Which one is it?
We're not saying, at least not yet. But somewhere on this platter is the winner of our 10th-annual Taste Holiday Cookie Contest.
It has been a busy day here at Cookie Contest Central. And yes, it’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.
That someone being 21 judges, who gathered today at the Star Tribune and sorted through a table overloaded with semi-finalists. And when I say sorted, I mean we ate.
But first, we baked: Twenty-eight different cookies — a record number and a reflection of the unprecedented high quality of this year's submissions — selected from a pool of 254 entries (most of them are pictured, above).
Then we gathered around a conference table, glasses of milk in hand, and passed around trays, plates, platters, Tupperware containers and baking sheets bearing all 28 cookies.
Some serious nibbling ensued, and then we compared notes, and argued. Politely, anyway; this is Minnesota, after all.
Finally, we unanimously selected a winner, and chose four finalists. We’ll reveal the results — and you’re going to love them — on Nov. 29th in Taste. (You’ll be able to meet our bakers at a fun, open-to-the-public bake-a-thon on Saturday, Dec. 1, at the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis).
Plenty of trends presented themselves among this year’s entries, clearly a microcosm of what’s popular in contemporary baking. We’ve never received so many gluten-free recipes. Ingredients lists peppered with beer and spirits (brandy, whisky and bourbon) also caught our notice, as did a pair of cookies that called for everyone’s favorite ingredient, bacon. A number of high-end salts (Maldon, for example) also captured our attention. Other popular ingredients: Cream cheese, caramel, Nutella, crystallized ginger, hazelnuts and lard.
Thanks to everyone who submitted a recipe, and a story; we’re grateful that you shared them with us. As always, the tales behind the recipes are fascinating and lovely, brimming with the beloved traditions that make the holiday season so special.
“This recipe has been made every year for Christmas for 75 years,” wrote one. “This recipe I received from a relative shortly after we married over 56 years ago,” wrote another. “I got this recipe about 35 years ago at a neighborhood cookie exchange and have made it several times for family and friends each holiday season since then,” wrote another.
When it comes to family heirlooms, this comment might take first prize, at least in terms of longevity: “The following cookie recipe I got from my mother and she got it from her mother,” wrote the contestant. “My grandmother would be about 140 years old, and my mom would be about 110 years old.”
Among the entries were six previous finalists and winners, which we’re taking as a testament to the fun they had — and the fame they enjoyed — in prior competitions. This year’s contest also featured a first: An entry from an incarcerated baker, obviously thinking of happier and more productive times outside the county jail.
“I guess you could say that I’m a recipe for justice,” she wrote.
Naturally, we were tickled to read about the contest.
“Every year I get together with one of my best friends shortly after the recipes are announced, for a day of baking,” wrote one baker. “We both select the recipes from the year’s winners to try out. My favorite recipe EVER is the Pistachio-Orange Cookie from 2010!! Hers are the Double Chocolate-Cherry Espresso Drops from 2008. I also love the Chai Crescents and the Lime Coolers from 2007.”
We're crazy about all of them, too. Here’s hoping that our 2012 winners will find a place in that holiday baking schedule, and in yours.
As coconut cream pies go, this one doesn't fool around.
The recipe for theTriple Coconut Cream Pie in "The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook" (William Morrow, $35) calls for two cups of shredded sweetened coconut, and that's just in the pastry cream. The crust also features coconut, and toasted coconut garnishes the top.
That's the "triple," but there's more: the pie's pastry cream is further enriched with coconut milk.
"It would be fair to call this a quadruple coconut cream pie, but 'triple coconut cream' rolls off the tongue more easily," writes co-author Tom Douglas.
COCONUT PASTRY DOUGH
Makes 1 9-inch piecrust
Note: This recipe must be prepared in advance. Very cold butter makes a flakier crust. If your butter is not very cold, set the diced butter in the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes before making your dough. From “The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook” by Tom Douglas and Shelley Lance.
