Pecans, cinnamon and cardamom, paired with Minnesota-raised apples, are a combination that becomes even more festive with a celestial presentation. The resulting cookie is the winner in Taste's 13th annual Holiday Cookie Contest.

"The art of this cookie is in its unique taste and decorative shape," explained winner Jana Freiband. "The star shape has many meanings, but is a guiding light to all celebrations of the season."

We couldn't agree more.

Winner: Apple Cardamom Pecan Star Cookies (recipe)
Baker: Jana Freiband of Minneapolis

An Austrian Christmas: Freiband's winning recipe originated with a friend from Salzburg, who showers her American pal with cookies each December. "I can't tell you how many different cookies she bakes," said Freiband. "Christmas is her specialty, and I'm just blown away by what she does." Last year, Brigitte mailed a traditional linzer-type cookie, with the requisite raspberry center. Freiband loved it, and it got her thinking.

A locavore's cookie: Eighteen years ago, when Freiband moved into her south Minneapolis house, she planted a pair of what turned about to be highly productive Haralson apple trees. "This year, I had 30 people at the house, picking apples," she said. "It's the neighborhood tree." She channels her backyard bounty into crisps, pies and galettes. Oh, and apple butter, which became her recipe's key ingredient.

Festive shape: Freiband reached for her star-shaped cookie cutter for a reason. "There's something about Christmas and stars," she said. "I've always related Christmas to something brilliant in the sky, rather than the traditional trees, or wreaths. I always decorate the front of my house with stars."

Take the time: Are the cutouts worth the effort? Absolutely. "Food is not wonderful until it looks beautiful," said Freiband. "Never serve anything until it looks gorgeous. That's the photographer in me."

Play around: "You can totally improvise on the filling," Freiband said. "Have fun. Experiment. My mom was a super baker, and she never used recipes. I have an Italian plum tree, so this year I made a lemon-ginger plum jam. That would be fabulous in this cookie."

Judges' commentary: "So pretty." "They just say, 'Holiday.' " "The texture resembles a pie crust that's made with pecans." "Wow, you can actually taste the apple." "They're the first cookie my eyes would go to on a cookie tray." "I bet they're great with pumpkin butter."

Insider's tip: Freiband counsels would-be-bakers to relax. "People get uptight about baking, but for me, baking is therapy," she said. "If I'm having a bad day, I know that if I go home and bake an apple pie, I'll feel better."

Finalist: Kit Kat Christmas Bars (recipe)

Baker: Julie Olson of East Bethel

She said it, we didn't: "It's a super-stupid recipe, but I mean that in the nicest possible way," Olson said with a laugh. "I love cooking, I can cook like nobody's business, but I'm not a baker. But even if you're not a baker, you can make them, because they're so incredibly easy to make." Here's how easy: These bar cookies don't require an oven, the first no-bake recipe featured in 13 years of our contest.

Family favorite: Olson gleaned the recipe from her mother-in-law ("it was a collaboration between us," she said) and she's been making the recipe "for forever," she said. "I make them for family; I make them for parties. Everyone loves them."

Kid-tested, mother-approved: "It's a recipe where you can have fun with your kids while you're making it," she said. "That's what we do. My girls would lay out the crackers; they've been doing that since they were 5 and 10 years old. They're now 20 and 25."

Judges' commentary: "Did you notice how we all 'oohed and aahed' when we saw them?" "They remind me of Buckeyes, those no-bake chocolate/peanut-butter cookies, only better." "The Club Crackers add more flavor than Rice Krispies would." "It's a more chocolaty takeoff on that brown-sugar/saltine toffee cookie."

Finishing touch: Although Olson prepares Kit Kat Chocolate Bars year-round, during the holidays she makes them extra-special. "I try to make them festive looking," she said. "Sugars, or sprinkles, or other decorations. You can make it however you want."

Finalist: Chocolate Decadence Cookies (recipe)

Baker: Elaine Prebonich of New Brighton

Beginner's luck: "This is the first contest I've ever entered," said Prebonich. She found the recipe in the newspaper, "Oh, my goodness, maybe 15 or 20 years ago, and then I've been tweaking it along the way," she said. "It's an absolute favorite, every time I make it."

Judges' commentary: "Wow, they're so fragrant." "Brownie-like. No, fudge-like. No, brownie-like." "Every cookie tray needs chocolate, and these sure pack a chocolate wallop." " 'Decadence' is right."

