Holiday cookie contest delivers sweet sparklers

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 23, 2011 - 11:20 AM

We sorted through more than 200 entries to find the winners of Taste's ninth annual holiday cookie contest. The winner: Swedish Almond-Chocolate Macaroons from Beth Jones of Owatonna, Minn.

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Center: Swedish Almond-Chocolate Macaroons. Clockwise, from bottom left: Almond Palmiers, Lemon-Lime Christmas Trees, Snowball Clippers, Chocolate Drizzled Churros.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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Minnesotans love their almond paste. That's the conclusion we've drawn from our ninth annual holiday cookie competition. This year's Scandinavian-inspired winner relies upon almond paste -- and chocolate -- to work its considerable baking magic, and it's a combination we guarantee will brighten holidays for years to come. An easy-to-prepare finalist pairs almond paste with puff pastry, and it's another sure-to-please idea. Then again, we're confident that fans of cinnamon, citrus and coconut will also find plenty to love in this year's batch of cookies. Happy baking, and eating. And happy holidays.

Winner: Swedish Almond-Chocolate Macaroons | Recipe

Baker: Beth Jones of Owatonna, Minn.

A cookie to love: "Chocolate and almond, an ideal cookie combination," sighed one judge. "I love the play on textures," raved another. "Sophisticated," decreed a third.

An American abroad: Jones fell head-over-heels for this almond-chocolate treat when she was an exchange student in the early 1970s in rural Sweden. The nearest supermarket was 20 miles away, but the store sent out the grocery equivalent of a Bookmobile to serve its far-flung customers, and a version of this cookie was the goodie her host family always had on its shopping list. When Jones returned for a visit in 2001, she tried -- and failed -- to convince the store's baker to reveal the recipe, so she set out to create one for herself, gleaning elements from three Swedish-language cookbooks and several Swedish baking websites.

A first: "I've always really liked to bake, but I've never entered a contest before," said Jones. "I see this contest every year and I think, 'Oh, I wonder if they've ever had a cookie like this?' But I always hesitated because I didn't have a reproduceable recipe. I've been making this cookie for 10 years and up until now, I've never written it down, I've always winged it. I have all these scraps of paper with notes on them; it's ridiculous. I wanted them to taste just like the ones I loved in Sweden, and I'd say that they finally do, after a lot of practice."

No set rules: Jones' research discovered another reason to appreciate this hugely appealing cookie: It's flexible. "It's like thumbprint cookies," she said. "You know, some thumbprints have jelly in them, or icing, or nuts. The same thing happens in Sweden with this cookie. Some are flavored with cognac, or vanilla. This particular version is the one that I had when I was there, so this is the version that I like." Jones prefers dipping the cookie in bittersweet chocolate. "But I've also used semisweet, and some people might like regular milk chocolate," she said. "It's all to your own taste."

Cutting it up: Jones recommends using a box grater to quickly and evenly shred the almond paste. Also, make sure the melted chocolate has cooled enough so that it won't melt the chilled buttercream filling when dipping the cookies. "It's lots of cooling and waiting, and cooling and waiting, so you need a little patience," she said. "They're a little bit putzy that way, but they're worth it."

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Finalist: Almond Palmiers | Recipe

Baker: Kay Lieberherr of St. Paul.

Why she entered: "I'm a big fan of the contest," Lieberherr said. "I look forward to it every year, and I always use it to add to my list of cookies."

It started at Surdyk's: On the spur of the moment, Lieberherr picked up palmiers from the northeast Minneapolis gourmet shop to fill out a holiday party cookie tray. "It turned out that everyone asked for the recipe for the palmiers, and not for the cookies that I had baked, dang it," she said with a laugh. That response sent her on a mission to develop her own palmier recipe. Eight years later, they've become a standard in her household.

Semi-homemade: Using commercially prepared puff pastry makes this recipe a snap to prepare. "I love it when you don't spend a lot of time on something, yet people think, 'Wow, that must have taken days,'" said Lieberherr. The graphic designer also places a strong emphasis on appearances. "A cookie should look really cool and taste great," she said.

Convenient: Lieberherr's palmiers can be rolled and kept in the refrigerator for up to 2 days in advance, then sliced and baked when the mood strikes. "Sometimes I like to take them out and bake them just before someone comes over," she said.

Judges' comments: "Fabulous," "fabulous" and "fabulous."

Secret ingredient: Pepperidge Farm puff pastry, available in the frozen foods section of most supermarkets, works perfectly well with this cookie, but we loved the results we got using Dufour Pastry Kitchens puff pastry. The all-butter product makes a gloriously light and flaky palmier, one that browns beautifully. One hitch: A 14-oz. package -- enough for this recipe -- is roughly twice the price of its shortening-based Pepperidge Farm competition. We found it at Seward Co-op and Linden Hills Co-op in Minneapolis, Mississippi Market in St. Paul, Lakewinds Natural Foods in Minnetonka and Chanhassen, Valley Natural Foods in Burnsville and Whole Foods Market in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Minnetonka.

