about cookie exchange. All I know is that I baked about three or four dozen. Which left me just 108 cookies short. I discovered my error about five hours before the party and – yes, I can’t help it – I baked like a mad woman and arrived at the party with 156 cookies. I was all set. Except for the missing pretty, laminated recipe cards. And the little bags that everyone had packaged her cookies in. Tied up with holiday bows.

Even still, I loved that. I loved the way they looked and the sharing that was taking place. But I truly felt like I had missed a week of ‘girl school’ somewhere along the line, when they taught us about stuff like cookie exchanges and laminating. The problem was me, not everyone else.

Funny thing, though. It’s not just me. The other day I spoke to a young woman I work with – she could be my daughter – and she was about to attend a cookie exchange. Without going into all the details, she was all set to repeat my CE transgression. She could deal with printing out some recipes – had that covered – but there was no way she could bake another 9 dozen cookies in time.

The best part ever: at the end of the day, she was relating all of this to her husband over the phone. He cheerfully offered to run to the store, buy the ingredients, and bake the missing cookies for her.

Husband of the year, right there. I may have to apologize to Gloria Steinem for all the horrible things I’ve thought and written about her over the years. Maybe all the equal partner stuff is real, at least for 25-year-olds.

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