Baker: William Teresa of Minneapolis.

From Italy, with love: During a college study-abroad year at the Università di Bologna, Teresa dated a fellow student. The couple would frequently jump on a train and visit her family in Cesena, a small city in Emilia-Romagna, happily immersing themselves in the cooking lives of his girlfriend’s parents and grandparents. “They were so lovely,” Teresa said. “I learned to make pasta with them. We’d spend hours making dough, and laughing. It was wonderful to be in a place where food is so rooted in tradition and place, and to encounter something that has always been made by the same people, with little variation.”

The takeway: One of the grandmothers baked a chewy-crispy and outrageously rich almond cookie, which the family enjoyed with espresso. Teresa was instantly smitten. Unfortunately, the cookie’s recipe didn’t return to the United States with him. “She was wary of sharing a family recipe,” he said. “That’s their pride.”

Diligence: After doing his research, Teresa stumbled upon a similar-sounding sweet. “Ricciarelli,” he said. “They’re from Siena, in Tuscany, and not that far from Bologna.” He began to tweak the formula (less sugar, for starters), and as each iteration inched closer to the unassuming-looking cookie of his memory, he became confident that he’d hit replication pay dirt. “Since then, I’ve probably made them a hundred times,” he said. “They’re not like any other American cookie. Maybe that’s why so many people ask me for the recipe.”

Judges’ raves: “And we have our winner,” was one immediate response. “You think it’s going to be like a Russian tea cake, but it’s so much better,” said another. “That’s a cookie I’d bake every year,” added a third.

Dietary surprise: Among its many appealing virtues — it’s a very easy recipe to pull together, for example — this is a gluten-free cookie.

Have faith: “I never think that one egg white is going to make the dough wet enough to hold together,” Teresa said. “But it does. You have to trust it.”

Watch closely: To preserve the cookie’s exceptional texture, overbaking is a definite no-no. “You have to watch them,” Teresa said. “When the cracks start to form, and you see the very slightest hint that they’re turning brown, that’s when you pull them out of the oven. Otherwise, they’ll turn rock hard an hour later.”

That’s Italian: Teresa’s time abroad confirmed a quietly harbored suspicion. “I’m a quarter Italian; the rest is a mishmash,” he said with a laugh. “But that’s the part that I definitely connect with. There are some people who feel that they are a man born in a woman’s body, or a woman born in a man’s body. Sometimes I feel like I’m an Italian born in an American’s body.”

Baker: Trish Cowle of Mendota Heights.

A December tradition: Along with graham cracker-chocolate rollouts, sugar cookies and bars, Cowle’s holiday baking schedule always includes Macadamia Nut Tarts. “I’ve been making them for 23 years,” she said. “They get rave reviews. I have family members who insist on them.”

Sharp eye: When Cowle plucked the recipe from a cookbook series, it was the main ingredient — an off-the-beaten-path choice for cookies — that grabbed her attention. “I love macadamias and I thought, ‘This has to be great,’ ” she said. “But then again, I love nuts. Who can turn down a good pecan pie?”

Flexible: Cowle said the cookie works in a variety of shapes, effortlessly adapting to tart and mini-muffin pans of all sizes. “I’ve always done smaller, because the bigger ones tend to be overkill,” she said. “It’s a rich cookie, and they taste better in small bites.”

A budgetary caution: “This isn’t a cheap cookie to make,” noted one of our judges, and she’s right. Macadamia nuts can run $7 to $8 per cup, and the recipe requires 3 cups. But the results are a worthy holiday splurge.

Sharing her knowledge: Cowle, a first-time contest participant, has a generous reason for entering the competition. “It’s a good cookie, and I wanted other people to hear about it,” she said. “I did it as a lark. I had no idea that anything would come from it.”

 

Baker: Cheryl Francke of Arden Hills.

Why chocolate: That’s easy. “My kids are chocoholics,” Francke said with a laugh, who also observed that any chocolate dessert on her sprawling Thanksgiving buffet that includes the word “truffle” in its name always disappears quickly. “I have a chocolate-truffle torte and I thought, ‘Maybe I could make a cookie that comes close to that,’ ” she said.