1 c. plus 2 tbsp. flour, plus extra for rolling dough
1/2 c. shredded sweetened coconut
1/2 c. (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 tsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/3 c. ice-cold water, or more as needed
In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine flour, coconut, diced butter, sugar and salt and pulse to form coarse crumbs. Gradually add water, 1 tablespoon at a time, pulsing each time. Use only as much water as needed for the dough to hold together when pressed gently between your fingers (don’t work dough with your hands, just test to see if it is holding). The dough will not form a ball or even clump together in the processor, it will be quite loose.
Place a large sheet of plastic wrap on the counter and dump the coconut dough onto it. Pull plastic wrap around dough, forcing it into a rough flattened round with the pressure of the plastic wrap. Refrigerate 30 to 60 minutes before rolling.
When ready to roll dough, unwrap round of coconut dough and place it on a lightly floured board. Flour rolling pin and your hands. Roll out dough in a circle about 1/8-inch thick. Occasionally lift dough with a bench knife or scraper to check that it is not sticking, and add more flour if it seems like it’s about to stick. Trim to a 12- to 13-inch round. Transfer rolled dough to a 9-inch pie pan. Ease dough loosely and gently into pan. You don’t want to stretch dough at his point, because it will shrink when it is baked.
Trim any excess dough to 1- to 11/2-inch overhang. Turn dough under along rim of pie pan and use your fingers and thumb to flute the edge. Refrigerate unbaked pie shell for at least 1 hour before baking (this prevents the dough from shrinking in the oven).
When ready to bake piecrust, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place a piece of parchment in pie shell, with sides overhanging the pan, and fill with dried beans (this prevents the bottom of the shell from puffing up during baking). Bake piecrust for 20 to 25 minutes, or until pastry rim is golden. Remove pie pan from oven. Remove paper and beans and return piecrust to oven. Bake for an additional 10 to 12 minutes, or until bottom of crust has golden brown patches. Remove from oven and allow pie shell to cool completely.
DAHLIA TRIPLE-COCONUT CREAM PIE
Serves 6 to 8.
Note: Large unsweetened chip coconut is available in the bulk foods sections of many natural foods co-ops. From “The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook.”
For coconut pastry cream:
1 c. milk
1 c. canned unsweetened coconut milk, stirred
2 c. shredded sweetened coconut
1 vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise
1/2 c. plus 2 tbsp. sugar
3 tbsp. flour 4 tbsp. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 oz. unsweetened chip or large-shred coconut (about 1 1/2 c.), or shredded sweetened coconut (about 2/3 c.)
Chunk of white chocolate (4 to 6 oz., to make 2 oz. of curls)
For whipped cream topping:
2 1/2 c. heavy cream, chilled
1/3 c. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
To prepare coconut pastry cream: In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, combine milk, coconut milk and shredded coconut. Using a paring knife, scrape seeds from vanilla bean and add both scrapings and pod to milk mixture. Stir occasionally until mixture almost comes to a boil. In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs, sugar and flour until well combined. Temper eggs by pouring a small amount (about 1/3 cup) of scalded milk into egg mixture while whisking. Then add warmed egg mixture to saucepan of milk and coconut. Whisk over medium-high heat until pastry cream thickens and begins to bubble. Keep whisking until mixture is very thick, 4 to 5 minutes more. Remove saucepan from heat. Add butter and whisk until it melts. Remove and discard vanilla pod.
Transfer pastry cream to a bowl and place it over another bowl of ice water. Stir occasionally until pastry cream is cool. Place a piece of plastic wrap directly on surface of pastry cream (to prevent a skin from forming) and refrigerate until completely cold. The pastry cream will thicken as it cools. When pastry cream is cold, fill pastry shell (see Recipe), smoothing the surface with a rubber spatula.
To prepare garnish: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread unsweetened coconut chips (or large-shred coconut, or sweetened shredded coconut) on a baking sheet and toast in the oven for 7 to 8 minutes, watching carefully (coconut burns easily) and stirring once or twice until lightly browned. Remove from oven and allow to cool.
