The competition was stiff: Our sixth-annual holiday cookie contest drew a record 362 entries. After much consternation, we whittled that list down to the 22 most promising recipes. Then we got baking.

That was followed by a gigantic taste test — one that involved more glasses of milk than we could count — and from there our panel of 16 judges selected five finalists and a winner.  ¶  We think they’re all winners.

Still, we have to admit that, like many cookie fanatics, we have a weakness for chocolate. That’s why we know that first-place baker Faith Ford’s chocolate-cherry-espresso combination will quickly become a part of your holiday baking routine.

But don’t overlook our finalists, because we’re confident that cardamom, ricotta cheese, pistachios and cranberries, almonds, lemon and thyme are ingredients that will help to make holidays bright for years to come.  ¶ 

Thanks to everyone who shared their recipes and their holiday baking stories, and keep in mind that our 2009 contest deadline is less than 300 days away.


Double Chocolate-Cherry Espresso Drops

Baker: Faith Ford of Big Lake, Minn.

The origins: Ford discovered our top pick for 2008 in one of her grandmother's well-worn cookbooks. "I starting putzing around with it," Ford said. "Originally it was flat and extremely chewy, so I reduced the amount of butter and added more flour. Now it's very soft, very brownie-like." We would add "very addicting" to that list. But the story starts much earlier. Every night between Thanksgiving and Christmas when Ford was growing up, her father would bring chocolate-covered cherries home. He would give one to each of his children and then tell them if they found the box they could eat the rest. "It wasn't until I was a teenager that I found out that he wasn't hiding them, he was eating them," Ford said with a laugh.

Hello, future contest winner: As a nod to that happy memory, Ford began folding chopped cherries into those chocolate cookies. But the tinkering didn't stop there. "When my kids were little, I started adding espresso to them," she said. "I would tell them that Santa's reindeer would get more energy and pull the sleigh faster."

A tip from the expert: "You really have to keep your eyes on them while they're baking," she said. "They're so dark, which makes it hard to tell when they're done. When the center just turns a different color, that's when you know they're done."

She's the baker in the family: "Oh, boy, am I," Ford said. "Almost every Sunday, that's the day that my family knows to leave me alone in the kitchen. That's my therapy." She really gets busy around the holidays, turning out cookies, pies and candies as well as organizing her office's annual cookie exchange. "One year we had 19 people signed up, and that was crazy, because bringing in 19 dozen gets to be a lot," she said with a laugh. "After that, we dialed it back to eight."

A yuletide tradition: Ford has been faithfully making Double Chocolate-Cherry Espresso Drops during the holidays for at least 20 years. "It's a standard that I have to make, or people have a meltdown," she said with a laugh. "I bring them to work every year. People stand around and wait for them." We know the feeling.


Ricotta Cheese Cookies

Baker: Mary Beth Conzett of Plymouth.

The source: The 1996 Christmas edition of Good Housekeeping magazine. "I'm always looking for something different, and I love Italian food," Conzett said. "They were calling my name."

A winning texture: It's hard to imagine a more tender sugar cookie, and they come together in a snap. "They're so easy to make that it's almost embarrassing," she said. "They make a huge batch, more than I know what to do with. You can cut the recipe in half and it works out just fine. They also freeze really well."

Already a winner: A few years ago, Conzett's mother was on the lookout for a new recipe for a cookie exchange and contest. "I said, 'Mom, I've got the perfect one,'" recalled Conzett, referring, of course, to Ricotta Cheese Cookies. "And she won with it."

Advice for the contest-shy: "I've thought about entering in past years, but you see the cookies that are finalists, and you never think that yours is going to match up," she said. "But this year I thought, 'What the heck, I'll give it a shot.' It's like the lottery: You can't win if you don't play."


Almond Spoons

Baker: Sharon Severson of North Oaks.

From Mom's kitchen to hers: "All of my recipes are from my childhood," Severson said. "I have boxes of my mom's old recipes and a file of some of the favorites that I make regularly. This is something she called 'Almond Lace.' She would spool them around the krumkake iron, but I just drape them over a dowel, like a taco shell. They're very pretty on a plate; they're almost like candy."

