When you write for a food section, you know that certain stories come around each year like clockwork: eggs at Easter, Irish soda bread or corned beef for St. Patrick’s Day, picnics for July 4th, turkeys at Thanksgiving, latkes at Hannukah, cookies during the winter holidays. The challenge each year is to come up with a new approach to engage readers.
Sixteen years ago, the Taste section dipped its toe into what its staff considered to be a “new” angle to the annual story on holiday cookies. That’s the yearly nod to those treats that fill up festive party platters and result in flour-dusted gatherings where bakers who may shrug off kitchen duty 11 months of the year find themselves debating the merits of dark chocolate over milk (really, is there even a debate?) and cornflake wreaths over snickerdoodles.
Rick Nelson, a relative newbie at the time to the Taste section, had an idea: What about a cookie contest?
The rest of the staff nodded in the manner of those relieved not to be assigned the annual story, and Nelson was on his way. Readers embraced the contest with such enthusiasm that Taste did it a second year, and then a third. Who knew the contest would never end?
Today, as preparations for the 2018 cookie contest continue (the winners will be announced in Taste on Nov. 29), Nelson and food editor Lee Svitak Dean tell the story behind the first 15 years of cookie recipes in “The Great Minnesota Cookie Book” (University of Minnesota Press, 191 pages, $24.95). The contest’s 80 winning recipes — from 2003 to 2017 — are now gathered in a print collection. (You can also look up winning cookie recipes at startribune.com/cookies.)
Lee: Looking back to 2003, what were you thinking? Seriously!
Rick: I know. Back then, this history major had discovered the Taste archive, and while looking over hundreds of past issues I was fascinated to see all of the reader interaction in the section during the 1970s and 1980s. A contest seemed like an appropriate homage to that tradition.
Lee: There are many who would think of tasting cookies as the dream job, kind of like being a restaurant critic. But over the years, it’s been more than 3,500 cookie recipes to review, and 325 cookies to taste. Yes, it’s fun, but at the end of day, when we can’t nibble on any more cookies and we have to hit the gym, well, then it’s work.
Rick: Not to mention all that baking. We test — and retest — these recipes until we’re sure they are foolproof, which means that we go through, for example, about 25 pounds of butter during each contest year.
Lee: We shouldn’t be surprised that cookie contests are popular in Minnesota. Think of the baking culture here, with all those cold-weather days and nights to fill, and a heritage of those who love baked goods.
Rick: There are all of those flour companies that grew up around St. Anthony Falls. Then there’s the granddaddy of all baking contests born in Minneapolis, the Pillsbury Bake-Off.
Lee: Yes, it’s imprinted into our DNA. What do you love most about the recipes? I’m amazed each year at the number of ways flour, butter, sugar and eggs can be combined for different results. It’s also heartwarming to see how cookies are attached to so many family memories.
Rick: I’m forever impressed by — and grateful for — the unending creativity of our readers.
Lee: We’ve had some unusual entries from bakers.
Rick: I wish that recipe from the guy being held in county lockup would have panned out. And I’m always pleased to open an envelope and find a submission from an entire elementary school classroom.
Lee: Then there are the cookies themselves. Who knew that cookies followed trends as much as other foods?
Rick: Once again, that’s our readers. Sea salt, espresso, brown butter? They’re on it, naturally. One blip was kale. As we learned from the taste test, leafy greens are not an ideal cookie ingredient.
Lee: The judging sessions are more daunting than a casual observer might think, with all those dozens of cookies to try.
Rick: Videotaping the discussion was an eye-opener. Turns out, no one wants to watch their cherished recipe get elbowed by a panel of crumb-covered strangers. It’s just as well that we didn’t show that to the public.
Lee: And the debates we’ve had: Are bars really cookies? Yes, of course, though some of our readers disagreed!
Rick: Or the internal discussion about whether to include packaged products — cake mixes, pudding mixes, breakfast cereal — in cookie recipes. I’m against it.
Lee: What cookies from the contest do you make the most?
Rick: I can pretty much bake Almond Palmiers (from Kay Lieberherr of St. Paul, 2011), Devil’s Delight Cookies (from Michelle Clark of St. Paul, 2005) and Orange Chocolate Cookies (from Eileen Troxel of St. Paul, 2007) from memory. How about you?
Lee: My sweet tooth leans toward the not-too-sweet treats, like last year’s Cranberry Cornmeal Shortbread Cookies (from Mary Martin of Minneapolis, 2017) and the Cranberry Pumpkin-Seed Biscotti (from Phyllis Kahn of Minneapolis, 2008), and the Italian Almond Cookies (from William Teresa of Minneapolis, 2014). What was your favorite cookie growing up?
Rick: That’s easy. It’s those peanut butter cookies topped with a Hershey’s Kiss. I still make them.
Lee: Mine is the Russian tea cake, that ball of ground nuts, butter and powdered sugar. I made hundreds one year for my daughter’s senior art show. Where did you learn to bake?
Rick: From my mother, Judy. When I was a kid I also spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my father’s mother, Hedvig Nelson. She was an extraordinary baker, and I wish I’d had the presence of mind to record the details once she preheated her oven, because Grandma never followed written recipes.
Lee: When I was growing up, my mother, Laverne, was a cookie-making machine, making gingersnaps, sugar cookies and chocolate chip versions that made their way into my school lunch bag for years. I remember begging for what every other kid had: a store-bought cookie. During Christmas, we had Norwegian treats, from sandbakkels and krumkake to rosettes, all with the help of my grandmother, Martha Nelson, who patiently supervised the baking and frosting of cutout cookies. These days I’m in the kitchen with my three grandchildren, decorating gingerbread cutouts and cleaning up sprinkles for weeks.
Rick: That’s what I’m hoping that our contest — and this book — will do: inspire bakers and create memories.
Adapted from “The Great Minnesota Cookie Book.”