Q: What on Earth made you think "Hey, let's start a holiday cookie contest!"?
A: Madness? Kidding. I was paging through hundreds of fragile back issues of Taste from the 1970s and 1980s. It was fascinating. Back in that pre-internet era, there were all kinds of features that emphasized reader input. I thought it would be fun to rekindle that interactive spirit.
Q: What are the most entries you've had in a year?
A: Around 360, that was in 2008. We've accumulated maybe 5,000 entries over 20 years. This year we had about 225, and we baked and taste-tested 19 semifinalists to determine the winner and four finalists.
Q: Did you ever anticipate it would still be going strong at 20 years?
A: Never. That initial contest didn't have a "first annual" frame, but the response was so positive that we gave it a second go-round the following year. From there, it grew into a tradition.
Q: When readers enter, they share the story behind the cookie recipe. Do you have any that hold a special place in your heart?
A: My mind immediately goes to William Teresa. While he was studying in Bologna, he spent most weekends with his Italian girlfriend's family, where he became hooked on her grandmother's almond cookies. When it was time to return to Minnesota, he politely asked for the recipe; the response was, "No." Family secrets, right? He developed his own version and friends convinced him to enter it in our 2014 contest. It won.
Q: What are your most memorable moments from the contests, from recipes to mishaps?
A: Our most enduring talker was probably a kale-centric recipe, when we learned the hard way that cookies and leafy greens do not mix. When William Teresa's winning cookie sparked an almond flour sellout in Twin Cities supermarkets, we had concrete evidence that the contest has a wide and devoted following. That was awesome. So was producing "The Great Minnesota Cookie Book" (University of Minnesota Press, 2018) with our former colleagues Lee Svitak Dean and Tom Wallace; it features every recipe from the contest's first 15 years. Still, what I've most enjoyed is the opportunity to meet so many wonderful Star Tribune readers and bakers. That's the Christmas gift that has kept on giving.
Q: Having read recipes for two decades, are there any baking constants?
A: What sticks out is Minnesota's continued collective passion for baking. Is that due to our long winters? The pervasive influences of hometown icons Betty Crocker and the Pillsbury Bake-Off? The state's deep German and Scandinavian roots? All of the above?
Q: How have the recipes — or the bakers — changed over the years?
A: Early on, most entries were delivered via the U.S. Postal Service; now, the vast majority arrive via email. Recipes incorporating offbeat, for cookies, anyway, ingredients — from turmeric to sumac to ancho chile powder — became a welcome trend. When it comes to bakers, a small talent pool has accumulated multiple finalist and/or winning recipes: Cynthia Baxter and Janet Heirigs each have three, Lance Swanson has four and Joanne Holtmeier boasts six. Still, I'm always delighted to see that the majority of each year's contestants are first-timers. There are a lot of imaginative bakers out there.
Q: Of the 100 recipes we've published, how many are now part of your holiday baking tradition?
A: Too many to recite. [Find Nelson's 10 favorite contest recipes here.]
Q: If you were going to enter a contest, what would you enter?
A: If I'm in it to win it, I'd be featuring chocolate, because nine out of our 20 grand prize winners are chocolate-centric.
Q: What's your favorite ingredient to bake with?
A: Hope Creamery butter, made in Hope, Minn.
Q: You're an excellent baker. Who are your culinary — or at least baking — influences?
A: My grandmothers, Hedvig Nelson and Gay Olsen, are responsible for countless happy childhood memories. My mother and my aunts also had — and have — a gift for making holiday baking extra-inspiring. I am a proud Dorie Greenspan groupie, and a faithful fan of Twin Cities cookbook author Sarah Kieffer. Her "100 Cookies" (Chronicle Books, 2020) is a kitchen library essential.
Q: How about some tips you've learned over the years?
A: The contest has definitely sharpened my baking skills, primarily because Amy Carter, the chef and former longtime baking instructor who has managed the production of our semifinalist bake-a-thon for the past seven years, has imparted so many valuable lessons, including: Always use an oven thermometer (Target sells a reliable one for about $7), be frugal with parchment paper (reuse it until it falls apart), invest in the best vanilla extract that your budget allows (check out the double-strength version from Milwaukee-based Penzeys) and bake with rimmed aluminum sheet pans. I buy them at Nordic Ware's factory store (4925 County Road 25, St. Louis Park, nordicware.com), where (barely flawed) versions in the scratch-and-dent section sell for about $8, a steal.
Q: It's well-documented that Peanut Blossoms are your favorite holiday cookie. What's your second favorite?
A: My sister Linda's frosted sugar cookie cutouts. I can't imagine December without them.