The year's holiday season is going to be very different. But there's a constant in which we can take comfort, and that's cookies. Let's all spread some holiday cheer and bake. Let's bake like we've never baked before. Fortunately, our readers are here to support their fellow Minnesotans. This year's batch of contest entries boasted more bakeable recipes than we've seen in the past 18 years, and that welcome burst of creative energy and enthusiasm made selecting a winner and four finalists a true challenge. We want to express our gratitude to everyone who submitted a recipe, and to all the bakers out there who will make this month sparkle. Happy holidays.
Winner Spumoni Squares
Baker: Joanne Holtmeier of Edina.
The scoop: An elegant and ingenious bar cookie that turns nuts and dried fruits — and citrus — into an occasion.
Power player: Holtmeier is a three-time finalist in our competition, with Limoncello Kisses in 2017, Coffee and Irish-Cream Dreams in 2018 and Italian Cream Cake Cookies in 2019.
What's in a name: This spumoni is not a nod to the standard tri-color ice cream found in supermarket frozen-foods aisles. Instead, Holtmeier became slightly obsessed by the fruit-and-nut version made at Sebastian Joe's in Minneapolis. "I'm a little worried that Sebastian Joe's thinks I'm a stalker," she said with a laugh. "I'd call, or pop in, just to ask, 'Do you have the spumoni?' " One day, a staffer kindly revealed the ice cream's key ingredients to its No. 1 fan. "It was lemon peel, orange peel, apricots and almonds," said Holtmeier. "I love those flavors and I thought, 'Hmm, I'm going to bake this into a cookie.' " The rest is history.
Going the bar cookie route: Holtmeier started with a drop cookie. "They were good, but they weren't quite right," she said. A batch of leftover almond sugar cookie dough, stashed in the freezer, gave her an idea: Why not spread it in a pan, and add toppings? She had apricots and almonds on hand; walnuts, too, because she loves walnuts. "Suddenly, it was a much fancier-looking version," she said. Borrowing from baklava, Holtmeier added a finishing-touch syrup, which helps bind the fruit-nut topping to the cookie-like base.
Mixing it up: "I was worried about straying too far from the Sebastian Joe's ice cream flavor, but I also tried using dried cranberries and pistachios in the mix, and it was pretty darned good," said Holtmeier. "They gave it a little green and red, and that never hurts during the Christmas season." Agreed. We really like that colorful combination, too.
Judges' reactions: "It's chewy, fruity, crunchy, nutty and buttery, and that's such a great combination of flavors and textures." "What a pretty bar cookie." "The shortbread crust has a wonderful almond flavor." "Reminds me of a thoroughly modern — and fabulous — version of fruitcake."
Pandemic baking: "It's a fine hobby to have during a pandemic because there has been so much time for it, including putting my mind into creating cookies for this contest," said Holtmeier. "It's fun to be creative, and it's fun to have a purpose for my baking."
Finalist Cinnamon Cookie Butter Sandwich Cookies
Baker: Annette Gustafson of Maple Grove.
The scoop: The peanut butter sandwich cookie gets the Biscoff treatment, with amazing results.
All about Biscoff Cookie Butter: "I feel late to the craze, but this stuff is so amazing, I've been eating it by the spoonful," said Gustafson. "I knew as soon as I had tasted it that I somehow needed to incorporate it into a cookie. I tried incorporating it into the cookie itself, but the flavor didn't come through. That's when I thought, 'What if it was a sandwich cookie, with a Biscoff buttercream filling?' "
Judges' reactions: "They taste like I'm flying Delta." "They remind me of a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, and I love Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal." "The glimmer of the cinnamon-sugar mixture on top gives them a festive look."
Baker's notes: "To get a consistent quarter-inch thickness, I buy flat quarter-inch dowels, and I place them on either side of the dough and use them as a guide," said Gustafson. "You get a perfectly even quarter-inch-thick cookie."
Missing the State Fair baking competition: "Cookies have always been my thing," said Gustafson. "For the first few years, I never placed, but I loved the experience. Slowly but surely, I started getting better, and I started winning ribbons. You get the bug for it, and you want to keep doing it. In 2018, my cookie won the sweepstakes, and I was beyond thrilled. I don't know how you top that."
Pandemic baking: "I got on the whole banana-bread bandwagon, but I didn't venture down the sourdough path," said Gustafson. "Previously, I would take cookies to work. I'd get feedback, and I'd get them out of the house. I've rolled it back a bit so we're not stuck with all the sweets."
