Bakers, preheat your ovens. It may seem odd to think “holiday cookies” when there’s barely a chill in the air. But here at the Star Tribune, it’s time to start planning our 17th annual Taste Holiday Cookie Contest.
Q: Why did you create a cookie contest?
A: After looking through the Taste archive (which dates back to 1969 and is basically several dozen cardboard boxes filled with fragile copies of the newspaper), I was struck by the enormous amount of space that was given over during the 1970s and 1980s to recipe sharing between readers and staff. I thought it would be fun to resurrect that side of our award-winning food section.
A recipe contest appeared to be a reasonably manageable project, and cookies seemed like a universally beloved topic. And, to be honest, there was a selfish motive. I was looking to shake up my same-old, same-old December baking routine, and I figured that our readers would offer awesome suggestions. Naturally, they did not disappoint. We’ve now published more than 80 terrific recipes, and we’ve collected most of them into “The Great Minnesota Cookie Book,” which was published last year by the University of Minnesota Press.
Q: What goes on behind the scenes?
A: We usually see somewhere between 250 and 300 submissions to the contest each year. In those first years, probably 90% of the entries arrived via snail mail. Today, 90% are submitted via e-mail. We carefully file the entries as they arrive, and once the deadline passes, we sit down and sort through them, looking for recipes that fit certain criteria.
Q: What do you look for?
A: Over the past 16 years, the contest has created an impressive recipe arsenal, so we do our best to avoid repeats. For example, if we run across an iced cardamom cookie as an entry, chances are we’re not going to include it in this year’s contest since we’ve already published a fantastic version, in 2008, from Matt Boisen of Owatonna, Minn. Do yourself a favor and familiarize yourself with our past winners. You can find them at startribune.com/cookies.
We’re drawn to original recipes. But we have chosen winners that were taken from cookbooks, newspapers, magazines, websites and other sources (check out the wonderful Orange-Chocolate Cookies, for example). If that’s the case, be sure to cite the source, and tell us why you’re drawn to the recipe (and how you tweaked it, if that’s the case) and how it became part of your holiday baking traditions.
Because one of the contest’s goals is to share new recipes with readers, we steer clear of the classic formulas — spritz, wreaths, sugar cookie cutouts, gingerbread — that are already a part of many bakers’ holiday repertoires.
Also, we feel that certain ingredients have no place in our cookies. When we see recipes that call for prepackaged cake or pudding mixes, margarine, candied fruit (for the most part), super-sugary breakfast cereals or other Crimes Against Baking, our inclination is to place them on the reject pile.
That said, unusual ingredients often pique our interest. Espresso powder, almond flour, ricotta and pomegranate molasses all have led to prizewinning cookies. Try something new!
We appreciate all kinds of recipes, from simple to complicated, because we’re looking to please a range of bakers. You should also ask yourself this question: “Will this cookie look good enough to stand out on a crowded cookie platter?”
And we’re always impressed by a story behind a cherished holiday baking tradition. Plenty of entries have made it onto the “promising” pile based upon a well-told tale.
Q: What’s next?
A: We bake. After all, a recipe can look good on paper, but we also want it to taste great.
For that initial contest in 2003, we tested 16 recipes. That number is etched in my cortex, because when I say “we” baked, I mean “I” baked, in my then-tiny kitchen. Thanks, but no thanks. The following year, we tapped newsroom colleagues and shared the baking responsibilities. The lure was a new rule: Anyone who baked could also judge.
After that, we gathered upward of 25 people into a Star Tribune conference room, passing platters of cookies (the top number we ever tested was 32), nibbling and arguing, sometimes heatedly.
For the past five years, we’ve partnered with professional bakers and culinary students, and they’ve done a spectacular job of preparing our semifinalist entries. Our judges include Star Tribune staffers and contributors as well as past winners. After much tasting, evaluating and arguing, we select a winner and four finalists.
Q: When are the results published?
A: We’ll feature the winning bakers and their recipes on Dec. 5 in Taste. On that day we’ll be handing out free samples of our five winning recipes at the Star Tribune’s headquarters in downtown Minneapolis; be sure to join us. Our 2019 winning bakers will also be invited to show off their baking skills at a fun and fascinating annual event at the Mill City Museum (704 S. 2nd St., Mpls.) on Dec. 7.
Q: What do winners win?
A: Along with fame, there’s a grand prize: a $200 gift card to a local kitchen specialty store.
Q: When is the deadline?
A: Oct. 25 at noon. And yes, it’s really noon. We dive in immediately to the process of narrowing the entries to those recipes that will be tested. Finalists will be notified by early November.
Q: How can people enter?
A: Include the recipe — and your story about why this cookie is important to you — along with your name, street address, daytime phone number and e-mail address, and send it via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org (please write “Taste Holiday Cookie Contest” in the subject field) or by mail to Taste Holiday Cookie Contest, Star Tribune, 650 3rd Av. S., Suite 1300, Minneapolis, MN 55488. Again, a photo of your cookie recipe is appreciated but not required.
Q: Do we have to submit any cookies?
A: No, but thanks for asking. We prefer to do the baking.
Q: Do you have any favorite recipes from past contests?
A: Plenty. There are probably a dozen that I’ve been making for years. I find myself always baking Cranberry Pecan Swirls because they really stand out, looks-wise, and people love them. And they’re incredibly easy to make.
Another recipe that immediately comes to mind is a 2011 finalist, from Kay Lieberherr of St. Paul. She became obsessed with the almond palmiers at Surdyk’s in northeast Minneapolis. Through trial and error, she crafted her own version.
Her Almond Palmiers are fantastic — so flaky and pretty and almondy — and incredibly easy to prepare. I make them using Dufour puff pastry, an all-butter product that is totally worth its way-more-than-Pepperidge Farm price tag. It’s available in the frozen foods section at Whole Foods Market and at many Twin Cities natural foods co-ops.
Q: Do bars qualify as cookies?
A: Yes, and no. Yes, if they’re anything beyond a brownie. Brownies (or blondies)? No. Our 2009 winner, Almond Triangles, are bar cookies, and they’re amazing. Another memorable entry, Kit Kat Christmas Bars, from 2015, were so delicious (and so ridiculously easy to make) that we had to consider them bar cookies.
Rick Nelson • @RickNelsonStrib