Of the several hundred entries we received to this 16th annual iteration of the Taste Holiday Cookie Contest, a number of them shared a similar sentiment. Kaity Rasmussen of Shoreview put it best: “I have been reading and enjoying the Star Tribune cookie contest for the last 15 years,” she wrote. “Some of the cookies (Almond Triangles, anyone?) have become part of my holiday baking, and the entire family loves them.” We couldn’t ask for a better present. That’s because sharing delicious, festive and memorable cookie recipes with Minnesota bakers has become our favorite holiday tradition. Whether they’re spotlighting bold ingredients — figs, semolina flour — or rethinking December classics, this year’s group of winning recipes will definitely generate good cheer.

 

Winner
Dark Chocolate Fig Rolls With Mocha Ganache

Baker: Elizabeth Davis of Wayzata.

Fig fanatic: “When I was growing up, Fig Newtons were one of my favorite cookies,” said Davis. “So I started googling ‘Cookies with figs,’ and up came the Italian cucidati, a rolled cookie with a fig-and-nut filling.” Ever the tinkerer, Davis modified the formula by adding dark chocolate to the filling (“Everyone loves dark chocolate, and I’ve always thought that figs and dark chocolate are a great combination,” she said), and replacing the recipe’s lemon icing with a mocha ganache. “I always like to do new things; I tend to not repeat myself,” she said. “If you saw my house, there are recipes everywhere.”

A baker at heart: “My scientific background is maybe why I prefer baking over cooking,” said Davis, an eye surgeon. “I guess I’m drawn to the precision of baking. I have a gazillion cookbooks, and at least five of them are just cookie cookbooks. When I go to a bookstore, I just go right to the cooking section. I couldn’t care less about the other books.”

Insider’s tip: “Although the recipe looks like a lot of work, you can break it up,” said Davis. “Each step is actually pretty straightforward, so you can break it down, depending upon how your day is going. Do all the chopping, make the filling, and then set it aside. Likewise with the dough, you can make it and refrigerate it for a day or two. Then you can assemble everything, put it back in the refrigerator, and come back later and bake it.”

For the recipe, click here.

 

Finalist
Marzipan Cherry Shortbread

Baker: Cynthia Baxter of Minneapolis.

Cafe society: She found her inspiration at a favorite cafe near her North Loop home. “Truly, the scones at Moose & Sadie’s are delicious,” said Baxter. “They have this one that’s marzipan and tart cherries and, when they have it, I always get it. I got to thinking that those flavors would make a great cookie.”

Thought process: “Shortbread is my favorite kind of cookie, so I had an idea of what I wanted it to be,” said Baxter. “I started at the end, and worked backward. I wanted to have a roll of dough that you could keep in the freezer, and cut when you wanted more cookies. I found a basic shortbread recipe, and then I adapted it — Bruce [Baxter’s husband] had tried a recipe with semolina and raved about it, so that’s where that came from — and I was good to go.”

Finishing touch: “Years ago, I saw a Martha Stewart recipe where you brushed egg wash on a roll of cookie dough and then rolled it in sugar,” said Baxter. “That was cute, and it stuck with me.”

Insider’s tip: “One thing that can go wrong is that the dough can get too crumbly when you’re cutting it,” said Baxter. “I would make sure that the dough is not super-cold. That way, when you’re cutting it, it won’t shatter. I use a serrated knife. Also, you don’t want to make them super-thick.”

For the recipe, click here.

 

Finalist
Sugar Plum Doodles

Bakers: Michelle Clark and Seamus Kirwin of Minneapolis.

Past winner: Clark — and her Devil’s Delight Cookies — won our 2005 competition. “It really added an extra sparkle to my holiday season,” she said. “Not just that year, but every year since. It’s fun to look into the archive, and compare my cookie to the new cookies.” Several years after her prizewinning entry, she was toiling away in her cubicle at work. “And one of my co-workers walked up with a new employee and said, ‘Laurinda, this is Michelle. She’s the person who made your cookie,’ ” said Clark. “She was so excited to meet me, and she started jokingly calling herself ‘My Cookie Stalker.’ I launched a nice friendship over that cookie.”

