This season offers no shortage of reasons to raise a glass: spending time with those important to us, reveling in cherished traditions or just enjoying the fact that a new year is on the horizon.
Today we're adding to that list by toasting the 20th anniversary of our annual cookie contest, which has grown into a holiday tradition that's close to our hearts.
Once again, Star Tribune readers have risen to the challenge, submitting nearly 225 creative and compelling entries, showing us the tradition is close to your hearts, too.
Befitting the season, this year's top recipes sparkle with festive flavors. Warming spices — cardamom, ginger and cloves — play starring roles. Cayenne pepper turns up the heat, while candied orange peel adds zesty sweetness. Apple brandy, sumac and dark rye flour make appearances (but not together), and classic supper club cocktail components also shine.
All five cookies are worth celebrating — and baking. Happy holidays.
Winner: Maple-Roasted Walnut Delights
Baker: Stephanie Steinwedel of Minneapolis.
The scoop: Spiced-up, maple-glazed walnuts are the irresistible centerpiece of this tender, delicious cookie.
Magnificent obsession: "I got obsessed with sumac," said Steinwedel. "I tend to get obsessed with ingredients. I'm a librarian. I read obsessively about anything that I get obsessed with, and while I was reading about sumac, I learned that it was a way to add brightness, acidity and sourness to things. That made me wonder how it would work in baked goods." She turned to Google, and eventually encountered a roasted walnuts recipe at cookinglight.com. "That's when I wondered, "Could I bake these into a cookie?'"
Judges' comments: "And ... we have a winner." "This might be the Paul Hollywood-giving-us-a-handshake moment" [a reference to "The Great British Baking Show"]. "It's all the good things: toasty, nutty and spicy." "The candied walnuts are everything." "I love the cookie's soft, buttery texture."
Bonus round: The recipe makes more maple-roasted walnuts than the cookies require. Thank goodness, because the delicious leftovers can be put to all kinds of good uses: Serve them in salads or on a cheese tray, package them for gifts or think of them as the irresistible snack that they are.
Walnuts are the star: "I was looking for a blank slate, because I figured that the spices in the roasted walnuts would take the place of any spice that I'd put into the dough," said Steinwedel. She hit pay dirt at thedreameryevents.com, and then adapted the recipe to suit her needs.
Speedy shortcut: This easy-to-prepare cookie gets even easier when it becomes a blondie-like bar cookie. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-by-13-inch pan and spread the dough evenly in the pan. Chop 1 cup of maple-roasted walnuts and scatter them across the top, lightly pressing them into the dough. Bake until the top is golden brown and the edges are pulling away from the pan, 18 to 22 minutes. Remove from the oven and transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool completely.
At the holidays: "My new tradition is to obsessively bake new recipes," said Steinwedel. "But I always make my grandmother's sugar cookies, because my brother likes them, and I like making my brother — and, by extension, his whole family — happy."
Find the recipe for Maple-Roasted Walnut Delights here.
Finalist: Cardamom Cherry Buttons
Baker: Tammy Meyerhofer of Sartell, Minn.
The scoop: A cardamom-scented, brown butter-enriched cookie is crowned with a jewel of a cherry.
From Italy, with love: The recipe's key ingredient, Luxardo brand maraschino cherries, are an Italian import, and they improve everything they touch, especially cocktails. And now, cookies. "I was introduced to them a few years ago by a friend who was making Old Fashioneds with them," said Meyerhofer. "They were so good, so intensely flavorful, and such a treat when you got to the bottom of the glass. I don't know where I got the idea to bring them out from behind the bar and into the kitchen, but it works."
Judges' reactions: "That cherry is a showstopper." "Cardamom and brown butter make the world go round." "The sparkling sugar gives it a pretty, snow-globe quality." "The soft texture is a welcome switch from hard sugar cookies."
Extravagance: Luxardo brand maraschino cherries are about $20 for a 14.1-ounce jar. "I realize they're not in everyone's budget," said Meyerhofer. "They're a treat — that's the point — and the flavor is worth it. I like cherry flavor, but a natural cherry flavor, not a fake-y one that tastes like cough medicine."
Baker's tip: Meyerhofer dumps the whole jar of cherries into a strainer and lets them drain while the cookies are baking. "Don't rinse them," she said. "You don't want to lose all of the good stuff." Another tip: reserve the syrup; you'll develop all kinds of delicious uses.
At the holidays: Every December, Meyerhofer — an experienced bread baker — teams up with her two sons and makes a gingerbread house. "I make the structure, and they decorate," she said. "We started branching out. They wanted a tower one year, and a castle another year. We did a mini-hospital during COVID [Meyerhofer is a physician] and after we visited Washington, D.C., we did the White House. Baking is my hobby; it's my happy place."
Find the recipe for Cardamom Cherry Buttons here.
Finalist: Spiced Orange and Rye Shortbread Cookies
Baker: Melissa Lundquist of St. Paul.
The scoop: The highly complementary flavors of orange and rye come together in a snappy, not-too-sweet treat.
