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There’s holiday music in the air and the kitchen smells heavenly from the dozens and dozens of cookies you’ve baked. Pretty containers hold delicious favorites: thin sugar cookies with red and green sprinkles…powdery, light almond crescents...classic chocolate chip…toffee brittle with butterscotch chips…

And then your sweet dream is interrupted by the alarm. Time to start breakfast, get the kids off to school, start the clothes washer, dash out the door to work, return later to fix dinner—and just when were those dozens of different holiday cookies going to be researched and prepped?

You don’t have to give up the dream. Pull out the calendar and choose a two-hour slot for all those cookies, with two words: cookie exchange.

Now you’re looking at baking batches of all the same cookies, and “assembly line” becomes your go-to mantra, a big time-saver. So doable, says Kim Neirynck, who lives in Dyer, and has been participating in cookie exchanges for more than two decades. Call it a party or gathering or whatever, but it’s really an opportunity to wind up with as many dozens of cookies as there are attendees. And every batch is different.

Merry Gatherings

“We have between eight and twelve people baking the cookies,” Neirynck says. “Everyone makes a dozen cookies for each person there. So if you have ten people, you bring nine dozen cookies. Ten to twelve people is our goal.”

Neirynck’s group began the holiday cookie exchange 23 years ago, with four original members still baking goodies with the group. “We watched our moms do cookie exchanges for 40 years and thought, ‘Why don’t we do that?’” she says.

The where and when are up to you. Neirynck says, “The first year we went to one of our houses, but it was so much work for the hostess that way. We were all working full-time and had kids.” Ever since, the friends meet at a restaurant, have dinner, then exchange the cookies and visit with each other. “No one has to worry about cleaning house, or cooking a meal,” she explains.

Delicious Differences

The friends keep track so no one makes the same cookie. If you have a go-to favorite, have at it. “One person always makes the peanut butter with the Kiss on top. Someone always does the lemon bar,” she says.

Neirynck has made Spritz cookies, Snickerdoodles, chocolate with a cherry on top, and chocolate with caramel drizzle. There’ve been mint cookies, banana cookies with icing, turtle cookies, and the list goes on. Neirynck says in the beginning they did fancier cookies, but found most of the family “doesn’t want the super fancy ones.” Still, she’ll look on Pinterest or in vintage cookbooks for inspiration.

One rule is always followed: “Always homemade, never the cut-and-bake ones,” she laughs.

Her group bakes just two or three days before Christmas, and she takes some to neighbors. But if you’re looking to store cookies longer, check out the tips in the sidebar from an area chef.

Above all, have fun. “We have a great time,” Neirynck says. “You can’t always get together with your friends, but we gather for the cookie exchange. One of our original members moved to Michigan, but she still comes here for this. We love carrying on the tradition from our moms.”

Tasty Alternatives

You meant to, you really did, but life got in the way and there are no cookies from your oven. Good cookies are better than none, so scope out area stores and bakeries.

At Tiger Lily Café and Bakery in Chesterton, Chef Toni Fugate has a big variety of delectable choices. “Our cookies are decorated, in all kinds of shapes, including Christmas trees, snowflakes, angels, and a lot more,” Fugate says. There are decorated short dough cookies, many varieties of multigrain cookies, and a vegan version. “We have an extremely large variety this season, because last year our Cookie Walk was incredibly popular,” she says.

At Strack and Van Til in Whiting, clerk Jamie Tirtle says the M&M cookies are big sellers. “Sometimes moms don’t have time to bake all their own holiday cookies,” she says. “We have lots of cookies for the holidays—cranberry, pumpkin, Santa Claus, and more, and of course chocolate chip. And they’re always fresh, kept on our shelves for four days only, then given away to food pantries.”

If you buy, make the packaging festive. “We have fun and have nine new containers to take home,” Neirynck says. Past inspirations have included a cute wire basket that later holds candies and such, and plastic-enclosed cookies wrapped in new Christmas kitchen towels.

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