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Lucy Retka places a pan of her macaroons on a cooling rack during a recent holiday baking day with friends. (Tribune photos by Ron Adams)

Making Christmas memories

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Four young women sharing one kitchen to bake eight types of Christmas cookies in one afternoon reads like a recipe for disaster.

Yet in the same amount of time it takes to roll out, cut, cool and frost a batch of sugar cookies, we had eight different cookie varieties frosted, sprinkled and wrapped in cellophane -- beautiful enough to rival Martha Stewart.

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Instead of four pans crusted over with vanilla almond bark and four kitchens covered in a fine layer of flour -- only one. And with four women on kitchen clean-up duty, the countertops were sparkling in a fraction of the time.

The concept of the bake exchange was simple: each of us was responsible to bring batter for at least one predetermined Christmas cookie to the exchange. Over the course of the afternoon we would bake, frost, dip and drizzle. At the end of the event we would make a buffet line of our treats and fill cookie trays.

Prior to our first annual bakeoff, none of us were seasoned Christmas bakers. Only 5½ years of marriage were shared amongst Jessica Haugen of Willmar, Sara Martinka of Spicer and myself, while Lucy Retka of Spicer has a wedding date set for May of 2011.

Consequently, our cupboards were stocked with brand new cookie sheets and mixing bowls from our bridal registries. This year we were determined not to show up for the holidays empty handed: not only would we finally put to use our new tiered dessert trays, we would fill them with our own homemade goodies.

New gadgetry aside, alone in our kitchens we still lacked the finesse of our own mothers in the kitchen. Had we tried to undertake as many recipes on our own, results would surely include failed batches, countless extra runs to the grocery store and smoke-filled kitchens. And probably tears.

What to make?

Choosing baked goods of choice was half the fun of the bakeoff. Retka chose Mexican coffee cake because her mother made it each Christmas. Haugen chose rice crispie wreaths because she knew they were a favorite of her husband, Chad. Martinka said she often saw peppermint bark sold in specialty shops and was sure she could make her own. I chose biscotti out of curiosity -- I had always wondered how they were made and figured our bakeoff was the perfect opportunity to try. The only common denominator amongst the recipes was that nobody had actually tried them on their own prior to the exchange -- just one more caveat to throw into the experimental afternoon.

The day of the exchange we strapped on our aprons and went to work. My gingerbread men were baked the night before and were in want of eyes, buttons and a smile. Retka needed to whisk her egg whites into peaks (an endeavor we all had only read about in cookbooks) for her macaroons, while Haugen melted almond bark for her dipped Oreos.

Problems arose within minutes of tying our aprons: I forgot attachments to my pastry bag which made for interesting facial expressions on my gingerbread men while Retka's first batch of macaroons were baked on to the layer of parchment paper on the cookie sheet.

Martinka's layers of white and chocolate almond bark were separating when she tried to break her peppermint bark into pieces while Haugen's Christmas wreaths resembled more of a Christmas shrub.

As we pooled what little baking knowledge we had, our misfortunes were slowly correcting themselves. Each batch of macaroons Rekta pulled from the oven looked better than the next. Martinka's peppermint bark and Haugen's wreaths were beautiful enough to grace the cover of "Taste of Home," while my gingerbread men were a uniform team of red smiles and buttons. Rather than discarding botched or irregular cookies, we ate them.

By evening's end we lined up our finished products on the counter around the kitchen and filled our tins and Tupperware. Our families reap the real benefits of the bake exchange: rather than inundating loved ones with an army of 50 gingerbread men, they can enjoy a sampling of Christmas favorites. If certain goodies are the first to go off a cookie tray, we can make a mental note to bring it again to the exchange. If we find something wasn't so popular, we won't be rewrapping five dozen to eat until Easter.

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