Our readers are the best. Their ingenuity and creativity have made the Star Tribune's 19th annual competition sparkle, and their enthusiasm reinforces Minnesota's collective passion for baking.
This year's recipes from our winner and four finalists celebrate a festive range of flavors, from the entrancing combination of rosemary and lemon to a clever twist on that beloved Italian dessert, tiramisu. Malted milk powder adds a nostalgia-inducing element, cayenne and cinnamon lend a playful boost to chocolate and dried blueberries uplift the pleasures of a delicate, butter-filled bite.
You want to preheat your oven, don't you? We do, too. Happy holidays.
Winner: Lemon Rosemary Cremes
Baker: Cynthia Baxter of Minneapolis.
The scoop: Elevating a quietly elegant shortbread cookie with citrus and herbal flourishes is a recipe for blue-ribbon success.
A winning history: When she was 11 years old, Baxter, eager to escape from her brothers, took refuge in the kitchen and immersed herself in a special-edition copy of "The Fanny Farmer Cookbook" published for her father's employer, Corning Glass Works. "I just went through it and baked everything I could," she said. "I still use it all the time. It's great." A formula for shortbread cookies resonated with her ("Shortbreads are my favorite kind of cookie," she said), and she eventually developed a habit of forming them into sandwiches and filling them with a simple buttercream icing. "I've made them a million times," she said. "I've made them with pink icing for every single Valentine's Day."
Eureka moment: "My friend Molly makes this rosemary shortbread," she said. "It's savory, it's not sweet. I wanted to try a sweet version, because I love the scent of rosemary. I like brown sugar, for the color, and because it makes things more rustic. I make vanilla sugar with vanilla beans and granulated sugar, and that made me wonder: Could I do that with rosemary and brown sugar?"
Judges' reaction: "To say that 'I kind of love it' is an understatement." "The unexpected pop of rosemary seals the deal." "This is the best use of rosemary in a sweet application that I've ever encountered."
Baker's tip, part 1: "Keeping the rosemary in the sugar for between 24 and 72 hours feels right," she said. "The first time I tried, I did it overnight and thought, 'Huh, the flavor could be stronger.' The next time it was closer to four days, and I thought the rosemary had started to break down and get a little weird."
Baker's tip, part 2: "I like sandwich cookies," she said. "But this is a very forgiving dough, and you don't have to roll it out. Instead, pat the dough into the bottom of a little pan, score it so you can cut it, and then bake it as a bar cookie."
Our suggestion: This buttery, flaky shortbread lends itself well to cutouts beyond simple rounds, opening up the possibilities of bells, trees, stars and other festive shapes.
Pandemic baking: "Working at home was hard for me, and baking was definitely a good stress reliever," she said. "It was also a happy thing to have the kitchen smelling great."
The joy of competition: Baxter was a 2018 finalist with her Marzipan Almond Shortbread. "I didn't tell anyone at the office, and when it was in the paper, people were coming out of the woodwork and saying, 'Omigod!' " she said. "That was so sweet. And every year after that, I probably receive at least 10 e-mails from friends asking, 'What are you going to enter this year?' It's the cutest thing."
Find the recipe for Lemon Rosemary Cremes here.
Finalist: Buttery Blueberry Buttons
Baker: Carla McClellan of Minneapolis.
The scoop: A tender, buttery, easy-to-make cookie with a flavorful fruity pop and a festive flurry of powdered sugar.
Workplace feedback: McClellan does her share of cooking for her fellow Minneapolis firefighters ("My favorite dish to make at the station is chili," she said) but she didn't seek any guidance from her colleagues for this recipe. "I don't know that fruit is a favorite part of any meal for them," she said with a laugh. "My family is my safe space. I'll try different things out with them. My sister and I, we talk about baking all the time."
Judges' reactions: "A perfect one-bite cookie." "I love the crispy-chewy texture contrast, and the way it melts in your mouth." "The bonus is that you don't need an electric mixer to make it."
Baker's tip: "Have fun making it," she said. "Having fun and experimenting is the best part of baking."
Our suggestion: Other dried fruits (cherries, apricots) work very well in this versatile formula, which started as a basic butter cookie recipe that McClellan encountered at bakedbyanintrovert.com and tweaked. In the spirit of McClellan's have-fun-and-experiment dictate, we were impressed with the outcome when we added 1/2 teaspoon of freshly grated lemon zest with the blueberries.
Favorite baking tool: "My stainless-steel spoon," she said. "I keep breaking the wooden spoons. I'm not kidding. My sister is always laughing at me. She'll hold a wooden spoon and say, 'I'm not going to give this to you.' "
Top tunes: "I always have some music playing on my phone when I'm in the kitchen," she said. "Doesn't everyone have a soundtrack when they're baking?"
Why she entered: "The last year and a half has been really hard, with COVID, and because I also responded to all the George Floyd stuff," she said. "I wanted to do something that was bright, and fun and vibrant. I'm really shocked. I feel like I've won the lottery."
Find the recipe for Buttery Blueberry Buttons here.
Finalist: Malted Milk Ball Cookies
Baker: Micah Zupke of Lakeville.
The scoop: The enticing, nostalgic flavor of malted milk — boosted by the goodness of brown butter — comes shining through in this eye-catching cookie.
Allergens agility: A recipe exchange with a friend of her mother's led Zupke to switch the ingredients she can't tolerate, allergies-wise, with her favorite flourishes. "I'm 100% a malted milk ball fan," she said. "There aren't many candies that I can eat because of my peanut allergy."
Judges' reactions: "I love Whoppers, and this tastes like I'm at the movies." "Malted milk balls have a great texture. They're a good candy for a cookie garnish." "With adult and kid flavors, it's sure to be a family favorite." "Brown butter makes everything taste better."
Our suggestion: For those who like sandwich-style cookies, consider following that format with this recipe. We were also pleased with the results when using chocolate-flavored malted milk powder in the dough, or the frosting, or both.
Baker's tip: "When you're browning butter, be prepared," she said. "The process starts slow, but it will immediately flip on you. You want to get it to where you see brown specks — that's the key to the taste — but you don't want the butter to turn a super dark color. When you see the specks, take it off the heat immediately and pour it into a bowl."
Favorite baking tool: "I literally could not live without my KitchenAid stand mixer," she said. "I got it for Christmas two years ago, and it was a game changer. My first thought was, 'Why didn't I do this sooner?' "
Enterprising entrepreneur: When she was in ninth grade — she's now a college senior — Zupke started a baking business, selling cookies, cakes and cupcakes through her website, uniquelymebakery.com. "I stumbled onto a 'