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Bakers in search of projects will enjoy the submissions of Annette Gustafson of Maple Grove and Connie Draveling of Hudson, Wis.

Their recipes are highly creative riffs on classic sweets: Gustafson found inspiration in baklava, and Draveling recreated the festive flavors of stollen.

Our judges were highly impressed with the flavors, textures and good looks of both cookies, but ultimately felt that the time-consuming and technically challenging recipes might be beyond the reach of most bakers.

Still, our judges felt that the recipes were too dazzling not to share. We're grateful to Gustafson, who was a 2020 finalist with her Cinnamon Cookie Butter Sandwich Cookies, and to Draveling, a first-time contestant, for their ingenuity.

It should come as no surprise that these appealing recipes were paired with equally engaging stories.

"Baklava reminds me of the holidays," writes Gustafson. "It's a treat that my mom only makes at Christmas. Given it's labor-intensive, having to brush each layer of phyllo dough with butter, I can understand why she only makes it once a year."

Gustafson wondered if she could create a baklava-inspired cookie. "I wanted to create a cookie with robust flavors of baklava — nutty, warm spices, and sweet honey," she writes. "I also wanted something that had a crunch similar to traditional baklava."

She knew she wanted to incorporate phyllo dough into the cookie, but couldn't find an online example. She turned to her mother's pistachio-free recipe as a foundation for the filling, and then came a whole lot of tinkering.

"It took a lot of trial and error to get a cookie that I was happy with," writes Gustafson. "Flavor, texture and presentation were all scrutinized. I learned and refined with each bake."

Draveling noted that her baking usually focuses on pies and cakes. "But in the last few years I have been motivated and challenged by the Star Tribune Holiday Cookie Contest to add cookies to my baked goods repertoire," she writes. "Not just the old after-school varieties, but the newer generation of stylish, sophisticated, dinner party dessert-worthy, almost-a-piece-of-art kind of cookie."

That thought process led her to stollen.

"Every holiday season I always buy the traditional German holiday stollen, a yeast bread studded with dried fruits, candied citrus, often marzipan or almond paste, coated in a powdered sugar icing," writes Draveling, who developed Stollen Dreams. "This recipe recreates that decadent favorite by deconstructing and incorporating those elements and flavors into a cookie."

Baklava Cookies

Makes about 2 dozen cookies.

Note: This dough must be prepared in advance. The package of prepared phyllo dough (available in the frozen foods aisles of most supermarkets) must be thawed overnight in the refrigerator. We found that using a whole egg, rather than an egg yolk, made for a more pliable cookie dough. From Annette Gustafson of Maple Grove.

For filling:

• 2/3 c. walnuts

• 1/3 c. almonds

• 1/4 c. granulated sugar

• 1 tsp. ground cinnamon

• 1/8 tsp. ground cloves

For dough:

• 1 c. all-purpose flour

• 1 c. almond flour

• 1 tsp. ground cinnamon

• 1/4 tsp. salt

• 1/8 tsp. ground cloves

• 1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

• 1/2 c. dark brown sugar

• 1 egg yolk (or 1 whole egg, see Note)

• 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

For phyllo:

• 8 sheets prepared phyllo dough, thawed (see Note)

• 2 tbsp. unsalted butter

For syrup and topping:

• 1 1/2 tsp. honey

• 2 tbsp. granulated sugar

• 1 tbsp. water

• Squeeze of fresh lemon juice

• 4 tbsp. reserved nut mixture

Directions

To prepare filling: In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine the walnuts, almonds, 1/4 cup granulated sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon and 1/8 teaspoon cloves, and pulse until nuts are finely ground. Transfer mixture to a bowl and reserve, setting aside 4 tablespoons of mixture in a separate bowl.

To prepare dough: In a large bowl, whisk together all-purpose flour, almond flour, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, salt and 1/8 teaspoon cloves, and reserve.

In a bowl of an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat butter and dark brown sugar until light and fluffy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add egg yolk and vanilla extract and beat until thoroughly combined, scraping down sides of bowl as necessary. Reduce speed to low and gradually add flour mixture. The dough will appear crumbly at first; continue to mix until ingredients come together and a ball starts to form. Do not overmix.

Divide dough in half. Place first half of dough between sheets of parchment paper. Using a rolling pin, roll dough into a 7-inch by 14-inch rectangle, approximately 1/8-inch thick. Repeat process with second half of dough. Place rectangles of dough on a baking sheet and refrigerate until dough is firm but pliable, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, trim phyllo dough sheets to 6-inch by 14-inch rectangles and cover with a slightly damp cloth to keep phyllo from drying out. In a microwave-safe bowl, melt 2 tablespoons butter and set aside.

Once rolled cookie dough rectangles have chilled, prepare each one as follows: Remove dough from refrigerator and peel off top sheet of parchment paper. Position dough horizontally. Place a sheet of phyllo dough onto cookie dough, leaving a 1-inch border on the top long edge. Brush phyllo with melted butter. Repeat this step 3 times, until a total of 4 sheets of phyllo are used.

