After sorting through 268 engaging entries — and baking 16 semifinalists for a big taste-test showdown — we have a fantastic winner, and four marvelous finalists, in our eighth-annual holiday cookie contest. Trust us when we say that all of them taste as good as they look.
Especially the sweet treat (top, left) from our 2010 champion, Scott Rohr of Minneapolis, who submitted an easy-to-prepare — and even easier to love — sandwich cookie. “I love this recipe because it epitomizes holiday baking for me,” Rohr wrote in his entry, noting that his prize-winning formula originated with one of his grandmother’s recipes and ended with some creativity of his own. “Just as tradition is a big part of holiday baking, so is innovation,” he said.
We agree, which is why we think you’ll be baking Rohr’s Pistachio-Orange Cookies for years to come, along with the recipes of our four fine finalists.
Thanks to all who entered. Happy baking, and happy holidays.
Winner: Pistachio-Orange Cookies
Baker: Scott Rohr of Minneapolis.
A cookie to love: Our 2010 winner scores on all fronts. Its festive good looks jump off a crowded cookie tray. Texture-wise, it has the tender-crunchy-creamy thing going on. And a hidden burst of bright orange flavor offers a great-tasting surprise.
Baking man: When he's not leading the music program at a Minneapolis Lutheran church, Rohr is baking. "It's sort of a joke with my friends," he said. "I don't remember a time when I haven't baked. My parents are both good bakers, and so I grew up in one of those houses where everything was homemade, all the time. Some people come home from work and boil water for dinner. I take out eggs and butter."
A treasured family treat, updated: Rohr started with his tattered recipe card for a cream of tartar-based sugar cookie, which is a copy of a similarly well-worn card from his grandmother's kitchen. "I don't know where she got them -- my dad can't remember, either -- but I've been making them for a million years," he said. The filling, however, was all his idea. "I just started messing around," he said. "It's really hard for me to follow a recipe. I'm a fairly intuitive cook and baker." The colorful finishing touch -- rolling the edge in finely chopped pistachios -- came after a few tasting sessions with friends. "It needed some crunch," he said.
Enter to win: "My friend Eric texted me in early October and said, 'You should win the Star Tribune cookie contest this year.' Great, no pressure," Rohr said with a laugh. "But I decided to do it, because I've always loved the contest, and a couple of the past cookies have become standards. Those frosted cardamom cookies, from 2008? I can't imagine not making them for the holidays now."
An insider's tip: "I hate rolling balls of dough in sugar, it's so time-consuming," he said. "So I tried putting them all in a large Tupperware container, adding some sugar and giving it a shake. They held their shape well, and it saved a ton of time." Speaking of timesavers, we preferred to grind all the pistachios in the food processor at once; when it comes to the nuts used to decorate the cookie's rolled edge, detail-oriented Rohr chops them by hand. "I don't like the dust that the food processor creates," he said. "It's not as pretty."
Keep them small: "They look better that way," he said. "What I like about them is that they're not overwhelmingly sweet, but if they get too big, the frosting gets to be too much."
An added bonus: "They're not complicated, and they come together fast," he said. "They look like something substantial, but they're not hard to make. If you've ever baked a cookie, then you can bake these, for heaven's sake."Finalist: Nancy's Anise-Pecan Cookies
Baker: Mary Jane Nickerson of Montevideo, Minn.
The reason why: "They're not a decorated cookie, they're not a pretty cookie," said Nickerson. "But they taste good. They melt in your mouth." She's right, they do.
Anise, the secret ingredient: "We've lived all over the country, and for some people, anise is kind of a strange taste," she said. "It's a different flavor from your regular Christmas cookies. It's a surprise, you know? And I love anise."
A little help from her friend: "My friend Nancy Harrington lives in New Bedford, Mass., and when we lived near there I used to get cookies every Christmas from her," she said. "These were the best ones. I used to rummage through the tin every year and eat them first. When I had to move, I asked her, 'Would you be willing to part with the recipe?' Nancy thinks it might be an old Pillsbury recipe from the '40s or '50s that she altered. She's always taking liberties with recipes, making them better."
Baker's tip: Nickerson sometimes freezes the dough rather than refrigerating it, especially if she's in a rush. "It has to be solid enough to cut," she said. "You also have to have a sturdy mixer, as the dough gets really stiff."
Why she entered: "All the years that you've had the contest, I've said to myself, 'Boy, Nancy's cookie is just as good.' And don't you like to share recipes?"