Insider's scoop: Prebonich prefers to use Ghirardelli's 60 percent cacao bittersweet chocolate. And while she's always prepared the cookie with walnuts, "I've been thinking about making them with pecans — I think that would be interesting," she said. "The main thing is not to overbake them. You have to be careful with chocolate."

Lifelong love: Prebonich began baking when she was a sixth-grader. "My mother did not like to bake, so I learned by taking a class from 4-H," she said. "After I learned how, I was designated as the baker in the family, and that's how it was until I went off to college." It wasn't easy. Her family's home, a farmhouse near the Canadian border in St. John, N.D., did not have electricity. "We made everything by hand, and baked in a wood-burning oven," she said. "I tell my kids about it, and they think that I'm from some kind of storybook. But the REA [Rural Electrification Administration] didn't reach the farm until I was 14. We had a coal-burning furnace, and we pumped water from a cistern. I love to bake. I'm retired, and I have the time. I still don't have a bread machine. My daughter gave me one, and I gave it away."

Finalist: Cardamom Orange Zest Sugar Cookies (recipe)

Baker: Jeanne Nordstrom of St. Paul

A baking evolution: The roots for this easy-to-prepare drop cookie recipe reach back to Nordstrom's childhood in Wadena, Minn. "People would trade recipes, and a neighbor of ours had given this one to Mom," she said. "Mom made rolled-out sugar cookies, but I never got into that. These were much easier to make." The idea of infusing this beloved sugar cookie with cardamom and orange accents occurred to Nordstrom about four or five years ago, and a taste test at a get-together of high school friends confirmed her suspicions. "I always bring cookies," she said. "They loved this updated version."

Happy holidays: Nordstrom isn't much of a cookie baker in December. "My brother and his spouse do all the traditional Scandinavian delicacies that I grew up with, the krumkake, the rosettes, the fattigman," she said. "But not me." But she is a cookie eater, year-round. "Every morning, I begin my day with my little meditation, my coffee and the paper," she said. "And a homemade cookie."

Judges' commentary: "Now that's a winner." "It's a Christmas cookie that everyone will want to bake." "It tastes like the holidays." "It looks like a snickerdoodle, but then it has that surprise orange-cardamom flavor."

Thanks, Mom: Nordstrom gets her baking inspiration from her late mother, Clara Johnson. "She made 10 types of holiday cookies," said Nordstrom. "She would put together these beautiful platters from the assortment of cookies, and give them to someone who was ill, or a recent widow, that kind of thing. I'd deliver them, so I'd be the lucky one knocking at the door."

Finalist: Bacon Cornmeal Venetos (recipe)

Bakers: Julie Bollmann of Chanhassen, Wendy Kleiser of Minneapolis, Joan Koller of Jordan, Geri Olson of Shoreview and Mary Urbas of Woodbury

Longtime pals: Fifteen years ago, this group of high school friends decided to gather for an annual early December cookie bake and exchange. "We call ourselves the Cookie Chicks," said Bollmann, noting that the club also includes matching aprons and annual recipe scrapbooks. "Now we also have a couple of daughters who are participating — we call them the Chicklets."

Brainstorming: Bollmann always test-drives a few recipes from the Taste Holiday Cookie Contest. At last year's bake-a-thon, she proposed that they submit a recipe to the competition. A few months ago, the group began to toss around ideas via e-mail. "Wendy said that bacon was all the rage this year, so why not try it?" said Bollmann. Sold. After examining — and rejecting — recipes that included bacon, they tried a different logic and began tapping recipes without bacon, then adding it. A cornmeal cookie (from "The Great Big Cookie Book" by Hilaire Walden) held the most promise, and then much tinkering followed. "We were thinking about putting in bacon fat instead of butter, but decided that that wouldn't work," said Bollmann. "The glaze wasn't part of the original recipe at all; we added that."

Judges' commentary: "Those who like a non-sweet cookie will like these, a lot." "Who doesn't love bacon?" "I could easily recommend adding even more bacon." "I don't hate these, and I thought I would. They're really good."

Insider's tip: "The maple syrup is very important," said Bollmann. "Use the real thing — don't use Aunt Jemima." She also assures first-timers that the drop-cookie formula is an easy one. "Let's put it this way," she said with a laugh. "If I can make it, anyone can make it. Besides, bacon in a cookie is a good excuse to have cookies for breakfast."

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