Yes, a snickerdoodle: “It’s because it’s Seamus’ all-time favorite cookie,” said Clark. “Plus, it’s easy to make, it’s accessible.” The plum idea also came from Kirwin. “He had this vision to invoke the Sugar Plum Fairy from ‘The Nutcracker,’ ” said Clark. “But he has zero baking background. I’m the one with the history and the love of baking. That’s why we worked as a team on this.”

Insider’s tip: “We found that if we used one of those absolutely round measuring spoons, they would create a better thumbprint for the dollop of jam,” said Clark. “If I used my thumb, I got more of a not-even divot, and that really doesn’t work if you’re sensitive to heat. The cookies are full of hot fat because they’re made with all that butter.”

For the recipe, click here.

 

Finalist
White Chocolate and Cherry Tea Cakes

Baker: Teri Laster of Bloomington.

Reshaping a classic: Laster and her friend Sue had a longstanding holiday bake-a-thon tradition, one that was put on hold when Sue and her husband relocated. “I had her grandmother’s basic Russian Tea Cake recipe, and I had these cherries and white chocolate in my cupboard and thought, ‘Wow, how would that be?’ ” said Laster. “Everyone seemed to really enjoy them, and so I’ve been making them that way ever since. I’ve got a cookie date with Sue coming up in December, and she said, ‘Which way are we going to make them this year? Should we flip a coin? Or do both?’ ”

Trial and error: “I originally tried this recipe with cherries, but everyone said, ‘Just use Craisins,’ because cherries are so expensive,” said Laster. “I did, but I didn’t like the flavor as well. I think the cherry is a good fit, because the tartness is such a nice surprise.”

A light touch: Laster isn’t a fan of Russian Tea Cakes/Mexican Wedding Cakes enrobed in that traditional double-dip of powdered sugar. “I hate that feeling in my hands,” she said. “It feels like chalk. And it’s such a heavy coating — it even covers the bottom of the cookie. That’s why I started just sprinkling a little powdered sugar on top.”

Insider’s tip: “These cookies freeze really well,” said Laster. “Also, buy the pecans already chopped. They’re perfectly proportioned, and it saves a lot of time vs. chopping them by hand.”

For the recipe, click here.

 

Finalist
Coffee and Irish-Cream Dreams

Baker: Joanne Holtmeier of Edina.

The lure of Bailey’s Irish Cream: “Do we really even know what the flavor of Bailey’s is?” said Holtmeier with a laugh. “I know I can’t quite put my finger on just what exactly that flavor is, other than ‘good.’ ” If she’s a fan, then her sister Jean falls in the “mega-fan” category. “I decided to do this for her, and make her my cookie-invention guinea pig,” said Holtmeier. “I just started playing around with a basic drop cookie, and started making additions from there, until it came together.”

Secret ingredient: “Ina Garten always puts instant espresso — or instant coffee — into all of her chocolate baked goods, and now I do, too,” said Holtmeier. “You can’t really taste it, but it does make the chocolate taste better.” There’s a simple reason why Holtmeier selected instant coffee for this recipe. “Because that’s what I had in the cupboard,” she said. “But espresso powder would be fine, too. I thought an espresso bean would be a cute garnish.” Even better, how about a chocolate-covered espresso bean?

Insider’s tip: “Set them on a rack for a while, so that the bottoms can get air under them,” said Holtmeier. “They keep in a container for several days — they seem to be even better by Day 3 — but don’t seal it up too tight, because they have a tendency to get too soft. They don’t get dry and crunchy.”

For the recipe, click here.

 

Friday, Nov. 30: #StribHQ in downtown Minneapolis
Taste all five of our winning cookies — while supplies last — starting at 11 a.m. in the atrium of the Star Tribune Building (650 3rd Av. S.), and be sure to cast a vote for your favorite recipe. (Note: This Friday date is different from previous years, when we've hosted this event on Thursday.) We'll be accepting nonperishable food items and cash donations for Second Harvest Heartland. Free.

More cookie recipes
Find all the 80-plus cookies from 16 years of the Holiday Cookie Contest online at startribune.com/cookies. From Nut Goodie Thumbprints to Cranberry Pecan Swirls, these recipes are also compiled in the new “The Great Minnesota Cookie Book” (University of Minnesota Press, $24.95), by Lee Svitak Dean and Rick Nelson. For a complete listing of where you can sample cookies from the contest, click here.