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Published: Sunday, 12/6/2009

Trading treats: At cookie exchanges, guests enjoy sweet traditions

Diana Randolph, left, and her mother, Gloria Carpenter, have had cookie exchange parties for 10 years. Diana Randolph, left, and her mother, Gloria Carpenter, have had cookie exchange parties for 10 years.

Frosted cutouts and spritz blossoms and toffee bars.

Oh, my.

The winter holiday season is to cookie lovers what spring is to gardeners and summer to golfers: heaven.

So it shouldn't be surprising that cookie exchanges are a popular December party tradition. For these gatherings, each guest brings dozens of a single type of cookie that are intended to be swapped with other guests. After some socializing and grazing, everyone picks and chooses from the array of cookies, leaving with an assortment — the same number as they brought to the party — to serve to family and friends during the holidays.

"It really has been fun to see what other people's family favorites are, and that's typically what they tend to be," says Marian Grems of Maumee, who has for many years co-hosted a cookie exchange with Karen Stone of Monclova Township.

Some people bring the same cookie every year, Ms. Grems says. Some like to try a new recipe. And there's usually a hot new cookie of the year that shows up on the table, "something that's easy and a little bit different."

Cookies fill a table at the seventh annual cookie exchange hosted by Diana Randolph and Gloria Carpenter in 2005. Cookies fill a table at the seventh annual cookie exchange hosted by Diana Randolph and Gloria Carpenter in 2005.

Mrs. Stone says she organized her first cookie exchange with about 10 neighbors in South Toledo in the mid-'80s. They were all stay-at-home moms with preschool children, so they'd get together on a weekday. Later, it became an evening party with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. "We used to party till midnight," she says.

Now it's a Saturday morning affair and still includes more than half of the original neighborhood group.

"There are usually 20 to 22 of us," Mrs. Stone says. "Some see each other only that one time during the year."

"It's really evolved over time, and become much more than cookies," adds Ms. Grems. "It's really a celebration of friendship. ... It's an opportunity to take a break from the holiday madness and dress up and spend an evening or morning with friends."

Gloria Carpenter of Sylvania says she tells her guests to leave their calorie counter at home when they come to the annual cookie exchange party that she and her daughter, Diana Randolph, also of Sylvania, throw on the second Tuesday of December.

This year's party will be the 11th for Mrs. Carpenter and Mrs. Randolph, and as they do every year, it will be held at both of their homes. They alternate the sequence, starting at one for hors d'oeuvres and traveling to the other for dessert and the cookie exchange.

The tradition began as a mother-and-daughter party. Mrs. Carpenter invited her friends and their daughters, and Mrs. Randolph invited her friends and their mothers.

"It just made for a joyous night," Mrs. Carpenter says. In the last five years or so, they've opened it up to others. "We have friends who have begged us to come," she explains.

Beyond the basic idea of sharing and swapping cookies, hostesses tinker with the party details. Mrs. Stone's guests, for example, also bring toiletries or something like socks or mittens to donate to a homeless shelter downtown.

Some hostesses ask guests to bring copies of their cookie recipe. Some ask them to bring their own plate or container in which to carry their cookies home, while other hostesses provide them.

The number of cookies everyone brings is flexible, too.

Mrs. Stone says in the early years, she asked guests to bring six dozen cookies. Now it's three dozen.

Some culinary-challenged or time-pressed guests arrive with bakery cookies rather than homemade. Some even come empty-handed, with no expectation of taking cookies home.

"If you don't want to make cookies, you don't need to bring cookies," Mrs. Stone says. "Last year we had 20 different varieties, and there probably were 23 of us here."

For Ms. Grems, "Last year was a crazy year and I didn't even take cookies, but I was generously given a plate of leftovers."

For the Carpenter-Randolph cookie exchange, "Each girl only makes two dozen, all alike, and it doesn't have to be something out of this world, it can be a plain old cookie that their grandmother made," Mrs. Carpenter says.

She doesn't ask guests what kind they're bringing, because she doesn't worry about duplication. Somehow it works out. "Nobody knows what the other person is bringing. I don't think we've ever had anything that was very similar," Mrs. Carpenter says.

Mrs. Stone says she bakes only during the holiday season and never knows what she's going to make until the week of the party. "It depends on how busy I am. I make whatever's easy."

A cookie exchange party doesn't really end after all the sweets are divvied up — it just rolls on as guests serve them at their own holiday events.

But some cookies don't travel very far.

"I'm lucky if I make it home without sampling a few," Ms. Grems admits.

Contact Ann Weber at: aweber@theblade.com

or 419-724-6126.

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