Don't bake this in July: "There's too much humidity," said Severson. "They're strictly a winter thing, when it's dry, otherwise the taco shell collapses. When you're baking them, you want them just brown around the edges, not dark brown all the way through."

The farmer's daughter: Severson grew up on a farm on the Iron Range, the second-youngest of her Swedish immigrant parents' 10 children. "I liked being in the kitchen with my mom," she said. "She was a fantastic cook and baker. We had a big old wood-fired stove. I don't think it even had a temperature gauge, but Mom turned out wonderful things with it. We lived off the land. The only thing Dad got in town was sugar and coffee. I learned the importance of food and the science of good cooking. My two daughters laugh when I tell them stories about growing up on the farm. They say I'm like Laura Ingalls in the Big Woods. I'm a city girl now, but you can't take the country out of me."


Cardamom Cookies

Baker: Matt Boisen of Owatonna, Minn.

Danish beginnings: A December trip to Denmark 20 years ago planted the idea for these chewy, brightly flavored cookies. "Cardamom and marzipan, they were the two things you smelled everywhere," Boisen said. "Every bakery, every confectionery. I was buying it all up." Later he ran across a recipe in a Danish cookbook that jogged two happy memories: It recalled the frosted spice cookies that his aunt Beverly, a prolific baker, often made at the holidays, and it also reintroduced the lure of cardamom to his taste buds. These distinctive cookies quickly became a regular part of his family's holiday traditions, now made with the able assistance of his two children, Tom and Ellen. "They like to get into their aprons," he said.

Speaking from experience: "When it comes to mixing the butter and sugar together, I just cream the heck out of it," he said.

Cardamom, love it or hate it: "I know a lot of people run away from it," he said with a laugh. "But to me, it's intoxicating. When I'm making these cookies, I could eat the whole batch. Besides, I like to try something different. They're not like chocolate chip cookies. That's all my mom ever made, and I got burned out on them. No one can convince me to ever have another one of those."


Cranberry-Pumpkin-Seed Biscotti Baker: Phyllis Kahn of Minneapolis

Not sure where: Kahn has been making these seasonally minded biscotti for about a decade, too long for her to recall the source of the recipe, but more than enough time for tinkering with the basic formula. Kahn now has a dozen variations in her biscotti repertoire. "This version, with its red and green, is especially for the holidays," she said.

Travels well: Kahn's love affair with biscotti was born, in part, because of the cookie's sturdy practicality. "We have people scattered on both sides of the continent, so we usually end up going somewhere on the holidays," she said. "So transportable things are helpful."

Taking the prize: She's no stranger to baking competitions. Kahn walked away with a first-place ribbon in the baking competition at the 2008 Minnesota State Fair, "for something I don't even believe in, guiltless cheesecake," she said with a laugh. "I think I put biscotti into an ethnic baking category and got second or third. I'm naturally competitive. I don't enter if I can't win."


Viennese Wafers with Lemon

Baker: Margaret DeHarpporte of Eden Prairie.

Tried and true: "I've had this recipe for so long, probably all my married life, which is 40-plus years," DeHarpporte said. "It's such a goodie that I've kept on making it. People always like them; they always ask for the recipe."

Here's why: "It's basically butter and sugar, so it's nice in the mouth, so thin and crisp," she said. "It's also so simple. I like it that people can't quite put their taste buds on the thyme," she said. "It's unexpected, and I get a kick out of that." So did we.

A suggestion worth following: The dough should be chilled long enough so that it holds together, but not so long that it cracks around the edges when it's rolled. "That's about a half an hour," she said.

Change-oriented: "I like to experiment," she said. "I was making muffins with lemon and thyme, and I wondered how those flavors would go with this cookie. I've tried pecans, I've tried walnuts, I've tried just about anything I have on hand, and they all work out well." DeHarpporte has also played around with various flavoring extracts and spices. Her latest experiment included five-spice powder and sesame seeds. "It was what I call 'interesting,' " she said with a laugh. "That's a polite way of saying that it really stunk."