See more of the story

It’s true, Labor Day weekend doesn’t seem like the predictable time to think about holiday baking.

Calendar aside, we’re excited about the 18th annual Star Tribune Holiday Cookie Contest.

That’s because this challenging year is crying out for a baking-to-the-rescue moment. With all that’s going on in the world right now, the prospect of baking cookies at the holidays feels even more precious, and necessary, and hopeful. For those who have never baked before, this certainly is an ideal time to start a beloved new holiday tradition.

We’re kicking off the contest earlier than usual because these past months have been anything but usual.

In previous years, the competition has been a fairly straightforward process. After sorting through the entries, we select about two dozen semifinalists. The recipes are prepared by a skilled group of professional bakers working in a large commercial kitchen, and a few hours later a team of judges convenes to taste-test — and argue — until a winner and four finalists have been selected.

Not this year. We’ve recruited bakers — hurrah — and we’ve got judges, a duty that’s never a tough sell. But it’s going to take a great deal of coordinated logistics to connect cookies with judges, since everyone is performing their tasks in their own socially distanced spaces.

Videoconferencing will help, and we’ll certainly log some miles as cookies are delivered from bakers to tasters. But nothing can replace the experience of gathering around a table in a kitchen filled with the scent of just-baked cookies.

Which is why we need extra time. And we need recipes. Lots and lots of recipes.

Which is where you come in. Now is the time to submit your recipe and discover if the cookie that you think is a winner is a cookie that we think is a winner.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic also means that we’ll be putting our cookie-related events on hold, but we’re hoping that 2021 will bring a return to our massive, open-to-the-public cookiefest at the Star Tribune building in downtown Minneapolis, as well as a revival of the popular meet-the-bakers afternoon hosted by the Mill City Museum.

Until then, let’s talk recipes. And let’s bake. We’re looking forward to the prospects of Minnesotans gathering in the kitchen, baking (and devouring) our winners’ cookies and creating happy memories during this less-than-happy year.

Here’s a rundown on the contest:

Rules: First, we encourage original recipes. But we’re not opposed to considering a favorite recipe that originated elsewhere. Just be upfront about the recipe’s background, so we can give credit where credit is due. We also have a soft spot for cherished family recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation.

Second, if you’ve won before, or even entered before, you’re still eligible to enter, and we encourage you to do so.

That’s pretty much it, rules-wise. This isn’t the Pillsbury Bake-Off.

Tips: We want everyone to be a winner, and with that in mind, consider these insider hints.

Take a look through our past winners (find them in our online archive, at startribune.com/ cookies) and make sure your recipe isn’t a duplication. We avoid repeats because one of the contest’s primary goals is to generate appealing recipes that are unfamiliar to Star Tribune readers.

Avoid the classics. Isn’t everyone already good to go in terms of spritz, gingerbread and sugar cutouts? See the note above about generating recipes that are new to Star Tribune readers.

Keep it simple, or at least simple-ish. We’re always intrigued by offbeat ingredients (don’t get me started on our brief but disastrous flirtation with kale). But bear in mind that we also want as many Minnesotans as possible to bake our winning recipes, so it’s best to feature ingredients that are available in most supermarkets.

Use fresh ingredients. We believe that baking is best when it’s done from scratch. That means we avoid cake mixes, instant pudding mixes and other prepackaged shortcuts. Oh, and when it comes to butter, we are all in.

Entry details: Along with your recipe, be sure to include your name, daytime phone number, e-mail address and street address.

Tell us a story: We’re bakers and storytellers, which is why we enjoy sharing both recipes and the tales behind them. Please take a moment and tell us about the recipe’s background, and the role it plays in your holiday baking traditions.

Photos: Do we like photos of your recipe? Sure. (Remind me to tell you about when our 2011 contest winner, Beth Jones of Owatonna, Minn., got a look at our version of her entry, Swedish Almond-Chocolate Macaroons, and discovered they barely resembled the way she had been baking them for decades.) But is it necessary? No.

Samples: Do not send samples of your recipe.

Prizes: As previously mentioned, this isn’t the Pillsbury Bake-Off, which unfortunately means that there’s no zillion-dollar payoff. However, we do offer some fame- and fortune-style incentives. On the “fame” side of the equation, our winner and four finalists will be immortalized in the pages of the Star Tribune in early December, and their recipes will become part of the Star Tribune’s much-viewed online cookie recipe archive. As for “fortune,” our grand-prize winner will be awarded a $200 gift card to Cooks of Crocus Hill.

Deadline: It’s noon on Thursday, Oct. 8. For snail mail submissions, think about getting your letter into the U.S. mail up to a week in advance of Oct. 8.

Send to: For e-mail, it’s taste@startribune.com. For mail, it’s Holiday Cookie Contest, Star Tribune, 650 3rd Av. S., Suite 1300, Minneapolis, MN 55488.

We look forward to hearing from you. Best of luck, and let’s get baking.

Rick Nelson • @RickNelsonStrib