Our annual cookie fest involves a bunch of number-crunching: 207 entries, 15 semifinalists, four finalists and a winner. We hope that our contest, now in its 17th year, has become as big a part of your December traditions as it has for ours.
Thanks to everyone who submitted a recipe. Your efforts are appreciated. Minnesota bakers will certainly welcome these five ingenious, fun-to-make cookies. They’re appealing on many levels, especially the way each one introduces a wide range of delicious ingredients into our cookie universe: whiskey, sunflower seeds, turmeric and tea. For the first time in the contest’s history, there’s no chocolate, but with this batch of winning recipes, we don’t miss it a bit. Happy holidays, and happy baking.
Looking for more cookie recipes? Check out our Best Holiday Cookies recipe page with nearly 100 winning entries from past cookie contests.
Baker: Janet Heirigs of Minneapolis
Overseas inspiration: “I love ginger, and I love ginger ale,” said Heirigs. “When my mom and I traveled to Ireland, we squeezed in a stop at a distillery, Tullamore D.E.W., and had a whiskey and ginger. It’s a good drink, and it got me thinking that it might be a good cookie.”
Family connection: The basic cookie recipe started with a formula from a timeworn church cookbook. “It’s the church where my dad grew up,” she said. “There are at least four kinds of ginger cookies in that cookbook, and I decided to go with one from my dad’s cousin. I like ginger, but I don’t like molasses. I began with that basic recipe, and I started taking things out, and putting things in, and adding a little more whiskey every time.”
Nuts about cashews: “That part of the recipe is original,” she said. “I discovered these maple- and ginger-glazed cashews at Lakewinds Food Co-op in Richfield, and I thought, ‘I have to figure how to glaze cashews.’ It’s easy, and they’re really good to eat just by themselves.”
Baker’s tip: Don’t have any whiskey in the house? “Just buy that little bottle,” she said. “It’s all you need for the recipe.” She’s referring to the inexpensive, 50-milliliter size that’s often sold at the liquor store checkout stand.
Favorite baking tool: “I can’t imagine baking without parchment paper,” she said. “And for cookies, I like to use an ice cream scoop, but there’s a drawback. I now have something that I refer to as ‘Cookie Elbow.’ My oldest son got married at the end of September, and my mom and I baked 21 dozen cookies for the rehearsal dinner. Using a scoop for that long, with that much repetition, gave me tennis elbow.”
Why she enters: This is Heirigs’ third appearance in our contest. She was a 2014 finalist for Tart and Sassy Cranberry Lemon Drops and a 2010 finalist for Hot and Sassy Peanut Butter Buds. “I love the Mill City Museum event,” she said. “I go most years, even when I don’t make the finals. It’s so much fun, to talk to people and to see their baking techniques.”
The perfect gift: “This year for my siblings, I’m planning on buying most of the ingredients for this cookie, and putting them into a package,” she said. “If they don’t want to bake, then they’ll still have cashews and whiskey. It beats a pair of socks.”
Baker: Kristi Hanson of Minneapolis
A fairgrounds original: “I grew up in Bemidji with four brothers, and one of the big things to do in the fall was to go to the Beltrami County Fair,” she said. “There was a stand, I think they were promoting Minnesota products, and they were serving sundaes, big scoops of vanilla ice cream topped with honey and sunflower seeds. We remember that they called them ‘Minnesota Sundaes.’ This would have been back in the late 1960s. We thought it was the greatest thing, and I thought that the combination would make a great cookie.”
Baker’s tip: Don’t overbake. “People tend to leave cookies in the oven until they’re done, rather than getting them out right before they’re done,” she said. “That lesson took a long time for me to learn.”
A serious cookie baker: “Maybe eight or 10 years ago, I got a copy of ‘The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion’ cookbook,” she said. “It has several hundred recipes, and I decided to do the whole ‘Julie & Julia’ thing and bake every single recipe in the book. It took me several years, and I think I made 10,000 cookies. It was a lot of fun. I learned that it’s really hard to give cookies away, at least when you’re baking 10,000 of them. My friends joked that it’s the reason that I had to move, because I had to find some new friends.”
Reason for entering: “I guess it was the challenge,” she said. “After having baked all those cookies, I wondered: ‘Could I make up my own cookie recipe?’ I like the creativity of making my own recipes.”
Go-to cookbook: “I’m a librarian. I have to have a lot of books,” she said. “I’m a big cookbook hoarder, but I’ve moved from a three-bedroom house to a one-bedroom condo, and so I had to downsize. I went from several hundred cookbooks to maybe 40 or 50. Now I go to the Minneapolis Central Library and borrow their cookbooks. They have thousands of cookbooks in their collection; it’s so great. I’m always down there, looking for something.”
Favorite baking tool: “I have my grandma’s old rolling pin,” she said. “It’s more than 70 years old. It’s one of those solid, heavy things. It’s good for baking cookies, or using it to defend yourself.”
Baker: Joanne Holtmeier of Edina
Started as a cake: Holtmeier formulated the recipe for these tender, caky cookies from an unlikely source. “About 20 years ago, someone I worked with brought in this beautiful, three-tiered pecan and coconut cake, with cream cheese frosting,” said Holtmeier. “It came out of an old church cookbook — it was so old that instead of margarine, it called for ‘oleo’ — and it was called ‘Italian Cream Cake.’ I’m Italian-American, and I’ve never heard of it. It’s really more of a Southern cake. It turned out to be my husband’s favorite cake, and I’ve been baking it for his birthday ever since.”
Yes, buttermilk: “No one thinks to add buttermilk to cookies,” she said. “But it gives them tang, and it’s a good combination with the coconut and pecans.”
Baker’s tip: “It might be nice to let the dough rest in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes before portioning and baking,” she said. “This cookie can be made in advance, placed in an airtight container and frozen. You can glaze them, and decorate them with pecans, and they’ll come out great.”
Familiar face: Holtmeier was a 2018 finalist for Coffee and Irish-Cream Dreams, and a 2017 finalist for Limoncello Kisses.
Favorite cookbook: “Marjorie Johnson is my baking idol,” she said. “I’ve received lots of tidbits from her cookbook [“The Road to Blue Ribbon Baking”]. It’s fun to read her notes about testing and retesting recipes. She’s so methodical, and practical, and adorable.”
Favorite baking tool: “I’d never used one of those cooling racks before; I have always just put cookies on paper towels,” she said. “But now I can’t live without them. Cooling racks allow cookies to set better. Nothing too exciting, really. I use an electric handheld mixer, I don’t even have a KitchenAid stand mixer. Someday I’ll get one. I’ll bet that Marjorie has one.”
Constantly baking: “I like to turn other desserts and other treats into cookies,” she said. “Creating new recipes and baking cookies are my favorite things to do. It’s fun to invent things. I probably have 17 more ideas, I just don’t know which one to submit to next year’s contest. Life is short. Everyone should have a couple of treats a day, and not just at the holidays.”
Baker: Kathy Valentine of Plymouth
Busy in December: “Every year, I make tons of Christmas cookies, maybe 40 different kinds,” she said. “I’m in the kitchen, morning to night, cranking out cookies. I make the classic cookies, and I usually try at least three from the contest when it comes out. I’ve been making Cappuccino Flats [our 2013 winner] for years. Another staple is Red Velvet Whoopie Pies [a 2010 finalist] and we also have to have Cardamom Cookies [a 2008 finalist]. Baking cookies, that’s my passion.”
Sibling support: “My sister told me to enter the contest,” she said. “And I’ve always wanted to but I never have, because you have to figure out a cookie that’s different. Turmeric is kind of a trendy thing right now, so I googled ‘turmeric cookies,’ and I found this recipe and thought, ‘You have to try that.’ It’s not too sweet, and it’s a little bit savory. It has complex flavors.”
Baker’s tip: “This is a pretty easy recipe,” she said. “When it says to use ‘1/4 to 1/2’ teaspoon ginger and turmeric, go with the half-teaspoon. That gives it a little kick with the flavor, and with the color. The ginger and the turmeric really complement one another. And when you’re baking, be sure to watch the cookies closely — don’t overbake them. They store really well.”
Favorite baking tool: “I still have my original Oster Kitchen Center, and I couldn’t go on without it,” she said. “It has 16 different settings, and you can use attachments to make it a mixer, a blender or a food processor, all in one. It has a large bowl, and a small bowl. It really serves its purpose. I got it for my wedding, and I’ve been married for 29 years. My dream is to get one of the more upgraded versions.”
Top cookbook: “I have many cookbooks, and I love looking through them,” she said. “Sometimes it’s the church cookbooks with the old recipes that are the best. I bought the cookie cookbook that came out of the contest [“The Great Minnesota Cookie Book”], so now I can get rid of all the newspaper copies of all of those recipes.”
Baker: Kylie White of Shorewood
Academic beginnings: While working on a food science and technology master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, White studied the use of black teas as flavoring agents in shortbread cookies. “Then I started tinkering,” she said. “This recipe started off as a basic shortbread cookie with black tea ground up in it. But then I went to a class at TeaSource on cooking and baking with tea, and that’s where I learned about steeping tea in butter. It incorporates the tea flavor so much better. You don’t end up with bits of tea leaves in the dough.”
Beyond Lipton’s: White prefers the distinctively smoky flavor and aroma of Lapsang Souchong tea. “It’s like getting punched in the face by a campfire,” she said. “I’ll go a few weeks without it, and then I’ll get a craving for it.”
Why shortbread? “It’s an ease-of-baking thing,” she said. “Then I googled ‘cheese cookies,’ and found a basic recipe from the Wisconsin Cheese Board. I modified it until I made it my own. I don’t really think that they’re shortbread anymore.”
Savory on savory: “I like cheese,” she said. “I don’t know any adults who don’t. Most savory shortbreads usually head toward Cheddar. But I thought that blue cheese could hold up to the Lapsang Souchong. The dried cherries were a last-minute addition, because I had some in the kitchen at the time. Next time, I might try Craisins. I knew that I was on to something when my family snapped them up.”
Baker’s tip: Patience. “The recipe takes longer than you might expect,” she said. “You have to make the tea-infused butter, and that takes time to heat, steep and cool. And be sure to take the time to actually chill the dough in the refrigerator.”
Favorite baking tool: “My KitchenAid stand mixer, definitely,” she said. “When I was in graduate school and didn’t have it, I didn’t bake as much. I did manage to borrow one for a research project on meringues. I couldn’t have done it without one. My other favorite is a pastry blender. I like it better than using two forks. You can really put the full force of your arms and hands into it. That makes it so much easier.”
Happy times: “My earliest memories are of my mom, baking in the kitchen,” she said. “I really enjoy baking. We do a bunch of Christmas cookies. By the time I was in high school, I knew that I was going to be a food scientist.”
Join us at these cookie events
Thursday, Dec. 5: #StribHQ in downtown Minneapolis
Taste all five of our winning cookies — while supplies last — in the atrium of the Star Tribune Building (650 3rd Av. S., Mpls.). The party starts at 11 a.m., and includes carols sung by performers from Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. Lee Svitak Dean and Rick Nelson will be signing copies of “The Great Minnesota Cookie Book.” We’ll be accepting nonperishable food items and cash donations for Second Harvest Heartland, and be sure to cast a vote for your favorite recipe in our People’s Choice poll. Free.
Saturday, Dec. 7:
Mill City Museum
Greet our winning bakers and sample their delicious recipes at this fun-filled afternoon. Gather in the Baking Lab at the museum (704 S. 2nd St., Mpls., 612-341-7582, millcitymuseum.org) from 12:30 to 3 p.m. Museum admission is $6-$12.