Finalist: Candy Cane Sugar Cookies

Baker: Michelle Mazzara of Eagan.

It all comes back to Grandma: “My Italian grandma is my biggest inspiration,” Mazzara said. “She was happiest when she was cooking. She would bake for two or three months before Christmas, and she would give boxes and boxes of cookies to everyone she knew.” Which explains why Mazzara started with Grandma Rose’s sugar cookie recipe. “I’m not a big chocolate person, but I love, love, love sugar cookies,” she said. “She would make all these fancy cookies, but I would go for her sugar cookies. They just sort of melted in your mouth.”

Minty fresh: When it came to dressing up her grandmother’s recipe, the solution was simple. “The scent of peppermint is very vivid in my mind when I think about Christmas,” Mazzara said. “I like the refreshing taste, and the candy is so festive looking.”

Looking good: The icing’s pink color and the dough’s flashes of red and white make this cookie stand out on a crowded platter. “One of the many things my mom taught me — she's a retired home-ec teacher and a wonderful baker — is that it’s good to have nice color combinations,” Mazzara said.

No stranger to competition: Mazzara devotes a major chunk of her free time to entering cooking and baking contests. She has won nine to date, most recently a trip to Italy courtesy of winemaker Cavit and its annual gourmet pizza contest. In October, she published a collection of her favorite recipes, “Dolce Vita USA,” including her award-winners. It’s available at

Insider’s tip: When the time comes to smash the peppermint candy, Mazzara recommends lining the top of the cutting board with parchment or wax paper, and covering the candy, too. “Otherwise, you’re going to have a big mess,” she said. Smashing the candy in a paper or plastic bag also works, as does breaking it in a garlic press.

Playtime: Many judges noted that this recipe is ideal for including kids because of its range of fun tasks, such as incorporating food coloring, spreading icing and smashing candy canes. Mazzara agrees. “It’s a great cookie for a kids’ decorating party,” she said. “Well, for patient moms, anyway.”