Halloween cookies

Give a cookie, get a cookie for a Halloween celebration, like Spider Truffles, from top, Great Pumpkins and Candy Corn Cookies. (Mark DuFrene/Contra Costa Times/MCT)

Santa has always had a monopoly on the good cookies. But it took Julia Usher a while to ponder the bigger issue: Why should the winter holidays get all the gingerbread? And why should something as deliciously fun as a cookie exchange be relegated to December?

Her answer unfolds in mouthwatering fashion in the new book "Cookie Swap: Creative Treats to Share Throughout the Year," published by Gibbs Smith.

Whether it's Valentine treats, back-to-school cookies or Halloween temptations, cookie exchanges are about more than shared calories, says Usher, a former California Bay Area engineer turned bakery diva.

"It's an opportunity to draw family and friends into the kitchen and swap memories and recipes," she says by phone, halfway through a national book tour. "It's one thing to take the cookies home. It's even better when you can take the stories home. A lot of the cookie swap tradition is about carrying on what's been important into the future -- giving and sharing, handing down the legacy of recipes."

And what's important to Usher -- at least at this time of year -- are tiny vine-festooned pumpkins, meringue ghosts and a gingerbread house that would send Hansel and Gretel scampering back up the breadcrumb trail.

Usher will be spending a jam-packed week in the Bay Area later this month, conducting cookie decorating demonstrations and signing cookbooks at food boutiques and bookstores from Pleasanton to Menlo Park. But she won't even have to Mapquest those directions.

This is the former mechanical engineer's stomping ground. Usher went to grad school at UC Berkeley and Stanford, worked in the city and lived in San Jose for more than a decade before embarking on an entirely new -- and tasty -- career path. She opened a bakery in St. Louis.

The career switch may seem a bit dramatic for some, but Usher says it wasn't that big a stretch.

"We were a very avid baking and cooking family. Nothing came into the house that wasn't made from scratch," she says. "Mom would go crazy making jams and jellies. Same thing with breads. Often those things were made and swapped around the holiday time."

Now, if Usher has her way, they'll be swapped all year long. The new book offers eight different cookie party ideas -- including a bridal shower and bunny-centric Spring party -- with something for every level of expertise.

Take the Giant Pumpkin cookie recipe, she says, which can be decorated with fondant flourishes or simply dipped in orange icing.

"It's a lovely spice cookie that's really suitable for the fall season," she says.

And the Meringue Ghosts can be piped over a chopped date cookie base, or directly onto parchment-covered cookie sheets. Add mini-chocolate chips for eyes and tuck the adorable, ridiculously simple results into a warm oven for an hour.

Usher also offers up clever ideas for invitations, decorations and take-home containers. And yes, there are plenty of winter holiday cookies for Santa, too.

Great Pumpkin Cookies

Makes 3-4 dozen cookies

Ingredients:
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch