APPLE CARDAMOM PECAN STAR COOKIES

Makes about 18 sandwich cookies.

Note: This recipe must be prepared in advance. Commercially prepared apple butter is readily available. To toast pecans, place nuts in a dry skillet over medium heat, and cook, stirring (or shaking the pan frequently) until they just begin to release their fragrance, about 3 to 5 minutes (alternately, preheat oven to 325 degrees, spread nuts on an ungreased baking sheet and bake, stirring often, for 4 to 6 minutes). Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Our 2015 winning cookie is from Jana Freiband of Minneapolis.

For cookies:

2 c. flour, plus extra for rolling dough

• 1/2 tsp. baking powder

2 tbsp. powdered sugar, plus more for decoration

• 1/8 tsp. salt

• 2 tsp. ground cinnamon

• 2 tsp. ground cardamom

• 3/4 c. pecans, toasted (see Note)

1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

• 1/4 c. granulated sugar

• 1 egg

• 1 tsp. vanilla extract

• 1/4 c. milk or water, as needed

For apple butter (see Note):

• 4 apples, peeled and sliced

• 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon

• 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg

• 1/4 tsp. ground cardamom

• Pinch of ground cloves

• 1/4 c. brown sugar

1/2 tsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice

Directions

To prepare cookies: In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, powdered sugar, salt, 2 teaspoons cinnamon and 2 teaspoons cardamom. Set aside.

In a bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade, pulse pecans until nuts are very finely ground. Whisk into flour mixture.

In a bowl of an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat butter and granulated sugar until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add egg and vanilla extract, and beat until thoroughly combined. Reduce speed to low, add flour mixture and mix just until combined and dough forms, adding enough milk or water to make dough pliable. Form dough into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, at least 2 hours.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper.

On a lightly floured surface, using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll dough to 1/8-inch thickness. Use a star-shaped cutter (about 3 to 4 inches) to cut cookies from dough, and use a smaller star-shaped cutter (about 1 to 2 inches) to cut shapes out of the center of half of the cookies. Repeat with remaining dough, gathering up scraps, rerolling and cutting until all dough is used.

Place dough 1 inch apart on prepared baking sheets. Bake until cookies begin to brown and dough is just set, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from oven, cool 2 minutes and transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.

To prepare filling: In a saucepan over low heat, combine apples, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, nutmeg, 1/4 teaspoon cardamom, cloves, brown sugar and lemon juice, and cook until apples are soft and can be easily mashed, about 30 to 45 minutes. Pass mixture through a food mill (or pulse in a food processor fitted with a metal blade) to a smooth consistency. You should have about 1/2 cup apple butter.

Add a small teaspoonful of apple butter to the center of a bottom cookie and form a sandwich with a cutout cookie. Repeat with remaining cookies. Dust with powdered sugar, if desired.

CHOCOLATE DECADENCE COOKIES

Makes about 2 dozen cookies.

Note: For added flavor, we toasted the walnuts. To toast walnuts, place nuts in a dry skillet over medium heat, and cook, stirring (or shaking the pan frequently) until they just begin to release their fragrance, about 3 to 4 minutes (alternately, preheat oven to 325 degrees, spread nuts on an ungreased baking sheet and bake, stirring often, for 4 to 6 minutes). From Elaine Prebonich of New Brighton.

• 2 eggs

• 1/2 c. sugar

• 1 tsp. vanilla extract

• 1/4 c. flour

• 1/4 tsp. baking powder

• 1/8 tsp. salt

• 8 oz. bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped

• 2 tbsp. unsalted butter

1 1/2 c. coarsely chopped walnuts (toasted, if desired; see Note)

• 6 oz. semisweet chocolate chips

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a small bowl, whisk together eggs, sugar and vanilla extract. Set bowl in a larger bowl of hot tap water.

In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt.

In a double boiler over gently simmering water, combine bittersweet chocolate and butter, and stir until melted and smooth. Remove from heat and stir in egg mixture, mixing until thoroughly combined. Stir in flour mixture. Stir in walnuts and chocolate chips.

Drop slightly rounded tablespoons of batter 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets. Bake until surface looks dry and centers are still gooey, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven, cool 2 minutes and transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.

KIT KAT CHRISTMAS BARS

Makes about 3 dozen cookie bars.

Note: We decorated with dry-roasted, unsalted peanuts, to alert eaters with food allergies that the bar cookies contained peanuts. Natural peanut butter (no sugar added) really works well for these cookies. From Julie Olson of East Bethel.

