The winner of our seventh-annual holiday cookie contest has everything going for it: great looks, awesome flavor and an easy-to-prepare bar cookie formula. No wonder we were instantly smitten. We're confident that you will be, too, along with our four fine finalists.

In other years, each of these festive cookies would clearly be blue-ribbon material, but they were up against a formidable competitor. Our winner and finalists are definitely going to play a role in our December baking traditions, and we hope that they become a part of yours, too. Happy holidays.

 

WINNER: ALMOND TRIANGLES

Baker: Charlotte Midthun of Granite Falls, Minn.

How the judges raved: "Love," was the word most frequently invoked. Runner-up: "Beautiful."

Why we can't stop eating them: "Because they're made with so many good ingredients, that's why," said Midthun. A pound of butter and a pound of sliced almonds, that's pretty much anyone's idea of goodness, right? "They also look so nice on a plate," she said. "They're such a nice contrast to all the chocolate cookies and all the sugar cookies you see at Christmas." They sure are.

First-time contestant: "My sister Leigh told me she was going to enter my recipe, but she said, 'It's your cookie, you should enter,'" said Midthun. "So I did."

A popular track record: Midthun ran across the recipe about 15 years ago in First for Women magazine. "The first time I made them, I took them to a party, and everyone loved them," Midthun said. "I've been making them ever since." Now they're the star attraction on the holiday cookie platters she shares with neighbors and in the package she sends to her Chicago sister each December.

Other reasons to bake: "They freeze really well," Mid- thun said. "I've made them in October and frozen them, and they're still good at Christmas. They also make so many that you only have to make them once."

Shopping tip: Save money by buying sliced almonds in bulk. A pound runs $5.75 at We Are Nuts (931 Vandalia St., St. Paul, 651-646-3688, www.wearenutsmn.com) and between $4.49 and $6.59 at natural foods co-ops, including Seward Co-op (2823 E. Franklin Av., 612-338-2465, Mpls., www.seward.coop), far less than pre-packaged supermarket prices.

The right pan: Midthun uses a well-worn 10- by 15-inch rimmed cookie sheet. "It's nothing fancy, but it works good," she said. We found one at Target (Chefmate, $4.99) and she's right, it did the job just fine. Still, we preferred the results using a 10- by 15-inch jellyroll pan. Don't have one? Jellyroll pans -- sturdier than cookie sheets, with higher rims -- are a handy tool to have in your kitchen's arsenal; you can, for example, use them to wow your Christmas guests by making our favorite easy-to-prepare bûche de Noël (find the recipe on the Taste blog at startribune.com/tabletalk). We found them on the shelves at Kitchen Window in Minneapolis, Cooks of Crocus Hill in Edina and St. Paul, Chef's Gallery in Stillwater and Kitchens in Eden Prairie, as well as online at Sur La Table (www.surlatable.com), Williams-Sonoma (www.williams-sonoma.com) and Martha Stewart (www.marthastewart.com).

FINALIST: CLARE-OES

Baker: Jane Stern of Minneapolis

Judges' praise: "It's like eating a miniature chocolate cake" and "It's an Oreo on steroids."

Baker's secrets: Stern suggests rolling the somewhat sticky dough on a silicone baking mat, and whatever you do, don't overbake them. "They should be underdone rather than overdone," she said. Oh, and invest in the best cocoa your budget permits; Stern prefers Valrhona. "I buy it at Kitchen Window," she said. "They sell it in bulk [$11.95 per pound]; it's cheaper that way."

Flavor changer: The original buttercream recipe called for using Kahlúa and vanilla extract, but Stern replaced them with brewed coffee. Her intuition was correct: As flavors go, it's a change for the better.

Constantly baking: Stern puts both of her recently renovated kitchen's two ovens to good use and bakes several days a week. "I'm not exaggerating when I say that I have 75 dessert cookbooks," she said with a laugh. "I love all kinds of sweets, so I'm always tossing out old recipes and trying new ones. I have a few that I keep, but it's kind of boring to make the same old ones."

Looks are important: "I like to use a pretty cookie cutter," Stern said. "A nice scalloped circle. I've also made them with hearts, stars, all sorts of shapes. I like to make cookies that are aesthetically pleasing."

'Tis the season: Stern is a prolific holiday baker, turning out 25 to 30 varieties of cookies that she passes along to grateful -- and fortunate -- friends and relatives. "I just went to the store and bought 25 pounds of butter," she said.

FINALIST: FRENCH-SWISS BUTTER COOKIES

Baker: Ramona Doebler of Elk River

What the judges said: "They're so cinnamon-ey," and "I like how thin they are."

Skinny and sweet: "Lots of people don't like to make rolled cookies, which is why this is such a great cookie," said Doebler. "It's so much easier. I use a glass with a flat bottom and pound them out until they're really thin. That makes them special."

Forty years: When Doebler was a newlywed, she asked her mother to share a favorite recipe, a cinnamon-flavored sugar cookie that Doebler and her seven siblings ("I come from a family of eaters," she said) had been savoring for years. "But she couldn't find it," said Doebler. "So I sent a request into the newspaper" -- meaning the newly minted Taste section, and its instantly popular Reader's Exchange feature. A short time later she received a response. Forty years later, Doebler still has the handwritten letter -- and the recipe. "I saw your request for cookies in today's paper," wrote Doebler's cookie guardian angel, otherwise known as Myrtle Eveland of Anoka. "I'm sure this is the one you want -- so I'll send it directly to you. I hope you like them as well as I do." She must have, because Doebler has been baking them ever since.

