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.

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