I have always found the idea of the holiday cookie exchange quaint and rather boring. Instead, why not make it a contest in which you pit your friends against one another as they compete for bragging rights? I have held just such a cookie contest at my past four holiday parties and the event reliably draws blood, sweat, and tears: The first year there was such flagrant out-of-bounds lobbying that the results were less reliable than an old-style Chicago election. More recently, the entries have ratcheted up in complexity and sugar content. In a word, fun! Here’s how to host your own, plus eight great recipes from top local pastry chefs (we tested all the recipes and even conducted an in-office contest among them to pick a winner; you’ll find the recipes here).
For the host
1. Send out the invitations. As for any game, rules are the foundation of a good competition. Ask your guests to bake three dozen of their best cookie. You must define clearly what constitutes a “cookie” because otherwise people will bring fudge, pieces of cake cut up to resemble cookies, and brownies. I have found it useful to stipulate that a cookie for this contest must be individually baked (not cut into pieces after baking).
2. Anonymize the entries. To prevent lobbying, take the cookies from your guests as they arrive. Have ready plates that you have labeled in advance—a safe bet is to have ones marked from A to Z—and place each batch of cookies on its own plate. Keep a master list of the baker and his or her corresponding letter assignment.
3. Provide ballots. You can design the ballot any way you choose. Here’s mine: two side-by-side vertical columns—one column from A to Z and the other blank for rankings. Instruct your guests to taste as many cookies as they please, then rank their first-, second-, and third-place cookies. Don’t forget the pencils; I like those presharpened golf pencils, which are inexpensive and sold by the box at most office-supply stores.
4. Tabulate the results. Award a reverse number of points for each ranked cookie. In other words, a first-place ranking receives three points; second place, two points; and third place, one point. Add them up, and crown your winner. A great prize will ensure next year’s turnout.
For the baker
1. Remember that looks matter. No one tries every single cookie, so make your entry visually appealing. Bite-size ones are cute. Add sprinkles. Shape them into trees, stars, or wreaths. No blue cookies!
2. Stuff the ballot box. Bring along partisan supporters. And arrive early at the party to give your cookie ample time to be tasted and judged by the most guests.
Photography: Michael Boone Photography