Veteran baker: Doebler stays busy in her kitchen. By mid-November, she had already supplied three bake sales, and she had also produced 15 pounds of fudge -- brown sugar-maple, Rocky Road, coconut -- for an American Legion fundraiser. After 37 years of working for Sherburne County -- and showering her co-workers with sweets -- Doebler retired a few years ago. She recently dropped in on the office, "and someone told me that they're still talking about my cooking and my baking," she said. With a colleague like her, we would be, too.

FINALIST: KOLACHES

Baker: Pat Monson Johnson of Eden Prairie

Judges' reaction: "Very pretty on a cookie tray," and "They're a little futzy, but they're not as difficult to make as they look."

Sharing a secret: "People have asked for the recipe over the years, but I've never shared it, until now," said Johnson. "Then I thought, 'This is the moment.'"

Blooming beauty: The instructions call for folding the dough over the meringue and preserves, but it tends to pop back up during baking. That's OK. "That's what makes them pretty," said Johnson. "Then you can see that there's stuff in the center."

A forever favorite: "I'll be making these kolaches until I can't make cookies any longer," Johnson said. "They're more like a mini-pastry, a glorified cookie. I'll go to a nice bakery and see kolaches and I'll think, 'Oh, no, they won't be as good as my cookie.'"

Freezer-friendly: "They freeze beautifully, and I know from experience that you can even eat them frozen if you don't want to wait long enough for them to defrost," said Johnson with a laugh. "That's kind of sad, isn't it?"

A long history: Johnson has been making kolaches for most of her 41 years of marriage, and they were a beloved standard in her mother's kitchen for many years before that. The recipe originated with a Polish neighbor, and, like many hand-me down formulas, has always been little more than a list of ingredients. "If I handed you my copy of the recipe, it wouldn't work," Johnson said. "My mother taught me how to do it, so I hope that my version of the recipe makes sense." We think it does. "I mean, I don't even know how to spell kolache," she said with a laugh. "I took a guess."

FINALIST: PERSIAN MOLASSES CRINKLES

Baker: Lance Swanson of North Branch, Minn.

What the judges said: Using pomegranate molasses was "too cool," giving this crinkle-topped cookie "a really special and unexpected tangy flavor."

Keeping busy: "Baking is probably my favorite hobby," said Swanson. "I do all the baking around the holidays -- the cookies, the pies, I even do the turkey. I'm the go-to cooking guy in the family."

Inspired idea: The cookie started as a spiced molasses cookie. "One of my favorite memories is loving this cookie and wanting it even before I could bake it for myself," Swanson said. A trip to Turkey proved inspirational. "I fell in love with some of the flavors over there, and when I came home I started hunting around, trying to re-create them," Swanson said. "Then I saw the bottle of pomegranate molasses that was just sitting on our shelf and I thought, 'Why not replace regular molasses with it?' After a lot of trial and error, the results really brought me back to Turkey."

Beat it: Swanson said the road to cookie success is paved with patience. In other words, beat the butter and sugar together for a long, long time. "As far as creaming goes, you can't cream it long enough," he said. "Just beat, and beat, and beat."

In a snap: Swanson particularly likes how easy his cookies are to make. "You mix, you scoop, you bake," he said. "That's it."

Can't win unless you enter: "I don't usually enter contests, because I'm not lucky, not at all," said Swanson. "But this contest is more about skill than luck, and after I realized that I had something good, I had to enter."

AT STARTRIBUNE.COM Bookmark our new, easy-to-navigate archive -- where you'll find all 35 winning recipes (including Orange-Chocolate Cookies, left) from seven years of the Taste Holiday Cookie Contest -- at startribune.com/cookies. MEET OUR BAKERS

Meet our five bakers -- and sample their cookies -- as they bake and discuss their recipes in the Baking Lab at the Mill City Museum on Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. The museum is at 704 S. 2nd St., Mpls. Admission is $5 to $10; call 612-341-7555 or go to www.millcitymuseum.org.

LIVE CHAT

Log on and join Rick Nelson as he takes questions on cookies, restaurants and other food-related subjects during a live online chat. Thursday from noon to 1 p.m. at startribune.com.

MORE RECIPES

Find three reader-submitted favorites that we couldn't resist -- Mexican-Orange-Cornmeal Sandies, Orange-Ginger Drops and Winter Snowcapped Cookies -- at startribune.com/taste.

COOKIE WISDOM

Six steps to great cookies, every time:

Proceed with caution. To avoid mishaps, read the recipe -- twice -- before starting.

Be accurate. Spoon flour and powdered sugar into the measuring cup (rather than using the measuring cup as a scoop) and level ingredients with a straight edge.

Shop carefully. Buy large eggs and invest in fresh baking powder, baking soda and spices.

Equip yourself. Use flat, shiny, rimless and insulated medium- to heavy-gauge aluminum baking sheets. Eliminate greasy baking sheets by using parchment paper or reusable silicon (such as Silpat) baking mats.

Bake evenly. Preheat oven for at least 20 minutes. For true accuracy, invest in an oven thermometer (Target sells a decent one for about $8). Bake one baking sheet at a time, rotating baking sheet halfway through baking. Cool baking sheets completely between batches by rotating among several sheets or running hot sheets under cold water.

Store wisely. Most cookies remain fresh for up to a week when stored in an airtight container at room temperature. Store different types of cookies in separate containers.