It may seem odd to think “holiday cookies” when there’s barely a chill in the air. But for the Taste section, that means it’s time to start planning our December baking extravaganza so the cookie recipes are ready when you are.
Here’s a little history of the contest itself, now in its 13th season, and some tips on how to make your recipe stand out among the entries.
Q: Why a cookie contest?
A: I had looked through a cache of Taste sections, dating back to 1969, and was struck by the enormous amount of space that was given over to recipe sharing between readers and staff. I thought it would be fun to resurrect that side of our award-winning food section.
A recipe contest appeared to be a reasonably manageable project, and cookies seemed like a universally beloved topic. And, to be honest, there was a selfish motive. I was looking to shake up my same-old, same-old December baking routine, and I figured that our readers would offer awesome suggestions. Naturally, they did not disappoint.
Q: What goes on behind the scenes?
A: We’ve averaged about 300 submissions to the contest each year. In those first years, probably 90 percent of the entries arrived via snail mail. Today, 90 percent are submitted via e-mail. We carefully file away the entries as they arrive, and once the deadline passes, we sit down and sort through them, looking for recipes that fit certain criteria.
Q: Such as?
A: Over the past 12 years, the contest has created an impressive recipe arsenal — find it at Startribune.com/cookies — so we do our best to avoid repeats. For example, if we run across an iced cardamom cookie as an entry, chances are we’re not going to include it in this year’s contest since we’ve already published a fantastic version, in 2008, from Matt Boisen of Owatonna, Minn.
In that same vein, we steer clear of the classic recipes — spritz, wreaths, sugar cookie cutouts, gingerbread — that are already a part of many bakers’ holiday repertoires. One of the contest’s goals is to share new recipes with Star Tribune readers.
Also, we feel that certain ingredients have no place in our cookies. When we see recipes that call for prepackaged cake or pudding mixes, margarine, candied fruit (for the most part), super-sugary breakfast cereals or other Crimes Against Baking, our inclination is to aim them for the reject pile.
But unusual ingredients often pique our interest. Espresso powder, almond flour, ricotta and pomegranate molasses all have led to prizewinning cookies.
And we’re always impressed by a story behind a cherished holiday baking tradition. Plenty of entries have made it onto the “promising” pile based upon a well-told tale.
Q: Then what?
A: We bake. After all, a recipe can look good on paper, but we also want it to taste good. No, great.
For that initial contest in 2003, we tested 16 recipes. That number is etched in my cortex, because when I say “we” baked, I mean “I” baked, in my then-tiny kitchen. The following year, we tapped colleagues and shared the baking responsibilities. The lure was a new rule: Anyone who baked could also judge.
Over the years, we’ve gathered upwards of 25 people into a conference room, passing platters of cookies, nibbling and arguing, sometimes heatedly. Eventually, we select a winner and four finalists.
This year’s contest is taking on an exciting new dimension: We’re partnering with the Art Institutes International Minnesota. The school’s culinary students will be handling the taste-test baking. Which means, following contest protocol, that they’ll also be helping us evaluate the results. We can’t wait.
Q: When are the results published?
A: We’ll feature the winning bakers and their recipes on Dec. 3 in Taste. They’ll also be invited to show off their baking skills at an annual event at the Mill City Museum (704 S. 2nd St., Mpls., millcitymuseum.org) on Dec. 5.
Q: What do winners win?
A: Along with fame, there’s a grand prize: a $200 gift card to a local kitchen specialty store. Finalists receive a cookbook.
Q: Are there rules?
A: Very few. This isn’t the Pillsbury Bake-Off. Although original recipes are preferable, there’s nothing wrong with entering a favorite recipe that came from a newspaper, cookbook, website or magazine; just be sure to note the recipe’s roots. Tell us your story, too. That’s it. As for photos, they’re nice, but not required.
Q: When is the deadline?
A: Oct. 16 at noon. Moments later we start the process of narrowing entries to those recipes that will be tested. Finalists will be notified by early November.
Q: How can people enter?
A: Include the recipe — and story — along with your name, street address, daytime phone number and e-mail address, and send it via e-mail to email@example.com (please write “Taste Holiday Cookie Contest” in the subject field) or by mail to Taste Holiday Cookie Contest, Star Tribune, 650 3rd Av. S., Suite 1300, Minneapolis, MN 55488.
Q: Do you have any favorite recipes from past contests?
A: Plenty. There are probably a dozen that I’ve been making for years. One recipe that immediately comes to mind is a 2011 finalist, from Kay Lieberherr of St. Paul.
She became obsessed with the almond palmiers at Surdyk’s in northeast Minneapolis. Through trial and error, she crafted her own version. They’re fantastic — so flaky and pretty and almondy — and incredibly easy to prepare. I make them using Dufour puff pastry, an all-butter product that is totally worth its way-more-than-Pepperidge Farm price tag. It’s available in the frozen foods section at Whole Foods Market.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib