We chatted with a cookie swap pro — yes, really! — to find out her best tips for preparing a festive fête with family and friends this season, what makes cookie exchanges so special, and some of her very favorite recipes.
Related: Our State Presents A Holiday Cookie-Decorating Contest: Share your decorated cookies for a chance to win a $100 gift certificate to the Our State Store. Click here for more information.
On the morning of their annual Cookie Walk, the fellowship hall at Wrightsville United Methodist Church is buzzing with excitement, cheerful noise, and, of course, the sweet aroma of a lot of cookies. “We put on Christmas music, our pastor dresses up as a Christmas elf, and there’s a lot of laughter” says church member Jeannie DeGaetano.
DeGaetano, along with the church’s Circle of Hope group, helps to organize the massive event every year. How big is this sweet operation, you ask? At their 2019 cookie walk, organizers estimated that church members made and brought between 16,000 and 17,000 cookies. “Our doors open at 9 a.m. and in past years, we’ve had to close them as early as 10 a.m. because we’ve sold out that quickly!” DeGaetano says. “It’s always amazing to see how the people of Wrightsville get involved — how the church comes together to bake thousands and thousands of cookies, and how our local community shows up to support us, every year.”
Given DeGaetano’s experience, we thought she’d be the perfect person to chat with about hosting our own holiday cookie exchange. Whether you’re planning to go all out with a massive cookie walk like Wrightsville UMC’s or host a cozy cookie swap in your home, keep reading to discover tips that will help you prepare — and to find a few of DeGaetano’s family recipes that are tried-and-true favorites at the cookie walk.
OS: Are cookie swaps and cookie walks just for sweets?
Jeannie: I think that having a variety of different treats is wonderful! Some of our favorites outside of cookies are cheese straws, cheese pennies, and pretzel confections, like chocolate-covered pretzels. We also include dog treats, which are usually gone within the first 30 to 45 minutes of our cookie walk and are a huge hit — you can’t forget your furry friends this Christmas!
OS: What’s the best way to package cookies?
Jeannie: Our favorite way to package cookies is in a bakery box lined with bakery paper — we buy our boxes from Nashville Wraps — and give people a pair of disposable gloves. Then people can wander around with their box and help themselves to whatever cookies they’d like! This year, we’re packaging up small amounts of cookies in snack bags, so that we avoid people picking up individual cookies for their bakery boxes. Putting the cookies in small bags keeps them fresh and helps us take care of our friends and family this time of year.
OS: Any tips for decorating for a cookie party?
Jeannie: Well, at our cookie walk we do something that I truly love — someone provides table linens, but then we ask each member of the Circle of Hope to scoop up something in their house to make a beautiful display for each table. It doesn’t have to be over-the-top, but I love that we’re all contributing and bringing something that’s beautiful to us — that’s what makes it special. And we play Christmas music, always! It sets a joyful tone in the room and gets us all in a great mood!
OS: What’s your favorite thing about hosting this event?
Jeannie: Well, it’s not about the party itself or the event itself — it’s about being together and having fun. And we eat quite a few cookies, ourselves — we have this platter that we put all the broken cookies on, so we’re snacking on those all day, and enjoying the lovely handiwork of others. Regardless of what happens at the event, we have such a wonderful time being together, and it’s amazing to see people working together to make something so sweet. It would never be successful without the many hands contributing and the special moments we share, and I’m love that we get to work together.
OS: What are the best kinds of cookies to have at a cookie swap or cookie walk — a decorated sugar cookie? A classic recipe from Grandma?
Jeannie: Oh, any! One of the gentlemen in our church makes this licorice cookie that’s been in his family for years, and it’s always popular. And when you talk about heirloom cookie recipes, people bring molasses cookies made from recipes that have been in their families for hundreds of years. Also, every year we have some very talented people who make these gorgeous hand-decorated sugar cookies. It’s special to have both kinds: the beautiful and the classic family recipes. That’s what’s so sweet — you get to see people’s baking talents, or hear the stories about the cookies that, say, their grandmother or aunt made. Also, I always want to be sensitive to people who feel like they might not be the best bakers, so something as simple as a chocolate chip cookie with some red and green M&Ms on top is always welcome. We want everyone to feel included, regardless of how “good” of a baker they think they are.
OS: What is your most popular cookie?
Jeannie: Well, peanut butter balls are not technically a cookie, but they’re always gone quickly — and definitely the hand-decorated sugar cookies that I mentioned. Oh, and thumbprint cookies, and you can never go wrong with a peanut butter blossom. And gingerbread men, of course! We have one person who makes hundreds of gingerbread men every year, which makes a cookie table look festive.
OS: Do you have any beloved family recipes that you make every year?
Jeannie: My mother’s cheese penny recipe is high on the list, and I think she was the third generation in our family to use that recipe, so now I’m the fourth generation making them, which is incredibly special. My sister is actually here visiting me right now, and we made 200 peanut butter balls last night, which are also a family favorite! Right now they’re in the fridge, and later we’re going to dip them in chocolate. I also make soft ginger cookies, which is my sister’s recipe. So we make peanut butter balls, cheese pennies, and ginger cookies — those are just a few of our family favorites.
For a few of Jeannie’s favorite recipes, see below!
Combine shredded sharp cheese and softened butter. Slowly add flour to take the “sticky” texture out of the mixture. Roll into small balls. With a fork dipped in flour, press down the cheese balls in a criss-cross pattern. Bake at 350° until lightly browned.
*Additional flour may be needed to remove any stickiness in the dough. Add slowly so the mixture doesn’t get too dry.
1 cup sugar ¾ cup shortening ¼ cup molasses 1 egg, beaten 2 cups flour 2 teaspoons baking soda ½ teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon ginger 1 teaspoon ground cloves 1 teaspoon cinnamon
Preheat oven to 375°. Ceram one cup sugar and ¾ cup shortening. Add molasses and egg. Sift flour, baking soda, salt, ginger, ground cloves, and cinnamon. Add to creamed mixture. Roll into walnut-sized balls. Dip one end in sugar. Place sugar side up on parchment paper-lined baking sheets. Bake for 10 minutes.
Cream butter and peanut butter; add powdered sugar and vanilla. Beat, or mix with hands if too stiff. Roll cream mixture into balls. Refrigerate or freeze to harden (this makes dipping in the chocolate mixture easier).
Melt paraffin and chocolate morsels in a double boiler. Using a toothpick, dip each candy ball into chocolate and place on waxed paper to set.
For a printable PDF of Jeannie’s recipes — plus 3 more! — click here.