Finalist Chocolate Salami (Salame di Cioccolato)
Baker: Teresa Haider of St. Paul.
The scoop: An impressive sleight-of-hand excursion into chocolate and almonds that doesn't require an oven.
No-bake ease: Haider is constantly on the lookout for easy-to-prepare recipes. "I love to bake," she said. "But it always catches up with me at Christmas. I have intentions to make fancy cookies, but I usually end up making the same old thing."
Kitchen library: Haider's cookbook collection numbers in the hundreds. She ran across this no-bake refrigerator cookie in an old Italian cookbook. "I saw this, and I thought it was different," she said. "They really do look like salami, which is awesome."
Judges' reaction: "I love the looks." "It's deeply chocolaty, and it melts in your mouth." "A perfect after-dinner taste of chocolate." "Serve it with ice cream, and people will be over-the-top excited."
Baker's notes: "It's flexible," said Haider. "It would be good with different liqueurs, or different kinds of cookies — amaretti, graham crackers, Biscoff — or dried fruit or coconut. There are all kinds of combinations that you can try."
Good to know: "When you take it out of the refrigerator, let it sit for about 15 minutes before cutting it," said Haider. "Also, they taste better a day or two after you've made it."
Pandemic baking: "I'm still baking, all the time," said Haider. "I'm a nurse and I'm always baking and taking it to work. My co-workers are irritated if I don't bake, and I have to say, 'I can't bake every single day for you guys.' But I've had a few co-workers give me gift cards to Cub because they know that butter is expensive."
Finalist Chai Meringues
Baker: Zia McNeal of Maple Grove.
The scoop: A triple threat of comfort-minded spices, airy texture and delicate good looks. Gluten-free, too.
The why behind chai: "My parents are both from India, and I've always had this preference for what Americans call 'chai spice blend,' " said McNeal. "I looked at a few meringue recipes and added my chai mixture. There are so many rich desserts, and I was looking to offset that with something lighter."
Spice it up: "The recipe uses a teaspoon of spices," said McNeal. "You can make it how you want it to be — this is my chai magic combination of spices — it just has to add up to a teaspoon." For those choosing to add nutmeg, be careful. "Too much, and it takes away from the chai flavor," she said.
Judges' reaction: "They're very hygge. I feel like I'm sitting by a fireplace with a big cup of chai." "It's a contemporary take on the divinity candy that my grandmother made." "The texture is incredible." "So simple, and so flavorful."
Baker's notes: McNeal said this family favorite can be stored at room temperature for up to two weeks. "Although they're usually gone within a week," she said. "I often bag them up and give them as gifts. They can handle that; they're sturdy."
Pandemic baking: "Everyone is making sourdough bread, but I decided to try to master a cookie that has been evading my repertoire, and I started making macarons," said McNeal. "It probably took four recipes to find the right base for me. The family favorite has turned out to be pistachio. I'll probably work on a chai version. I always come back to chai."
Finalist New Scenic Cookies
Baker: Gwen Goldsmith of Minneapolis.
The scoop: A sweet and savory treat that works equally well on cookie platters and cheese plates.
Lakeside inspiration: During a semi-annual visit to Duluth's New Scenic Cafe, Goldsmith ordered one of the restaurant's signature dishes, an appetizer that utilizes figs, maple brown butter, walnuts and blue cheese. "It seemed more like a dessert than an appetizer, and I got this notion that these flavors would turn into a cookie," she said.
Mix and match: After adapting a maple-flavored cookie from Fine Cooking magazine's now-defunct website, Goldsmith improvised with a jar of Bonne Maman brand fig preserves, toasted walnuts and crumbles of blue cheese, then rolled the dough into a pinwheel, creating a distinctive slice-and-bake cookie. "The flavors really come together," she said.
The chef responds: "I'm flattered," said Scott Graden, chef/owner of the New Scenic Cafe. "You've got me smiling, and now I want the recipe. Or at least a batch of cookies."
Judges' reaction: "It's packed with interesting flavors that go well with one another." "Even if you don't like figs or blue cheese, you'll love this cookie." "It's a Fig Newton gone wild."
Baker's notes: "I discovered the hard way that you don't want to chill the dough too long, because then it becomes a pain to roll out," said Goldsmith. "And pay close attention while you're browning the butter and toasting the walnuts."
Pandemic baking: Goldsmith has been turning to bread making during the past nine months. "Doing at home is cheaper than buying bread," she said. "And I can have the KitchenAid mixer do the kneading."