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Sweet for Swapping

Swapping cookies with Lori Dunlap and her friends is "kind of like you get six presents."

Looking for a twist to the traditional cookie party, the Jacksonville resident put a premium on packaging. Each guest brought three-dozen cookies divided among six containers that were claimed as party-goers drew numbers.

"In the past, you would just bring a big platter, and you would just divvy 'em up," says Dunlap, 49.

As the concept caught on, participants showed up with their cookies lining the pockets of homemade aprons, stuffed into crocheted stockings, hung like ornaments from tiny Christmas trees or tied to birdhouses made from recycled wood.

"The imagination was incredible," Dunlap recalls. "Most of 'em really stepped up to the plate."

With so much emphasis on the presentation, however, the cookies started to suffer. Some containers revealed store-bought cookies, even Oreos.

"They really had gotten pretty bad," Dunlap laughs.

Six years after starting the event with its prize for best presentation, Dunlap instituted a prize for best cookie to ensure guests would still enjoy the party's original intent: leaving with a variety of tasty holiday cookies with minimal effort from one's own kitchen.

"You go home and put 'em all out on a platter," Dunlap says.

While their wrapping efforts had been hardly traditional, most participants turned to tried-and-true cookie classics, most family favorites, Dunlap says. One guest even created an entire cookbook of beloved recipes, not just the ones for cookies.

"In my estimation, the recipe is really the motivation. That's where the fun comes — your tips on how to make it come out right, that's what creates that emotional connection," says Julia Usher, author of "Cookie Swap: Creative Treats to Share Throughout the Year," (Gibbs Smith, $19.99).

Anyone, she says, can click around the Internet, download a recipe and not realize until the first bite just how bad to mediocre that recipe might be. There's no replacing the heart-to-heart, kitchen-to-kitchen connection that comes from passing along a beloved recipe.

So remember to swap the recipe and not just the cookie, Usher says. Ask guests to send in the recipes before the party and be sure to display the recipe right by the cookie, so everyone knows the ingredients. This might even spur questions or be an icebreaker for guests who don't know many people at the swap. Make a little book for recipes or tuck them all in a recipe box, one for each guest to carry home.

The more personal you can make the swap, the more memorable it will be, Usher says. Include snapshots of your guests in the invitation, around your kitchen or on the cookie-swap table.

Write each guest's name on the take-home container. If your guests aren't as crafty as Dunlap's, you can still devise better containers than humdrum paper plates and plastic wrap. Think vintage ornament boxes or old metal lunch boxes, Usher says.

Find cookie recipes for holiday parties and gift-gifting at www.mailtribune.com/holiday101. Some, like painted sugar cookies, are so pretty that bakers can leave the fancy packaging under the Christmas tree.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com. The Chicago Tribune contributed to this story.

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Painted Sugar Cookies - AP