A cookie fan: "They're not like a piece of cake, you know?" she said. "You can have a little cookie, or two of them, and not feel guilty."Finalist: Strawberry Margarita Gems
Baker: Lance Swanson of North Branch, Minn.
Returning competitor: Swanson, a finalist in last year's contest, developed three recipes for this year's competition, each one a contender. This one really stood out, for its holiday-party looks and taste.
Bam!: "I'm a huge Food Network junkie," Swanson said. "I was watching Emeril make thumbprint cookies with raspberries and lemon zest and I thought, 'That's wonderful, but what could I do different?' I like margaritas, so I thought, 'Strawberry and lime, they go together.' From there, I putzed around until I found something that I liked."
Baker's tip: Swanson found that placing each ball of dough inside a round cookie cutter helped the cookie hold its shape while making the indentation. "It looks more uniform," he said.
Jamming it up: "I didn't want to use a jarred jam, because I couldn't find one out there that was good enough," he said. "When I make it, I make sure to cook it down until it's really thick, so that it doesn't bubble up in the oven."
Timesaver: If there's a strawberry jam you like, use 1 cup, blended with 1 teaspoon freshly grated lime zest.
Always in the kitchen: "I started helping my mom in the kitchen when I was a little kid," he said. "Ever since I can remember I was helping my mom measure out flour, picking up tips and tricks. I like to challenge myself in the kitchen, give myself a goal. It's an excuse to experiment, and a labor of love."Finalist: Hot & Sassy Peanut Butter Buds
Baker: Janet Heirigs of Minneapolis.
Heat wave: Adding several layers of spicy heat really jazzes up the already popular peanut butter-chocolate combination, and a white-chocolate drizzle adds an attention-grabbing finishing touch.
A reluctant baker: Heirigs admitted that she's not much of a Christmas cookie baker, although she usually makes these spicy treats, along with cranberry biscotti and rum balls. "I usually start with the rum balls," she said with a laugh.
Tinkering around: "When my kids were little, I was trying to feed them only wholesome things, and I found a recipe in Jane Brody's 1985 'Good Food' cookbook," she said. "It was called 'Peanut Butter Rounds,' and it was a boost of protein for my skinny little boys." Years later, she has baked -- and altered -- the recipe so often, "that it's never the same way twice," she said. "The other day I put coconut in it, and it was really good."
Listen up: "It definitely tastes better if you make the dough and wait, that's essential," she said. "The nutmeg and cayenne flavors need to permeate the dough."
Some like it hot: "I entered it in the contest last year and it didn't make it, so I changed it to make it more spicy," she said. "I like having a project. I came across these chile-infused chocolate bars and thought, 'That would be interesting.' I also added more cayenne, and now they definitely give you a nice warm feeling." They certainly do, although the extent is all in the taste buds of the beholder. Heirigs ran test versions on her colleagues at the Minneapolis school where she works. "We have an interpreter here from Chile, and he said he couldn't even taste the cayenne," she said. "That was right after someone said it was too much."Finalist: Red Velvet Whoopie Pies
Baker: Mike Burakowski of Golden Valley.
A Southern Christmas: Burakowski and his 11-year-old son, Nick, discovered the recipe, an irresistible, bite-sized spin on red velvet cake, in Southern Living magazine. Nick entered it in a school cookie contest and won, and it has been a favorite ever since.
Waiting for our invite: The Burakowski men are serious holiday bakers, turning out 20 varieties of cookies, four cheesecakes and a parade of Polish and German savory dishes for their annual Christmas party. "Nick enjoys being a part of it all, except for the cleanup," said Burakowski with a laugh. "We usually spend the week before the party doing a lot of baking. We keep Costco very busy, buying in bulk."
Yes, that's correct: The recipe calls for an entire bottle of red food coloring: "Make sure the mixer is going pretty darned slow when you add the food coloring," he said.
Baking tip, part 2: "Keep the cookies as small as possible," he said. "We make them about an inch in diameter, otherwise they get to be a lot of cookie."
A lifetime in the kitchen: Burakowski has been baking for nearly 30 years, "for at least as long as I moved out on my own and realized that store-bought didn't taste as good as Mom's," he said. "We're both really spoiled because my mom is quite the baker, and we've both been the beneficiary of her help. Nick was recently talking about what he wants to be when he grows up and he said, 'I might want to be a chef.' That would be a great thing."