To prepare whipped cream topping: In an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, whip heavy cream with sugar and vanilla extract to peaks that are firm enough to hold their shape. Transfer whipped cream to a pastry bag fitted with a star tip and pipe it all over the surface of the pie. Sprinkle toasted coconut over top of pie. Use a vegetable peeler to scrape about 2 ounces of white chocolate curls on top of the pie (or you can cut pie into wedges, place wedges on plates and garnish each wedge individually with toasted coconut and white chocolate curls) and serve.
Does this ever happen to you? A food-porn image leaps off the pages of a magazine and imbeds itself into your cortex. Before you know it, you're scrupulously following the recipe's every word, and each step in the process is raising expectations and appetites. Yet despite your best efforts, the finished product isn't a twin of the one published in the magazine. It's more like a second cousin, from the ugly side of the family.
My latest tragic disconnect between newsstand fantasy and kitchen reality originated with the (phenomenal) new issue of Saveur. To celebrate the magazine's 150th issue, Team Saveur gathered 150 classic recipes, squeezing 101 into print, and diverting the balance to the magazine's website and digital edition. Even a cursory spin through this keeper of an issue reveals an eclectic, never-ending parade of one I-wanna-make-that dish after another.
Leave it to my sweet tooth, which never met a chocolate chip cookie that it didn't totally crush on, to stop dead in its tracks on page 76. And the more I read, the more I liked. What a cool idea: Rather than balling and dropping the dough to form cookies, this recipe, borrowing puff pasty principles, rolls out the dough and layers it. Three layers, to be exact, alternating with several handfuls of chopped bittersweet chocolate. A two-inch biscuit cutter does the rest of the work. What really caught my eye is how the tops of the cookies in the magazine's version appear to have had a puffy outer layer that collapsed, almost like another favorite cookie of mine, the meringue.
Here's how mine turned out. Not bad looking, right? But not quite as stunning as the beauties that emerged from the mighty Saveur test kitchen in midtown Manhattan (which, by the way, is the real-life version of the handsome, lavishly equipped facility that exists in the fantasies of most home cooks).
One possible explanation for the difference in appearance (besides my own baking cluelessness, of course): Saveur's recipe leaves out a finishing touch, or author Sarah Copeland skipped it in the version she sent to Saveur World Headquarters: Just before baking the cookies, Copeland brushes the tops with a beaten egg and sprinkles each cookie with a few grains of fleur de sel (find the details here).
By the way, when it comes to both flavor and texture, this recipe garners nothing but praise. The crackled tops -- a golden, chocolate-pocked cousin to the molasses crinkle -- create an enticingly crunchy outer shell that gives way to a tender, exceedingly rich center. Another welcome touch: The teasingly salty kick, which plays nicely against all that bittersweet chocolate. In the end, I didn't really care that they didn't mirror the magazine's version, because on every other level, they were a phenomenal chocolate chip cookie. The results were so impressive that the spoon-and-drop method now seems like a last-resort alternative.
Here's a peek at the cutting-out-the-dough stage. It's a soft dough, so it's best to work quickly, while the dough remains chilled and relatively firm. The good news is that they're a free-form cookie, so nothing about this process requires an exacting technique.
Ok, I'll admit: The disparity between Saveur's outcome and mine was bugging me, so I baked them again this morning, only this time I included the egg wash.
Glossy tops, yes. But still, nothing that comes close to resembling the image in the magazine. Not that it matters, because Saveur has just handed me my new go-to chocolate chip cookie recipe. Who cares what they look like? These things are amazing.
Oh, and I've decided that I prefer them deeply brown, a la the extraordinary chocolate chip cookies at Rustica. I'm also following the sage advice that Salty Tart baker/owner/quote machine Michelle Gayer doled out at a bread-baking contest last weekend at the Mill City Farmers Market. "Do you guys know that color means flavor?" she said. "Don't be afraid of the brown. Put it back in the oven."
SAVEUR’S CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES
Makes about 2 dozen cookies.
