07 December 2016

Cookie Party Basics: the How, the Why, and Lessons Learned (plus recipe: Chocolate Mint Cookies)

Many years ago, when my husband and I were still relatively newlyweds, we went to church with a family that had a wonderful tradition. Every Christmas, they would decorate their house and invite everyone they knew to a great open house Christmas party. They had a Christmas village, complete with a model train chugging along a track around it, that filled one room. Platters piled high with every kind of Christmas treat you could imagine on every counter in the kitchen. Gorgeously-decorated Christmas trees in every room. Dozens of people filled the house, eating holiday treats, singing carols, and laughing together. And it was wonderful. The best part? Even though we barely knew this family, they made us feel entirely welcome and loved. We decided that one day we would be that family.

So when we bought our house, we decided it was time to start our own Christmas Party tradition. In fact, one of the things we loved most about this house was that it was big enough to accommodate a crowd, and open enough to allow for a good flow of traffic. Perfect for the party we'd been planning for years. A party as elaborate as the one we had attended years before was too much to take on, though, so we decided to keep it relatively simple. Of course, we would put up several Christmas trees and decorate the foyer with our Christmas village. And of course we would invite all of our friends, neighbors, and casual acquaintances. But the decorations would be modest, and I couldn't even think about making all of the food we'd enjoyed at that other party.

I decided to focus on my favorite easy-to-share holiday treat (Cookies!) and we had our very first Cookie Party in December 2009.

We invited everyone we knew, including all of the neighbors we hadn't yet had a chance to meet. We decorated four Christmas trees, each with a different theme. And I spent weeks preparing and baking 18-25 dozen each of 15 different cookie varieties.

Unfortunately, two days before our party, Snowmageddon hit the east coast, dropping 18 inches of snow overnight. Roads were closed. Everything was cancelled. Many people couldn't even get out of their houses. And I had hundreds of dozens of cookies that we couldn't possibly eat all by ourselves!

Luckily, by the evening of our party, most of the roads in town had been plowed, and people were looking for an excuse to get out of the house after being cooped up all weekend long. We had more guests than I might have expected (with the snow and all), but we still had roughly half of our cookies remaining when it was all over.  And I learned some priceless lessons:

#1 - Cookies are a powerful force. The promise of delicious homemade cookies can draw people out, even during a crazy snowstorm.

#2 - It's important to label each type of cookie, making a note of possible allergy triggers in each one, just in case you have guests with sensitivities. (I also avoid any kind of nuts in my cookies for the party, even though I have some phenomenal nut-based cookie recipes, because the risk of cross-contamination is too great.) And when inventing new cookie flavors, it's important to write down your process ... for those moments when your guests ask for the recipes.

#3 - Bite-sized cookies are better than full-sized cookies. Guests can sample all 15 (or more) varieties without a lot of guilt if a dozen cookies is equal to approximately 3 or 4 traditionally-sized cookies.

#4 - You can't ever plan for everything. Sometimes, the weather will catch you off-guard and throw your entire carefully-thought-out plan out of whack. (So now I don't bake all of the cookies at once. I prepare and freeze the dough into individual portions in advance, keeping track of how many of each variety I have. The day before the party, I'll bake up a few dozen of each kind to start us off, and then I just keep my oven going all day. As a cookie plate starts running low, I'll pull that cookie variety out of the freezer and pop some into the oven. We have freshly-baked cookies all day long, I'm not left with a ton of extras at the end of the day, and any dough left in the freezer can be saved for future fresh-baked-cookie cravings.)

 #5 - No matter how many you make, there are some cookie flavors that are more popular. You will most likely run out of Chocolate Mint Cookies, so make a double batch!

 You will need (for a single batch of cookie dough - makes about 15 dozen bite-sized cookies):
1 c. butter (softened)
1 1/2 c. sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. mint extract
1/2 c. cocoa powder
3 c. flour
1 (12 oz) package mini chocolate chips (optional)

In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar.

Add eggs, baking powder, salt, mint, and cocoa powder. Mix well.

Stir in flour (and optional chocolate chips, if desired). Chill dough 1 hour.

Form dough into 1/2-inch balls. (I use a mini cookie scoop, but you can do this by hand, if you don't have a cookie scoop.) Place on parchment-lined (or lightly-greased) cookie sheet, spaced 1 1/2 to 2-inches apart to allow for spreading.

Bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 8 minutes. Cool for 1-2 minutes on baking sheet, then transfer to wire rack to cool completely. Serve immediately, or store in an airtight container.

Dough balls can be frozen prior to baking for future use. Place dough balls on parchment-lined cookie sheet (no need to leave space between cookies, as they won't spread in the freezer!), and freeze 6-8 hours. Then transfer to Ziploc freezer bags to store in your freezer for up to 6 months. (Actually, I've kept cookie dough in my freezer for over a year with no problems, but they're less likely to develop a freezer burn taste if you rotate your cookie dough stash frequently.) When you're ready to bake the frozen dough, you can either thaw the dough balls completely and then bake as usual, OR bake straight from the freezer at 325 degrees Fahrenheit for 12 minutes.

Variation: You can also make larger cookies, if you don't want the bite-sized version. Form dough into 1-inch balls. You'll need to press the dough balls to flatten slightly before baking (or they won't fully bake in the center), and you may want to bake for 9 minutes, instead of 8.

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