Every year we say it, and every year we mean it: The competition has never been as fierce, the judging has never been so challenging, and our winner and four finalists have never been more appealing. We’re delighted to discover that our annual cookie contest seems to improve with age.

This year’s top entry, a surprisingly easy-to-prepare meringue, captured the blue ribbon for its movie-star looks, unusual texture and daring double-play on chocolate. It has a great story, too.

But we’re also proud to say that all four of our finalists could have occupied the winner’s circle. Whether you’re taken with the idea of jump-starting a chewy ginger-molasses crinkle, jazzing up your cookie platter with a swirl of fresh cranberries, embracing the peanut butter cookie to end all peanut butter cookies, or celebrating the season with the complementary flavors of almond and sour cherry, our 10th annual contest features recipes you’ll be enjoying for years to come.
Thanks to all who submitted recipes. Get baking, and happy holidays.


Winner: Royal sweets with chocolate balsamic sauce

Baker: Patrice Johnson of Roseville.

Forever a fan: Our contest's first meringue cookie -- and first gluten-free cookie --  was partly inspired by Johnson's childhood memories. "My mom always made these little meringue cookies for Christmas," she said. "I loved them. I was the only one who ate them."

Scholarly beginnings: A self-described "Nordic food geek and meatball historian," Johnson focused the thesis of her recently earned master's degree on the food traditions associated with Swedish immigration to Minnesota. The research sent her digging through hundreds of cookbooks, which is where she stumbled upon the basis for her winning formula, an "elderly but beloved" copy of the Scandinavian volume of Time-Life's popular 1960s "Foods of the World" series. "There are a lot of meringue cookies in Swedish cookbooks, but they're usually made with almond," said Johnson. "These weren't."

Adding it up. The cookie's final form evolved over time. Enriching meringue with cocoa came from a chocolate baking contest Johnson entered, and the vinegar-infused chocolate filling grew out of a suggestion from a student in one of the cooking classes she occasionally teaches.

Good looks: "Easily the most beautiful cookie on the table," decreed one judge, and others followed with "wow," "gorgeous" and "tastes as good as it looks." More praise came in for the meringue's chewy texture and not-so-sweet bite.

Skip the special equipment: Don't be afraid of piping the meringue into a cookie shape. "If I can make it look good, anyone can," Johnson said with a laugh. Fitting a pastry bag with a decorative tip isn't necessary. "I've made it using a plastic bag, cutting a hole in the corner," she said. "It's the easiest thing to do." Another suggestion: When making meringue, superfine sugar beats its granulated counterpart. Don't have any? Throw granulated in the food processor, and pulse.

Webmaster: Johnson is a prolific food blogger; find her at www.culinaryconstruct.blogspot.com, www.calledtothetable.blogspot.com and www.marcussamuelsson.com. "It's an excuse to write, and it's so much fun," she said. "It's like your first-born child. It may not be the prettiest child in the world, but you love it anyway, you give it lots of attention and you hope it flourishes."

Finalist: Peanut stars sandwich cookies

Bakers: John Halstrom, left, and Trevor Howe of Minneapolis.

It's all about peanuts: Both Halstrom and Howe are self-professed peanut lovers.  "When I eat peanut butter -- which I do, a lot -- it reminds me of being a kid," said Halstrom. "I associate peanut butter with a happy, carefree time. There was the sack lunch with the peanut butter sandwiches, and my mom always made those Christmas cookies with the Hershey's Kisses. We had great Christmases when I was a kid."

Teamwork: Howe fondly recalls his Massachusetts grandmother's cake-like peanut butter cookies with a peanut-ginger glaze ("So not-Midwest," wrote Halstrom in his entry), and Halstrom has great affection for his mother's crisp peanut butter cookies. Borrowing attributes from both, the couple began experimenting with textures and flavors, combing websites for guidance, including www.sassyradish.com, www.spoonforkbacon.com, www.joythebaker.com, "and yes, even Martha Stewart," said Halstrom. "I know, predictable, right? You can hear the groans."

A crucial step: Toasting the peanuts adds another flavor layer. "We tried shortcuts, but nothing really worked nearly as well," said Halstrom. "It's best to get the peanuts really fragrant and brown -- that really makes the cookie pop."

Not so sugary: "I have a ridiculous sweet tooth," said Howe. "What I like about these cookies is that they're not overwhelmingly sweet. Your teeth don't feel like they're rotting out of your head with the first bite."

