Annual cookie swap brings Elgin women together for food, fellowship
Addie Broyles, Relish Austin
Cookie swaps abound this time of year, but few have the fervor and history of Gena Carter's annual swap in Elgin.
For the past 15 years, Carter has organized a cookie swap in her home just outside the small town about 20 miles northeast of Austin that has grown to include more than 40 guests and almost 4,000 cookies.
Peppermint chocolate chip cookies, potato chip cookies, ranger cookies, pumpkin spice and chocolate chip cookies, many of which were based on recipes that the women baked with their mothers and grandmothers. Lemon bars, cheesecake squares, no-bake cookies made with instant oatmeal and even a box of butterscotch chip cookies from Tiff's Treats, the Austin-based cookie delivery company.
"I've never had rules," Carter said at last year's party. "Only to have fun. Even if you burn your cookies, come anyway."
So how important is this cookie party? Last year's party fell on Glenda Ross's ninth anniversary with her husband. She was at the cookie swap with her daughter Kim. "I'll bring him cookies," she said.
Amid the busyness of the season, making to-do lists at night and at work, these women gather to decompress over cookies and have dinner. (Even Carter seems at ease, a feat few can pull off with a house packed with people walking around with bright red cranberry punch.)
Most of them have known each other for decades, but for the past 15 years, they've marked the passing of another year by passing platefuls of carefully crafted sweets. Everyone brings six dozen cookies and goes home with more cookies than they could eat in a month. "It's my favorite thing of the Christmas season," says Kay Wing, one of Carter's closest friends. As she and Carter talk about all the swaps of years past, you can see all the heartbreak and triumph of those years flash between them. "We've been through a lot. She's my prayer warrior," Wing says.
The first few years, they were squeezed in Carter's little tiny kitchen, but they made it work. When Carter and her family moved to a larger house out in the country, the guest list expanded and so did the number of cookies, and last year's party was the biggest so far.
Carter insists that before the swapping begins, each guest takes a turn talking about what she brought and why. Every year, Carter explains why she makes the same cookies — brown sugar cookies and snickerdoodles. "I'm so full of gratitude that you all have come, and I'm so thankful for all of you. We've been together through a lot of things. Twenty years ago, I moved here from Taylor and didn't know anybody and I thought my life was over," she told the group of women, many of whom had heard the story before but listened intently as if they were hearing it for the first time. "These cookies are a reminder that my life is not over. I couldn't imagine not living in Elgin."
Carter knows that the stories the women share are far more important than the cookies themselves.
Nancy Miller brought White Russian cookies, which she recalled making when she had only cream cheese, sugar and flour during World War II. "Making them again this year, I thought about all the years and all the contributions (the soldiers who were fighting during that time) made. They are hell to make, but worth it."
Genese Bell made coconut Krispies, the recipe for which she found in a cookbook collection that was among the trove of things her mother brought when she moved in with Bell's family that year.
Peggy Garza told the women about making her snickerdoodles while chasing her then 9-month-old granddaughter. They are the same cookies she sends her son in Iraq. "I have to send snickerdoodles because I can't send chocolate chips in the mail."
Marquita Ferguson noted that there weren't any misshaped or burnt cookies in her batch because her husband helped her get ready for the party by eating all the ugly ones.
At a party like this, semi-homemade is just as good as from scratch. Joann Harkins was up until 11:30 the night before making cake mix cookies, which she mixed by hand. "And I have the blister on my thumb and a burn on my wrist to show for it," she said, showing off her wounds.
Not everybody brings homemade treats, but they are refreshingly unapologetic about it. "Y'all know I don't bake," Linda Mogonye said, so she brought chocolate-covered pretzels that her mother-in-law made. Lindy Peterson spent too much time looking for just the right cookie. "I ran out of time to cook because I was looking for recipes."
Just the smell of all those cookies on the table is enough to give someone a sugar overload, so before the swapping begins, Carter serves dinner. Last year, she served a chicken spaghetti dinner, which Shirley Bowlin was particularly happy to see. "All I had to eat all day is my own cookies," she said.
Carter also gives everyone a cookie ornament to take home and a plastic holiday container for guests to gather and transport all the cookies. By the end of the night, everyone had walked slowly in a circle around the table a number of times, but there were still plenty of cookies left. Carter encouraged them to keep going.
"If your lid fits, you didn't get enough."
Nanny's Chocolate Drop Cookies
1 cup shortening, such as Crisco
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2 1/4 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
3 heaping Tbsp. cocoa
1 cup pecans (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, cream shortening, eggs, brown sugar, granulated sugar and vanilla. In another bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, salt, cocoa and pecans, if using. Slowly combine dry ingredients with wet ingredients. Drop in walnut-sized pieces on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for 10 minutes. These cookies turn out best if taken out of oven just before they look done.
— Genese Bell
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup shortening
1 1/2 cups plus 2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. cream of tartar
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, cream together butter, shortening, 1 1/2 cups sugar, eggs and vanilla with an electric mixer. In another bowl, whisk together flour, cream of tartar, soda and salt. Slowly combine dry ingredients with the wet.
Shape dough by rounded spoonfuls into balls. Mix the 2 Tbsp. sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl. Rolls balls of dough in mixture.
Place on cookie sheets. Bake 8-10 minutes, or until set but not too hard. Remove immediately from baking sheets.
— Gena Carter
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 cup finely chopped walnuts or pecans
2/3 cup any flavor fruit jam (I like to use raspberry and apricot)
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Grease cookie sheets.
Separate egg yolk from egg white, reserving egg white. In a large mixing bowl, cream butter or margarine, sugar and egg yolk with an electric mixer. Add vanilla, flour and salt, mixing well.
Shape dough into balls. Roll in egg white, then chopped nuts. Place on cookie sheets about 2 inches apart. Bake for 5 minutes.
Remove cookies from oven. With thumb, dent each cookie. Put jelly or preserves in each thumbprint. Bake for another 8 minutes. Makes two dozen cookies.
— Kay Wing
Grandma Lee's Molasses Jumbles
2/3 cup shortening
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup light molasses
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate pieces
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, cream shortening, sugar and well-beaten egg. In separate small bowl, combine molasses and milk. In another bowl, sift together flour, baking soda and salt.
Alternatively add dry ingredients and molasses and milk mixture to creamed sugar mixture to combine. Stir in chocolate pieces.
Drop a tablespoon of the dough onto an ungreased cookie sheet, leaving 2 inches of space between the cookies. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes. Double recipe for cookie exchange party.
— Amy Miller