Origin story: "I love making cardamom bread every year, and I'm still working on Swedish limpa bread, I'm not good at that yet," said Lundquist. "That's when I thought, 'Why not put those flavors together?' " A key resource was her Norwegian grandmother's cookbooks. "I don't remember my grandma making rye cookies, and it never occurred to me to put rye flour in a cookie," she said. "But I love it, so I thought, 'Let's see what happens.' "
Judges' comments: "It's a surprise, in a good way, because it doesn't remind me of any other cookie that I've tasted." "It's as if Pfeffernüsse took a flight from Berlin to Stockholm." "The orange and the rye are beautiful pairings, and very Scandinavian." "It's not cloyingly sweet."
Baker's tip: "I realize that not everyone is going to make their own candied orange peel," said Lundquist. "It can be left out of the recipe."
Good times: "People are always saying, 'You're such a good baker, you should enter this contest, and that contest,' " said Lundquist. "But I'm never organized enough to do that. After I typed up this recipe and submitted it, I told my son that I think it was the most proud I've ever been. My bar is low [laughs]. But it was so much fun to test the recipe and try different versions. It felt like such an accomplishment."
Duly noted: "I should clarify that I'm not Swedish," Lundquist said with a laugh. "I grew up making lefse every year with my family. I went to Gustavus, and my college girlfriends started a tradition of making lefse every year together since we graduated in 1989. I have cookie exchanges with friends, and I make traditional Norwegian cookies: Sandbakkels, fattigman. I really value these traditions."
Find the recipe for Spiced Orange and Rye Shortbread Cookies here.
Finalist: Gingerbread Cornmeal Biscotti
Baker: Cynthia Baxter of Minneapolis.
The scoop: A kinder, gentler take on biscotti, with festive gingerbread-esque accents.
Fond memory: Baxter based her recipe on her affectionate recollection of the biscotti at the former Lucia's Restaurant in Minneapolis. That version incorporated finely ground yellow cornmeal, an addition that Baxter believes dials back biscotti's usual hard-as-nails texture. "I always wanted to try and figure out that recipe, and I thought that the contest would be a perfect opportunity to do just that," she said. "They're certainly not tender like a chocolate chip cookie. They just have less of the traditional crustiness of a biscotti. My husband said, 'This is what Scandinavians do to Italian food, they make it soft and mushy.' They're not soft, or mushy, and that didn't stop him from eating almost the entire first batch."
Judges' comments: "I love the warming spices; they really say 'holiday.' " "It has great crunch, with a texture that's more 'crouton' than 'biscotti.' " "If you don't like biscotti, let this change your mind."
Flavor booster: Gingerbread accents set this biscotti apart. "Sometimes gingerbreads can be so spicy, but I didn't want that, I wanted warm flavors," said Baxter. "I looked at a ton of gingerbread recipes and then I started playing around with ingredients."
Baker's tip: Baxter picked up a helpful hint from cookbook author Dorie Greenspan. "She says that for the second bake, you can tip the biscotti so they're standing up on end, close together, like little soldiers marching across your cookie sheet," she said. "That way, you can bake the whole batch at one time."
Previous winner: Baxter was a finalist in 2018 for her Marzipan Almond Shortbread, and her Lemon Rosemary Cremes took the top prize in our 2021 competition. "Everything about last year was so much fun," she said. "It was awesome to be an extremely minor local celebrity. That's why I look forward to the contest every year. It's such a joyful thing. It's happy news in the midst of all of this other not-so-happy stuff."
Find the recipe for Gingerbread Cornmeal Biscotti here.
Baker: Joanne Holtmeier of Edina.
The scoop: Fans of the Girl Scouts' Thin Mints cookies will devour this soft, minty, chocolate-covered treat.
Retro ritual: After visiting Creekside Supper Club in south Minneapolis and indulging in its nods to cherished Wisconsin supper club standards, Holtmeier's considerable imagination was sparked. "Those after-dinner drinks — Pink Squirrels, Golden Cadillacs, Grasshoppers — just have 'cookie' written all over them," she said.
Judges' comments: "Wow, that is intense, in a too-much-is-never-enough way." "It's a cake that's masking as a cookie." "Serve them with a scoop of vanilla ice cream." "A chocolate lover's dream with a festive peppermint twist."
Elevating the familiar: Texas sheet cake bars are a dessert that Holtmeier often makes for family events, which explains why she went on a quest for a cookie version. The one she found from the Pioneer Woman caught her attention because it incorporates buttermilk, an authentic Texas-sheet-cake touch. Adding crème de menthe was a no-brainer. "Alcohol makes it more festive, fun and holiday-ish," she said. "Everything in moderation."
Embracing chocolate: Holtmeier initially considered creating a cookie as green as a classic Grasshopper, but she's not a fan of food coloring. "That's when I landed on the idea of a chocolate cookie with a mint taste," she said. "I also got to thinking about what looks good on a cookie platter. Lots of cookies are beige, and that's when I thought that maybe it was time for me to try chocolate. Why can't it just be a chocolate cookie with a mint flavor?"
Blue ribbon: Holtmeier is the winningest baker in our contest's history, with six recipes. She won our 2020 contest with her Spumoni Squares, and she has contributed four other previous finalist recipes: Tiramisu Twists, 2021; Italian Cream Cake Cookies, 2019; Coffee and Irish-Cream Dreams, 2018; and Limoncello Kisses, 2017. "I'm such a fan of the contest," she said. "I like to see the new things that people come up with, and all the new cookies that I get to make."
Find the recipe for Grasshoppers here.