An insider's tip: Yes, it's sugar, not flour, when rolling out the puff pastry. "Not only does the sugar make the pastry not stick to the board and the rolling pin, but it will also caramelize the outside of the cookie while it bakes," said Lieberherr.

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Finalist: Snowball Clippers | Recipe

Baker: Becky Varone of Chaska.

From a friend: Varone traces her entry back 16 years, to an annual cookie exchange with co-workers. "I lived three blocks from work, so we'd have lunch at my house," she said. "Everyone would bring an ingredient for a Chinese salad bar -- we got the recipe from Taste -- and we'd have lunch and exchange cookies." For several years, a colleague supplied these coconut-chocolate cookies, and after she dropped out of the exchange, Varone asked for the recipe. "By then, I was addicted to them," Varone said with a laugh. "I still have the original recipe in her handwriting. Now I make them every year at Christmas. My family loves them."

Why it's a hit: "They taste good," said Varone. "But what I also like about them is that they're really easy to make. It's not the kind of cookie that has 10 steps. The ingredients are really simple, too. I just buy regular coconut."

A tip: "The hardest thing about making these cookies is that the coconut mixture tends to stick to your hands," said Varone. "Just make sure to keep wetting your hands."

What the judges said: "They taste like a Mounds bar, and that's always a good thing," said one. "They're cute, and they would look pretty on a cookie plate," added another.

A holiday standard: "My daughter expects them every year, I always bring them to our extended family get-together, and if I'm invited to a cookie exchange, these are the cookies that I bring," said Varone. "It's a tradition that all started from that cookie exchange."

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Finalist: Chocolate Drizzled Churros | Recipe

Baker: Lance Swanson of North Branch, Minn.

Shopping around: The idea of creating a cookie version of the churro, the sweet fried-dough snack, occurred to Swanson while he was shopping. "We go to Costco a lot, and I'll buy churros once in a while," he said. "I was eating them and started thinking, 'This would be a good cookie.' I went home and started on it. I started looking at spritz cookie recipes, and then it was a matter of tweaking the flavors. This is what I came up with."

A lifelong baker: "I've been baking for as long as I can remember, ever since I could barely see over the countertop," said Swanson. "I'll find any excuse to get in the kitchen." All that output makes him a popular man at work. "Everyone knows that if it's around a holiday, I'll bring in some kind of goodies," he said. "People get real chummy with me around Christmas."

Attention to detail: Swanson encourages bakers to seek out Mexican chocolate. "It's not like I'm going to invade your kitchen and start yelling at you if you don't," he said with a laugh. "But the Mexican chocolate brings it to another level. It has that extra spice, that extra flavor in it. It's more authentic."

Critical commentary: "They really capture the churro-ness of churros," said one judge. "This would be a fun State Fair food," said another.

Why he entered: This is Swanson's third consecutive year as a finalist, a record. "You ask everyone how their cookie fits into their holiday tradition," he said. "And I realized that for the past few years, entering the contest has become a tradition with me. The contest is my tradition."

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Finalist: Lemon-Lime Christmas Trees | Recipe

Baker: Joan Hause of Lake Elmo.

A labor of love: "I really love making cookies," said Hause. "I'm pretty known on both sides of our family as 'the baker.' I have a 12-year-old daughter and she likes to help me decorate cookies. I developed this recipe last fall when I heard about your contest. I adapted it from lemon-sugar cookies. I like the flavor of lime, so I played around with it."

Keeping busy: "I do a lot of Christmas cookies every year," said Hause. "I'm pretty big on the standards, but I've played with a lot of recipes to make my own version. Lately I've been trying to develop the perfect chocolate chip cookie. I think I've come pretty close." Her secret? "If you use the Toll House recipe, I add a little more flour, which makes the cookies thicker. And I add more vanilla extract, I like that flavor."

Judges' feedback: "They would be fun to make with kids," noted one. "Love the refreshing citrus flavor," added another. "Unlike many sugar cookies, there's just enough sugar but not so much to make them too sweet," said one.

Flour power: It's a sticky dough, so keep a liberal amount of flour on both the work surface and on the rolling pin. Work quickly; the dough is best manipulated when it is refrigerated.

Appearances matter: "Christmas cookies can look good but not always taste good," said Hause. "I like to pay attention to both. I was happy that these cookies ended up tasting as good as they look. I entered the contest to see if other people felt the same way."

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