What the judges said: “It’s the grown-up version of that chocolate-peppermint cookie,” said one, referring to another one of this year’s finalists. “It’s intense, in a good way,” said another.

Kitchen essential: There was no hesitation when Francke was asked about the one baking tool she couldn’t live without. “My mixer,” she said. “I have a KitchenAid, and it’s the greatest thing in the world. I don’t think there is a week that goes by that I’m not using it. There’s always something going on in that kitchen.”

Tips for bakers: When it comes to handling the dough’s stickiness, Francke suggests keeping your hands wet. “And don’t make them too big,” she said. “It’s a very rich cookie.”

Thanks for the memories: Francke was a finalist in our 2012 contest, and the happy prospect of others baking that cookie — Orange Ginger Drops — is the takeaway that remains from that experience. “It just makes me feel really wonderful that someone else is enjoying something that I’ve created,” she said.

 

 

Baker: Janet Heirigs of Minneapolis.

Gradual process: The recipe is a cross between a pair of cookies that Heirigs has been baking for years. The base is a glazed lemon cookie from Cook’s Illustrated magazine, and the embellishments were inspired by a Martha Stewart biscotti, one that puts cranberries and pecans front and center.

Holy approval: Heirigs often enlists her colleagues in the taste-testing process. This time around, she also turned to a group of nuns at a Franciscan retreat she attends several times a year in Annandale, Minn. They weren’t impressed with a time-consuming cranberry flourish, and Heirigs dropped it. “Then again, they have a ‘living simply’ belief,” she said with a laugh.

Judges’ commentary: “So pretty,” said one. “This is what a holiday cookie looks like,” added another.

A Cook’s keeper: Heirigs highly recommends a refrigerator cookie tip she picked up from Cook’s Illustrated. Here’s how it works: Cut a paper towel cardboard roll lengthwise. Roughly shape cookie dough into a log, wrap the log in parchment paper, place the log inside the cardboard tube and roll until the dough is evenly dispersed. “It’s a really easy way to make uniform rolled cookies,” she said.

Returning champion: Heirigs was a finalist in our 2010 contest, with a cookie she called Hot and Sassy Peanut Butter Buds, her play on the iconic Peanut Butter Blossom cookie. Her enduring memory of that experience was the event at the Mill City Museum. “I was on a light high for a few weeks afterward,” she said. “It was so much fun, talking to the other contestants, trying their cookies, picking up tips and talking to the people who were trying my cookie.”

 

 

Baker: Karen Evans of Minneapolis.

Long-standing tradition: For years, Evans has been baking gigantic amounts of holiday cookies each year as a gift-giving gesture for her husband’s co-workers. After all, “Who doesn’t like homemade cookies?” she said. “Every year I try to bake a couple of new kinds, to add to the old favorites.”

Peppermint affection: Evans began making this one — a variation on a recipe she encountered in the pages of the Cincinnati Enquirer — about 20 years ago. It quickly became her family’s “all-time favorite.” Here’s a gauge of Evans’ affection for this recipe: When the family relocated to Morocco, she asked visiting friends to be sure to pack candy canes in their suitcases because the sweets weren’t available locally.

Why she entered: “It was mostly my daughter, Elisabeth,” Evans said. “She said, ‘Mom, you have to enter this.’ She’s very driven. She was my editor. She would e-mail me and say, ‘Mom, where is your first draft?’ ”

Attention-getter: “When it comes to platters of cookies, everything can be brown,” Evans said. “This cookie puts some color on the plate. They’re festive.”

Judges’ reaction: “Kids are going to love this,” was the near-unanimous chorus of praise.

Easy to like: Evans values finicky-free recipes. “These cookies look sophisticated, but they’re actually really easy to make,” she said. “And if there are any flaws, you’re going to cover them in icing and roll them in crushed candy canes.”

 

Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib