Baking Up Tradition

Baking Up Tradition

published in the Chicago Sun-Times

Back in the day, a proper Wellesley cookie swap meant lacy aprons, long skirts and lighted luminaries. It even involved a little silver bell: Just as with Pavlov’s dogs, the ringing signified it was time to drool. On cue, the women who were gathered at Mary Bevilacqua’s lovely home would present and exchange their baked treats, following a set of rules codified in their 1970s classic, “The Wellesley Cookie Exchange Cookbook.”

Lacy aprons? Silver bells? Not so much today. A modern cookie exchange is just as likely to include booze and—gasp—even boys. More cocktail party than Betty Crocker, this holiday tradition has evolved to accommodate the hip, the talented and even the hopeless in the kitchen.

Kyle Johnson knows how to wield a spatula. In fact, the River North pharmaceutical representative is rather famous for her chocolate chip-pecan cookies. But all are welcome when she puts on a pot of chili, pours the wine and turns on the Christmas tunes for her semiannual cookie swap.

“It’s sort of like an excuse to get together on a Sunday afternoon in the holiday season,” Johnson says with a laugh.

Make no mistake: There are guidelines. Each guest is asked to bring four dozen of one type of cookie, along with approximately 20 copies of the recipe to share. Some of Johnson’s girlfriends are rather competitive, decorating gingerbread men with natty frosting suits or adding candy holly to wreath cookies.

Others are rather intimidated. Johnson’s talents prompted one guest to ask, “How could I ever bring cookies to your house?”

But whether they’ve manned the oven all night or persuaded a friend to fill a plate for them, it’s no matter. “I tell them, ‘Don’t even worry about it. Just come and have fun,’” Johnson says.

And they do. After the cookies are spread around the table, a group of guy friends is supplied with milk and clipboards and invited to sample, judging the selection for best presentation, best tasting and most original. They have to resist attempts at wooing and bribery before awarding prizes.

Finally, the girls get a turn to taste, then all indulge in some turkey chili, adult beverages and holiday cheer before sorting batches and heading home.

Johnson’s is just one type of party. She stole the idea from another girlfriend who hosts a full-blown sleepover. Everyone stays up all night to bake together, then they share brunch before divvying the goods and going home to sleep.

Myke Koscielski attended a more casual party last year on the north side hosted by a fellow member of MEETinChicago, the local arm of a national social club. About a dozen other men and women in their mid-20s to mid-40s also came out on a weeknight in early December with plates of cookies they may or may not have baked. (Koscielski’s wife baked his, but she had to work and missed the sweet rewards.)

There were few-to-no rules at that particular event. Everyone grabbed a plate and made a pass around the table taking samples. The hostess served coffee, milk, tea and cocoa to wash it all down. Fortunately for Koscielski’s wife, there was enough left for each to take home an assortment.

Michelle Klarchek’s annual cookie extravaganza turns the heat up a notch. Her guests have a job. There are frosting stations and stations for chopping nuts and stations for unwrapping Hershey’s Kisses. “Mine is completely, completely different,” Klarchek says. “We’re working.”

It’s hardly a hardship, however. Klarchek sends a helicopter to the city for her friends and flies them to her lodge at Lake Geneva for the festivities. They send out for Asian food. Each guest receives an Egyptian cotton chef’s coat stitched with her name and the emblem for that year’s party. Baking on the spot spares the women any preparation—with the exception of Klarchek, of course. “I spend months getting ready,” she says.

Her party is a labor of love. “My mom was a big cookie baker,” Klarchek says. When she passed away, “I wanted to do something. That’s how it got started.”

So for the past several years, she and 15 to 20 of her friends come together at around 4 in the afternoon, don their coats and dig in. They break for a photo in front of the Christmas tree and outside the lodge, but otherwise they’re fairly busy until 1 or 2 in the morning. “It’s supposed to be fun, but we need to work a little bit,” Klarchek says.

Virginia Dew-Siddons often finds herself up to her elbows in suds at Klarchek’s party. But she keeps coming back—in fact, she was the first to bake for the holidays with Klarchek. “The participation is the most fun part of it,” Dew-Siddons says, “working together.”

Everyone takes home a giant box of cookies—with the exception of Klarchek, of course. “All the cookies are gone,” she says. She doesn’t seem to mind too, too much. “It’s a gift of time and a gift of friendship. The girls have a great time,” she says.

As hip or as simple as a cookie swap may be, there still is a bit of sentiment baked into that gooey goodness. Johnson’s mom has taken up baking to join her daughter in the holiday tradition. Dew-Siddons remembers making Hungarian nut crescents with her grandmother as a young girl. “It’s like passing on something through the generations,” she says.

And each year, Klarchek includes her mother’s apricot bars on the to-do list for her party. “It’s something that makes my heart feel good and makes me think of my mom,” Klarchek adds.

Funny, that’s just what the women of the Wellesley cookbook say.

Ingredients of a successful exchange

“The Wellesley Cookie Exchange Cookbook” is out of print, but you still can find a few used copies online. In addition to a huge assortment of recipes for classic cookies, heirloom cookies, chocolates, tea party fancies and more, the tome offers these friendly tips for your own cookie swap:

  • “Remember, if you do it twice, at least someone will think it’s a tradition.”
  • “If you object to cigarettes, you might tactfully request, as Mary and Laurel do on their invitation, that smokers refrain from lighting up at the cookie exchange.”
  • “Follow the example of our furry friends and squirrel away bags of walnuts, pecans, and almonds before the Christmas baking season—it’s like money in the bank!”
  • “It is unreasonable to expect fragile or delicately frosted cookies to survive much handling at all. Those cookies are best eaten within walking distance of your kitchen.” (Even easier—eating the ingredients in your kitchen as you bake!)
  • “A good cookie exchange can support any degree of formality or informality, as long as the cookies are good, so don’t wear yourself out being fancy if that’s not your style—the point is to have a good time.”