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."

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