The Ultimate Cookie Exchange

Most of us have been to at least one “Cookie Exchange Party” during the holidays, right?

Bring a plate of your cookies and leave with samples of everyone else’s. It’s fun, it’s festive, and someone else makes the hot cocoa. What’s not to love? It’s a fairly low-maintenance way to entertain in high-pressure December—unless you’re Meme Hopmayer, and you have a very specific vision of the Ultimate Cookie Exchange. Low maintenance is not part of the equation.

Not a Casual Baker

Hopmayer, who lived and raised her family in Wilmette for many years before heading downtown as an empty nester, is not a casual baker. She and her husband, Gary, once owned Original American Scones, helped develop Corner Bakery and Fox & Obel Market, and now happily mentor “young people starting food businesses.”

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“I had always wanted to have a cookie party… What’s more delicious? You can eat them one at a time ‘til you finish the whole batch!” she laughs. So in 2005, two dozen lucky FOM (Friends of Meme) received an invitation to her lovely home overlooking the bend of Lake Shore Drive. Happily, I was one of them, and trust me, I was dazzled.

The Hopmayers know everyone in the Chicago food world, so given the guest list, there was absolutely no possibility of trying to sneak in a slice-and-bake cookie from the supermarket or a ringer from the bakery (unless, of course, you were the pastry chef). I agonized over my choice, as did every guest. But now that the 9th Annual Meme’s Fabulous Cookie Exchange  (now up to 4 dozen guests) is upon us, all I care about is clearing my calendar to make sure I can attend. It’s that special.

Sweet Rules and Regulations

One of the reasons that it works so well is that Meme is supremely well organized. There are rules for the cookie exchange; all logical, none oppressive. You respond to the invitation with your actual cookie recipe, because every year, she produces a little spiral-bound cookie book as a take-home present. It also allows her to make a small sign to label each cookie for the dessert table.

The other rules include:

  • Bring 6 dozen of your favorite cookies, baked in a small size
  • Place them on a pretty platter for the abundant display
  • Bring a different cookie this year!
  • Meme reserves the right to call and ask you to change your cookie to avoid repetition at the event (i.e. too many gingersnaps!) and keep the table balanced.

The party follows essentially the same format every year. Meme goes all out decorating for the season (for a nice Jewish girl, she knows how to make Christmas happen!). You arrive with your platter of cookies; it’s taken to the dining room display table and arranged while you grab a glass of rosé champagne (Meme’s favorite!) and schmooze with the other guests. A rustic, yummy lunch is served in the kitchen: two steaming tureens of soup (at least one is vegetarian), crusty bread, and salads laden with greens, artisan cheeses, fruit and nuts. Every 10 minutes or so, you feel drawn to the cookie table to ooh and aah.

Stand Back!

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Then the real fun begins. A few of each cookie are put on a large tiered platter and taken to the kitchen butcher block for sampling. The cookies are divided up with surgical precision by the discerning crowd, sampled, discussed and devoured.

And then, each guest is given a cute, festive container and sent to the dining room to load it with one or two of each cookie. I’ve never felt quite so attractive to my family as when I arrive home from this Cookie Exchange!

This year, there will be a twist. Meme met some people from Fair Trade USA this past spring at the Woman Chefs and Restaurateurs Annual Meeting in San Francisco, and they were charmed by her cookie party tale. So they are sending a box of fair-trade baking supplies—curated from organic farmers who get paid a fair wage for their efforts—to each of the guests for use in their cookie preparations.

“I love [this party],” says this Hostess with the Mostess. “Part of my heart and soul is in it. I love sharing it with everyone. I love every part of it: the decorating, the cooking, being with beloved friends and colleagues… it’s my favorite party of the year.” Meme, that makes two of us.

 

Want to bring some of Meme’s magic to your own cookie exchange? Here are three of my favorite cookie recipes from last December’s exchange that are sure to wow your friends, family and guests.