We might have to do without some of our favorite traditions in this 2020 holiday season, but there was one that I was determined to experience: a holiday cookie swap with friends.
With social distancing, the swap couldn’t involve inviting a big group of pals to the house to lay their trays of cookies out on the dining room table. Instead, a small group of us selected a batch of sturdy sweets and agreed to ship them on a certain date. Then, we gathered for a virtual cookie swap on Zoom.
We did our swap in late October as a test run so that we could share our tips with you as the height of holiday cookie season approaches. Our group was scattered across the United States, so we got a good sense of how long cookies take to arrive.
We wanted to keep this loose and fun, so each person picked a cookie with the only criteria that it could survive bouncing its way across the country and that we would end up with varied flavors and ingredients.
We shipped the cookies on Oct. 19 and set the Zoom call for seven days later, just to be sure the cookies would arrive on time. All went well. The only thing that dampened our experience: Postage cost. Each of us spent a total of $50 to $60 shipping four packages of a dozen cookies each to four friends.
“I was surprised how expensive it was to ship,” said Adriana Garcia of New Orleans, a sentiment echoed by everyone.
Note: If you live close enough to your cookie swap pals, you can make arrangements to do a contactless drop-off of packages on doorsteps.
If that extra expense isn’t a dealbreaker for you and you want to host your own swap, here’s what we learned:
– Pick a ring leader. You need a swap coordinator, who can help the group pick a reasonable deadline for choosing each cookie, collect addresses and select a shipping date with enough lag time – at least five to seven days – before the mutually agreed-upon virtual swap-party date. Also, this person should check in with folks periodically with reminders to make sure everything is progressing smoothly.
– Keep it simple. It’s hard to leave anyone out, but we wanted to keep the group to just five people to keep it manageable. This is the time for a sweet exchange, so no competition for a best cookie prize and no requirements to send along recipes.
– Safety first: Coronavirus transmission by food is unlikely, experts say, but always remember to thoroughly wash your hands before, during and after cooking. You may wish to wear a mask or food-safe gloves as an extra layer of protection. If, however, you are sick, do not make food for others.
– Think sturdy cookies. This is not the time for cream-filled confections or treats with delicate, soft frosting. Think dense bar cookies, biscotti or drop-style cookies, such as chocolate chip or oatmeal. Also, pick cookies that you know or think will taste good even when they’re several days old. And be sure the selected cookies are different enough from one another to provide variety. Imagine them together on a platter.
– Decide how many cookies: We each shipped a dozen cookies to each participant, so that meant everyone had to make at least four dozen. That also meant each of us ended up with four dozen (in addition any extras we made for ourselves to keep): Good for those of us with bigger households; kind of a lot for couples. If your households are smaller, consider having folks ship just a half-dozen cookies each. Or, if you end up with a lot of cookies, remember most unfrosted cookies will freeze well for about six months. (And, just FYI: Most raw dough can be frozen for six months as well.)
– Ship in reusable containers. Pack cookies in airtight, durable, uncrushable containers of the proper size, such as common food storage containers or decorative tins. Make sure the cookies fit snugly, using parchment or wax paper to cushion them so that they don’t jostle and get crushed in shipping. If your container isn’t airtight, consider placing the cookies inside zip-top bags first. Secure your container with colorful ribbons or tape, if necessary. Place the containers inside a larger shipping box lined with crumpled paper or other filler insulation.
– Wait for the cookies to arrive. For most of us, the waiting was the easiest part, but Hope Boos of South St. Paul, Minn., said it was tough for her kids to see cookie after cookie arrive in the mail and not dig in. So your group should decide if it is OK to open the cookies as they arrive or ask everyone to open all at once for the big reveal. Garcia opened hers as they arrived and shared her daughter’s cookie “reviews” via Facebook messenger. In either case, when the time is right, gather your cookies, pour a glass of milk (or a cocktail) and join your friends on a Zoom or FaceTime – or whatever service you use – to nibble, ooh and aah and catch up.