Stealth entry: Howe was initially unaware that Halstrom had submitted their recipe. "It would have never crossed my mind," he said with a laugh. "But I'm with someone who likes contests. He gets very excited about them -- the State Fair, for example -- and I absolutely enjoy how much he enjoys doing things like this. He's like a kid in a candy shop."

Finalist: Cranberry pecan swirls

Baker: Annette Poole of Prior Lake.

An ardent fan: "We're OK with chocolate, but our family thing is cranber ries -- we love them," she said, and proceeded to detail an impressive list of favorite sauces, pies and cakes that put the scarlet berry in the spotlight. "I could be their spokesperson."

A recipe's origins: While on a vacation, Poole stumbled across the recipe in a book. "And if there's a cranberry recipe, I've got to have it," she said. She made a copy and set it aside. Fast-forward a few years. She finally baked it, and flipped over it. "One of the reasons I like it is because it's not too sweet; there's not a lot of sugar in the filling," she said. "And yes, the fresh cranberries. I'm always on the lookout for anything cranberry."

The eyes have it: When hunting for a recipe, "I like the pictures, that's what sells it for me," she said. "If I see something that appeals to me visually, then I'll make it."

Insider's tip: Poole uses a rolling pin to slightly press the filling into the dough to keep the cranberries and pecans from falling out of the cookie. Another discovery: Before Poole freezes the dough, she gently imprints it with exact quarter-inch marks, using the edge of her Ecko pastry blender. "That way each cookie is the same size when I cut it," she said.

Glad she did: "I've always said that I should enter the contest, but like so many people I never have, until now," she said. "Probably half of my best cookies have come from the contest. I wait for it to come out, and I get at least one new recipe a year. There will probably be a new one for me this year among the other entries."

Finalist: Orange ginger drops

Baker: Cheryl Francke of Arden Hills.

'Tis the season: "I associate the taste of ginger with this time of year," said Fran cke. "Whether it's gingerbread men, or ginger snaps, it's very reminiscent of the holidays. I've always had at least one ginger cookie incorporated into my holiday baking."

Revamping a classic: "A lot of my recipes are putting a new twist on an old flavor," she said. "I thought I would experiment with crystallized ginger, and see what I could come up with. Then I thought that orange would be a nice complement. It's just a hint, it's subtle, and it's a fresh taste. It's good to know that playing in the kitchen pays off once in a while."

Extra topping: That crystallized ginger-orange garnish is there for more than just flavor. "I think things taste better if they look better," she said. "I bake a lot of muffins, and I always like to top them with something, so when you look at them you know what you're biting into."

Insider information: Francke relies on her senses, rather than a timer, when baking. "I always eyeball it, checking periodically, and I touch it," she said. "With these cookies, you don't want to leave a deep impression, it has to have some spring to it. Take them out of the oven when they're just starting to firm up."

Stress relief: "After a full day of work, you'll find me in the kitchen; it's one of my passions," she said. "At home, although it's down to just my husband and myself, I find that I'm still buying flour every other day. I like to share with friends, and keep the freezer stocked. At work they've designated me as the baker for birthdays. I enjoy that."

Finalist: Cherry almond turnovers

Baker: Lance Swanson of North Branch, Minn.

One morning in Turkey: On a college orchestra trip -- Swanson sat in the c larinet section -- a breakfast featured two jellies: rose petal and sour cherry. The former? No, thanks. But the latter struck a chord, and the memory of its "deep tang" flavor returned during a recipe brainstorming session. "I knew that I wanted to pair up cherry and almond somehow," said Swanson. "I walked into a bakery, and you know how you see cherry turnovers? I thought that would be a good idea for a cookie."

Laboratory and sanctuary: "I love getting into the kitchen and experimenting," he said. "It's the mad scientist in me. I'm happiest when I'm in the kitchen. Baking is kind of my meditative time." Swanson generously shares his output with friends, family and colleagues. "They're always excited to see me when I'm carrying a tray or a plate of something," he said with a laugh.

Fear factor: The cookie's pie crust-meets-puff pastry dough isn't as daunting as it may appear in print. "Don't be afraid of the dough," he cautions. "It might sound complicated, but it's pretty foolproof. One time I made it and thought that I'd screwed it up royally, but it turned out perfect."

A peerless track record: This is Swanson's fourth consecutive year in the finalists' circle, a remarkable achievement. "Well, I just hope I can keep this momentum going," he said. "I plan on entering for many years, God willing. I already have ideas for next year. I usually start experimenting immediately after the present year's contest."

He speaks from experience: Swanson offers advice to those who want to advance in the contest. "The competition is pretty stiff," he said. "So bring your A-game, and think outside the box. It also helps to be a little bit crazy."