There is no crowding into a small kitchen this year, waiting for your turn with the stand mixer or the oven, and grabbing handfuls of warm treats off a buffet platter.
Like so many other 2020 events, holiday cookie swaps will look a little different in the time of social distancing.
But you can still get the sugar rush and endorphin boost of a traditional baking binge without cramming into close quarters. These pandemic-friendly cookie swap ideas will help you celebrate this time-honored holiday tradition safely — and much less stressfully.
Do a virtual swap
The easiest way to do a cookie swap in the middle of a pandemic is — where else? — online. There are a few ways to pull off a virtual cookie swap.
If you want to make a bunch of different cookies on your own, each participant in your swap can choose one recipe and share it with the rest of the group. Pick a date for an online meeting, then bake up a batch (or a half batch) of each selected cookie recipe in time to sample them for your remote cookie tasting.
Because you’re not constrained by a single day of baking together in this scenario, you can try your hand at a few quirky recipes or make any substitutions your heart desires.
Try maple cream sandwich cookies in place of the usual frosted sugar cookies. Don’t want raisins in your brown butter oatmeal raisin cookies? Make them with dried cherries or white chocolate chips instead! Then discuss among yourselves.
For a celebratory twist, propose that the group open the swap meeting with a toast using freshly baked chocolate chip cookie shot glasses. You decide whether you want to fill yours with milk, eggnog or hot chocolate.
The second way to do a virtual cookie swap is slightly more old school: Every participant can make one cookie recipe on their own, then divvy up the batches and ship them to each other. Joan Cichalski of Little Silver, New Jersey, has been doing a swap with a group of East Coast college friends almost every year since 1969. (Disclosure: She’s also my mother-in-law, so I always get some of her treats.)
Though the group is within driving distance of their homes in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey, none of the ladies want to take on the risks of travel this year.
“We’re moving it to Zoom, like everything else, even though we really want to get together,” she said. After decades of swapping, the group has an arsenal of favorite cookie recipes, so they’re picking tried-and-true options instead of overthinking it.
“I’ll be doing my shortbread because that mails beautifully,” Cichalski decided.
How to ship cookies
As the owner of the online cookie business Little Red Kitchen Bakeshop, Susan Palmer is well versed in making sure her packages of goodies arrive fresh and intact. For the holidays, she has a few recommendations for those new to the cookie shipping game.
First, choose your cookies wisely. “I would avoid the really delicate cookies,” Palmer advised, which means no tuiles, rugelach or pizzelle.
She suggests going back to the classics: “Chocolate chip, molasses and hearty butter-based cookies can hold up to shipping.” Gingerbread is an ideal option, and you can even send the prebaked parts of a homemade gingerbread house for your recipients to build on arrival.
When packaging the cookies, nest them well. Start with a hard-sided tin or box, then surround it with cushy packing material, like bubble wrap or crinkle paper. This lets the package bounce a bit in transit and still be protected.
And while you should pick a shipping method that gives you a relatively short window of shipping time and allows you to track the package, “the cookies aren’t going to go stale in a day,” Palmer said. In a Tupperware container or zip-top bag, she continued, “they’re going to stay fresh for a week.”
As she astutely noted, “No one’s going to complain if your cookie arrives and the chocolate’s a little gooey.”
If you can safely do an outdoor swap
Remember that all of the recommended social distancing precautions still apply. Set up tables or stations at least 6 feet apart and have guests drop off or bring prepackaged portions for a stop-by swap.
When packaging cookies for a grab-and-go get-together, Palmer suggests using poly bags or gift bags that can be sourced easily from a bakery supply store or craft store. “They’re more cost-efficient than a box,” she said.
Or make a cookie that already comes in its own container, like small-batch brownies baked in disposable mini loaf pans. That means fewer dishes to wash after the fact and the packaging is already halfway done: It’s a holiday gift to you!
Swap with yourself
If you are already stressed about safely scheduling everything else this holiday season, give yourself permission to take a year off from the typical swap scenario.
I know I’m not the only person who theoretically would love to do a cookie swap with friends but can’t summon the energy to organize one when we’ve already made so many adjustments to holiday plans and expectations.
So try swapping with yourself instead of swapping with others. That is, take the year off from your usual cookie recipes if they’re feeling too same-old, same-old — and don’t feel beholden to baking them unless they’re truly giving you comfort and joy.
Instead, treat yourself to making the cookie you want to indulge in this season. For me, that will be copycat Levain cookies to replicate the New York City bakery treat that I miss more than anything right now.
A good cookie swap hits all the holiday high points: the act of making, of giving and receiving, and most of all, sharing the spirit of kindness. Whether or not you’re gathering in person or opening up a special package, the feeling remains the same.