• 1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter

• 1/2 c. milk

• 1/3 c. granulated sugar

• 1 c. brown sugar, packed

• 2 c. crushed graham crackers

• 1 (13.7 oz.) box Keebler Club Crackers

• 1/2 c. semisweet chocolate chips

• 1/2 c. butterscotch chips

• 1/3 c. peanut butter

• Chopped dry-roasted, unsalted nuts or decorative sugars, optional

Directions

In a saucepan over medium heat, combine butter, milk, granulated sugar, brown sugar and graham crackers. Bring to a boil and stir continuously for 5 minutes; do not allow mixture to burn. Remove from heat.

Layer the bottom of a 9- by 13-inch pan with Club Crackers. Pour half of hot mixture over Club Crackers. Add a second layer of Club Crackers over mixture. Pour remaining half of hot mixture over the second layer of Club Crackers. Add a third layer of Club Crackers. Refrigerate until set.

When bars are set, combine chocolate chips, butterscotch chips and peanut butter in a microwave-safe bowl. Cook mixture, stirring occasionally, until fully melted and stir until smooth. Pour melted topping over top layer of Club Crackers and spread evenly across bars.

Sprinkle with chopped peanuts or decorative sugars, if desired. Allow topping to cool. Cut into squares and serve.

CARDAMOM ORANGE ZEST COOKIES

Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

Note: This recipe must be prepared in advance. As the cookies cooled, we decorated with freshly grated orange zest, for additional flavor and color. From Jeanne Nordstrom of St. Paul.

For dough:

• 2 c. plus 2 tbsp. flour

• 1/2 tsp. salt

• 1/2 tsp. baking soda

1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

• 1/2 c. granulated sugar

• 1/2 c. powdered sugar

• 1/2 c. canola oil

• 1 egg

• 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Freshly grated zest from 2 oranges

• 1 tsp. ground cardamom

For decoration:

• 1 1/2 tbsp. granulated sugar

• 1/2 tsp. ground cardamom

1 tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature

Freshly grated zest from 1 orange, optional

Directions

To prepare cookies: In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, salt and baking soda.

In a bowl of an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat 1/2 cup butter, 1/2 cup granulated sugar and powdered sugar until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add canola oil, egg, vanilla extract, zest from 2 oranges and 1 teaspoon cardamom, and beat until thoroughly combined. Reduce speed to low, add flour mixture and mix until just incorporated. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper.

Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Place dough 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets.

To decorate cookies: In a small bowl, stir together 1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar and 1/2 teaspoon cardamom. Grease bottom of a flat-bottomed glass with butter and dip in sugar-cardamom mixture, then press down cookies. Repeat with remaining cookies. Bake until bottoms are golden brown, about 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from oven, cool 2 minutes and transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool completely. Sprinkle with orange zest, if desired.

BACON CORNMEAL VENETOS

Makes about 3 to 4 dozen cookies.

Note: From Julie Bollmann of Chanhassen, Wendy Kleiser of Minneapolis, Joan Koller of Jordan, Geri Olson of Shoreview and Mary Urbas of Woodbury. As for the "Venetos" name, the cookie is "a modern twist on a classic cookie recipe which originated in the Veneto region of Italy," wrote Bollmann. Imitation maple flavoring is used in the frosting to bump up its flavor. Use the real thing with the cookies, though.

For cookie:

• 3/4 c. golden raisins

4 bacon strips, cooked and chopped into small pieces, about 1/2 c.

1 c. finely ground yellow corn meal

• 1 1/2 c. flour

• 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder

• Pinch of salt

1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

6 tbsp. pure maple syrup (Grade B preferred)

• 2 eggs

• 1 tsp. vanilla extract

For glaze:

• 1 c. powdered sugar

1/4 tsp. imitation maple flavoring (see Note)

• 1 tbsp. unsalted butter

• 2 tbsp. milk

Directions

To prepare cookies: Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a small bowl, cover raisins with warm water and soak for 15 minutes. Strain, reserving raisins.

In a medium bowl, whisk together cornmeal, flour, baking powder and salt.

In a bowl of an electric mixer on medium-high speed, cream 1 cup butter and maple syrup until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla extract and beat until thoroughly combined. Reduce speed to low, add flour mixture and mix until just incorporated. Stir in raisins and bacon.

Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Place dough 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets. Bake until golden brown on the edges, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven, cool 2 minutes and transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.

To prepare glaze: In a saucepan over medium heat, melt 1 tablespoon butter and cook until butter turns brown; do not burn. Remove from heat. Add powdered sugar, maple flavoring and milk, and whisk until glaze is smooth and a single consistent color. Drizzle glaze on cooled cookies.