Pastry pros judge the best of the best

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 29, 2012 - 8:18 AM

We turned to a field of baking experts to select the top entry from 10 years' worth of holiday cookie contests. Check out what they had to say.

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Our expert panel: Steve Horton of Rustica, Adrienne Odom of Parasole, Diane Yang of La Belle Vie and Stephanie Schwandt of D’Amico Kitchen.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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When we jumped into the cookie contest business in 2003, we had no other goals than to try something different, share great recipes and survive the experience.

Sure, there were half-jokes about making it an annual event, but truth to tell we were fairly commitment-phobic. We certainly never envisioned that we'd conduct another nine contests. We also didn't realize how much fun we would have, or how the contest's popularity would grow with each passing year.

But that's what happened, and here we are, publishing the 10th iteration of the Taste Holiday Cookie Contest. To celebrate the occasion, we decided to conduct an all-stars' contest-within-the-contest.

For this hall-of-fame competition, we enlisted the discerning palates of four professional Minneapolis bakers: Steve Horton of Rustica, Adrienne Odom of Parasole Restaurant Holdings, Stephanie Schwandt of D'Amico Kitchen and Diane Yang of La Belle Vie. We gathered them around a table and invited them to taste-test -- and then rate -- the grand-prize winners from each of the past 10 years.

Forty-five minutes later -- filled with pistachios, dulce de leche, almonds, chocolate, sugar and butter -- the panel's decision was unanimous. Drum roll, please.

The best of the best is Swedish Almond- Chocolate Macaroons, our winner from 2011 and the pride of Beth Jones of Owatonna, Minn.

All of our judges praised the cookie's contrasting textures and surprisingly rich bite, but Schwandt's analysis was the most succinct.

"There's something nostalgic about it," she said. "It has a small-town bakery feel to it, even though I didn't grow up in a small town."

(Wouldn't you know it? Jones based her recipe upon a cookie she fell in love with during her year as an exchange student in rural Sweden.)

We love it, too. It's a cookie that's destined to be an integral part of our holiday baking rituals for years to come. We hope it will become a part of yours, too, if it isn't already.

We also tasked our fearless foursome to select two runner-up favorites. Again, it was a fairly clear-cut decision.

First up: Orange Chocolate Cookies, submitted by Eileen Troxel of St. Paul in 2007.

Horton appreciated the cookie's bitter orange marmalade bite, and Yang praised the recipe's harmonious ingredients. "And it looks like a Christmas cookie," she said.

The other attention-getter was Taffy Treats, the candied apple-inspired eye-grabber that reigned supreme in our first competition in 2003, by Sherryl Joos of Plymouth. Schwandt correctly surmised that the recipe requires a fair amount of attention, but that's an attribute that appealed to Odom.

"I like it when people spend time making Christmas cookies," she said. "You probably only bake them once a year, and that means that people really look forward to it."

Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @ricknelsonstrib

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  • Recipes: Top picks from 10 years of cookies

    Wednesday November 28, 2012

    Pastry chefs told us which ones were tops: Swedish Almond Macaroons, Orange Chocolate Cookies and Taffy Treats.

  • Stephanie Schwandt of D’Amico Kitchen

  • BAKING TIPS FROM THE PROS

    • Buy a scale for accurate measurements, said Steve Horton of Rustica bakery.

    • Use kosher salt, suggested Stephanie Schwandt of D'Amico Kitchen.

    • Embellish flavors by toasting nuts and coconut, added Diane Yang of La Belle Vie.

    • Purchase the best ingredients your budget will allow, offered Adrienne Odom of Parasole Restaurant Holdings. "It really does affect the quality of the cookie," she said.

    Oh, and do professional bakers get into the holiday cookie spirit at home? In a word, no. Not that they don't appreciate the tradition of holiday cookie-baking. And eating.

    "Every family has their favorites," said Odom. "In mine it's spritz, Meltaways and Peanut Blossoms. The standards, you know? I like them, as long as it's not me doing the baking."

    RICK NELSON

    They came. They tasted. They judged.

    Our panel of cookie experts included:

    Steve Horton of Rustica, 3220 W. Lake St., Mpls., 612-822-1119, www.rustica bakery.com

    Adrienne Odom of Parasole Restaurant Holdings, including the Good Earth, Galleria, Edina, 952-925-1001, and 1901 W. Hwy. 36, Roseville, 651-636-0956, www.goodearth mn.com

    Stephanie Schwandt of D'Amico Kitchen, 901 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., 612-767-6960, www.damico-kitchen.com

    Diane Yang of La Belle Vie, 510 Groveland Av., Mpls., 612-874-6440, www.labellevie.us

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