Spread half of nut mixture over surface of phyllo, leaving a 1-inch border along the top edge.

Using parchment paper to help the process, fold dough to create a flat log (similar to rolling, but dough will fold rather than roll). Starting from bottom long edge of dough, fold first 2 inches over, then next 2 inches, then remaining 1 inch, peeling back parchment paper each time. Gently press the seam to seal the log and position the seam at the bottom side of the log.

Repeat the process with remaining dough, phyllo dough and nut mixture.

Wrap logs in parchment paper, transfer to refrigerator and chill until dough is very firm, at least 1 hour.

To prepare syrup: In a microwave-safe bowl, combine honey, 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, water and lemon juice. Cook until bubbly, about 30 seconds, and stir to combine. Cook for an additional 30 to 45 seconds and stir to combine. Reserve.

To assemble cookies: When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper.

Remove logs from refrigerator, and remove and discard parchment paper. Using a sharp, thin-bladed knife, trim the 2 edges at a 20-degree angle and discard scraps (better yet, bake off the scraps as a treat for the baker). Cut cookies into 12 triangle-like shapes (think of a trapezoid), place cookies 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets and bake until edges are lightly browned, about 12 to 15 minutes. Remove cookies from oven, cool for 5 minutes, then brush the top of each cookie with syrup and sprinkle with some of the reserved 4 tablespoons of nut mixture. Cool cookies an additional 10 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

Stollen Dreams

Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

Note: This dough must be prepared in advance. To toast slivered almonds, place the nuts in a dry skillet over medium heat and cook, stirring (or shaking the pan frequently), until they just begin to release their fragrance, about 3 to 4 minutes. From Connie Draveling of Hudson, Wis., who adapted this recipe from "Fabulous Modern Cookies" by Chris Taylor and Paul Arguin (Countryman Press, 2022). Draveling uses the 8-ounce package of Solo brand almond paste. She notes that the widely available 7-ounce package of Odense brand almond paste will work. "However, it will be a thinner layer, and may have some translucent spots," she writes.

For cookies:

• 1 1/2 c. flour

• 1/2 tsp. salt

• 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon

• 1/8 tsp. ground cardamom

• 1/8 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg

• 12 tbsp. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

• 1/2 c. powdered sugar

• Freshly grated zest from 1 lemon

• Freshly grated zest from 1 orange

• 1 tsp. vanilla extract

• 1/2 c. slivered almonds, toasted and finely chopped (see Note)

• 1/3 c. finely chopped dried apricots

• 1/4 c. finely chopped dried cherries

• 1/4 c. chopped golden raisins

• 8 oz. almond paste (see Note)

For orange glaze:

• 1 c. powdered sugar

• 1 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. freshly squeezed orange juice

• 1 tbsp. water, plus extra as needed

• Red and green colored decorating sugar

Directions

To prepare cookies: In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, salt, cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg, and reserve.

In a bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed, beat butter until creamy, about 1 minute. Add 1/2 cup powdered sugar, lemon zest, orange zest and vanilla extract, and beat until smooth and creamy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Fold in almonds, apricots, cherries and raisins.

Place dough between 2 sheets of parchment paper. Using a rolling pin, roll dough into a 9- by-13-inch rectangle, approximately 1/4-inch thick. Place dough on a baking sheet and refrigerate at least 2 hours, or overnight.

When ready to continue, fold a 12- by-16-inch sheet of parchment paper in half to create an 8- by-12-inch rectangle. Knead almond paste until it has softened slightly to make it easier to roll out. Place almond paste between folded pieces of parchment paper and roll almond paste into a 8- by-12-inch rectangle, approximately 1/16-inch thick. This step will require patience and practice. Remove chilled dough from refrigerator. Peel off top layer of parchment paper, then layer the paper back on the dough. Flip dough over and remove and discard the second sheet of parchment paper.

Peel back the top layer of parchment envelope on the almond paste. Flip almond paste over (with parchment paper on top) and center it on cookie dough. Gently press to adhere almond paste to dough. Peel parchment paper off almond paste. This will leave a thin layer of almond paste positioned in the center of cookie dough.

Starting from the long side, roll dough into a tight log. If dough is too cold to roll and starts to crack, stop and let it rest at room temperature for a few minutes until it has softened slightly. Press dough edge to seal the spiral.

Tightly wrap dough log in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 hours, or overnight.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 300 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper.

Trim away about 1/2 inch from each end of log and discard. Using a sharp, thinly bladed knife, cut log into 1/3–inch slices and place 1 inch apart, flat side down, on prepared baking sheets. Bake until cookies have firmed and edges are just set, about 21 to 23 minutes; cookies will be lightly colored. Do not overbake. Remove cookies from oven and cool for 10 to 15 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

To prepare glaze: In a small bowl, combine 1 cup powdered sugar, orange juice and water and whisk until smooth, adding more water, 1/2 teaspoon at a time, to reach desired consistency. Spread colored decorative sugars into bowls. Dip cookie edges in glaze, then roll glazed edges in decorative sugars. Transfer cookies to a wire rack to allow glaze to set.