2 ¼ c. flour, plus extra for rolling dough
¾ tsp. baking soda
¾ tsp. kosher salt
1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ c. packed dark brown sugar
¾ c. granulated sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
4 egg yolks
9 oz. bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped
1 egg, beaten (optional)
Sea salt (optional)
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda and salt. In a bowl of an electric mixer on medium-high speed, combine butter, brown sugar, granulated sugar and vanilla extract and beat until smooth and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add yolks, two at a time, beating well after each addition. Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture, beating until just combined. Transfer dough to a work surface and divide into three equal pieces. Flatten each piece into a 4x6-inch rectangle; wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper. Lightly flour a work surface. Place one dough rectangle on prepared work surface and sprinkle with half the chocolate. Top with another rectangle, sprinkle remaining chocolate and cover with last rectangle. Using a floured rolling pin, flatten stacked rectangles into a 9x6-inch rectangle that is 1 ½ inches thick. Using a 2-inch round cutter, cut out cookies and transfer to prepared baking sheets, spacing cookies 3 inches apart. Gather scraps, reroll into a 1 ½-inch thick disk and cut out more cookies, repeating until no dough remains. (At this point, you can brush the tops of the cookies with a beaten egg, and sprinkle a few grains of sea salt on each cookie). Bake, rotating baking sheets halfway through baking, until cookies are lightly browned and set, about 15 minutes. Remove from oven, cool 2 minutes then transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.
"It's a tsunami of blue out there."
That's the first thing John Cuddy said to us when we got out of the car last weekend at his Rush River Produce in Maiden Rock, Wis. Cuddy doesn't seem to be a man prone to exaggeration, so he's not kidding when he says that this year's blueberry crop appears to be one for the record books.
I've been visiting this nothing-else-like-it U-pick destination for more than a decade, and I've never witnessed anything that comes close to the abundance of this summer's output. To say that the farm's 10,000-plus plants are heavy with fruit is an understatement.
This summer is also unusual in that the crop is maturing on a stepped-up schedule.
"In 25 years, I've never seen so many berries, so early," said Terry Cuddy, John's spouse and fellow blueberry enthusiast. Again, she's not overselling. She directed me down to the rows of Nelson berries (a variety after my own heart), which usually mature in early August. Last weekend, many Nelson berries were already starting to turn blue.
Yes, the picking has never been easier at the Cuddys' strikingly picturesque farm, where colorful, well-tended flower gardens give way to neat rows of bushes ("We've got nine miles of blueberries," is the farm's party line) cascading down rolling hills and melding into spectacular Rush River valley views. The abundance means that pickers don't have to go to too much effort to get their fill; with very little effort, three of us filled two boxes (one of them is pictured, top) in less than an hour, roughly seven pounds of summer treasure.
The Cuddys cultivate more than a dozen northern blueberry varieties, which translates into berries of varying sizes and flavors. They also have a small side business in currants (red, black and white) and gooseberries.
The farm is roughly 70 miles southeast of the Twin Cities, and is open Thursday through Sunday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Although the place is brimming over with berries, it's still best to call ahead and check on availability: 715-594-3648. Cost is $4.50 per pound (or $9 per pound for pre-picked berries), cash or check.
Pack a picnic lunch, or, if it's Friday, Saturday or Sunday, stop into Maiden Rock and enjoy inexpensive sandwiches or quiche on the front porch at the Smiling Pelican Bakeshop (one note: cash only). Don't miss a slice of one of baker Sandra Thielman's extraordinary pies. We made quick work of a fantastic buttermilk-lemon pie topped with blackberries and some of the farm's blueberries (pictured, below); my only regret of an otherwise perfect day is that we didn't buy a second slice.
Once we got all those blueberries home (the gentle scent that filled the car was semi-intoxicating), I wondered if we'd gone a little overboard. But after handing out a few stashes to friends, I picked up a box of quart-sized freezer bags and jumped into the freezing process.
It's easy. The first step is filling a small baking tray with a single layer of berries -- and taking a few moments to weed out the duds -- and freezing them for at least an hour, enough time to transform them into cold marbles.
It's a time-consuming and slightly awkward process -- fortunately, I've got a jelly roll pan that just squeezes within the confines of our side-by-side freezer. But in the end, it's better to take the extra step than simply freezing fresh berries by the bag; the berries won't be stuck together. I choose quart bags vs. gallon bags for a reason; it's more convenient to thaw only what's needed, and who ever needs an entire gallon of blueberries?
The fruits of our labors yielded 14 quart-sized bags, minus all the snacking (and baking, see below) that we did prior to filling the freezer. Not bad for 45 minutes work.
I did manage to set aside a few fresh berries for some weekend baking. This coffee cake went fast.
Judging from its popularity, I'll be making this recipe for months. It's a good thing I've got all those berries in the freezer.
EASY BLUEBERRY-PECAN COFFEE CAKE
Serves 12 to 16.
3 c. flour, plus extra for pan
2 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. baking soda
Freshly grated zest from 1 lemon
12 tbsp. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra for pan
1 1/2 c. sugar
1 tbsp. vanilla extract
1 1/2 c. sour cream
1 1/2 c. blueberries, fresh or frozen
1/2 c. chopped pecans
3 tbsp. ground cinnamon
3 tbsp. sugar
4 tbsp. (1/2 stick) melted butter
To prepare cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour bottom and sides of a 9- x 13-inch pan. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda and lemon zest and reserve. In bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed, beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla extract and beat until combined. Reduce speed to low and add flour in thirds, alternating with sour cream and mixing until just combined; do not overmix. Gently fold in blueberries. Spread batter evenly into prepared pan.
To prepare topping: Sprinkle pecans evenly over top of batter. In a small bowl, combine cinnamon and sugar and sprinkle mixture over top of pecans. Evenly pour melted butter over top of cake, then run a knife through batter to allow butter to run down into cake. Bake until top is lightly browned and springs back from a light touch, about 45 minutes. Remove from oven to a wire rack to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature.
NOT NUTTER BUTTERS
Makes 2 to 3 dozen cookies.
Note: These cookies mimic Do-Si-Dos, the popular peanut butter sandwiches sold by Girl Scouts. From " Nancy Silverton's Sandwich Book" (Knopf, $25.95).
1 1/2 c. (3 sticks) unsalted butter, divided
1 vanilla bean
2 c. quick-cooking rolled oats
2 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. kosher salt
3/4 c. granulated sugar
3/4 c. light-brown sugar
3/4 c. natural, chunky-style unsalted peanut butter, excess oil poured off and discarded
2 1/4 c. flour
3 tbsp. unsalted butter
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
3 tbsp. powdered sugar
1/2 c. plus 1 tbsp. natural, chunky-style unsalted peanut butter
To prepare cookies: In a medium skillet, melt 1 stick of butter over medium heat. Using a small paring knife, split vanilla bean lengthwise. With back of knife, scrape out pulp and seeds, and add scrapings and pod to butter. Add oats and cook for 5 to 7 minutes, stirring constantly, until oats are lightly toasted and a golden-brown color. Remove and discard vanilla pod, transfer mixture to a large bowl and refrigerate.
In bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream remaining 2 sticks butter, baking soda and salt on low speed for 2 to 3 minutes, until butter is softened. Add granulated sugar and light-brown sugar and mix on medium speed until mixture is light and fluffy, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Add peanut butter and mix to combine. Turn mixer off and add oat mixture and flour. Turn mixer to low speed and mix another minute, until ingredients are incorporated and dough pulls away from sides of bowl and comes together in a ball.
Adjust oven racks to lower and middle positions, preheat oven to 350 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper. Using your hands, roll dough into 2-inch balls. Place balls on prepared baking sheet, 2 1/2 inches apart. Using heel of your hand, flatten balls into 2 1/2- to 3-inch discs. Using a fork, mark diagonal crisscross patterns over surface of each cookie. Chill until firm, about 15 minutes.
Bake cookies for about 16 to 18 minutes, until lightly browned and slightly firm to touch, rotating baking sheets halfway through. Remove cookies from oven, let cool for 2 minutes then remove cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.
To prepare filling: In bowl of an electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and salt on medium speed for about 1 minute, until butter is softened. Add powdered sugar and peanut butter and mix for another minute to combine. Flip a cookie over to make a bottom. Spread 2 teaspoons of filling in center of each. Place top cookie over filling, pressing gently to sandwich them together. Repeat with remaining cookies and filling. Serve with a tall glass of milk.
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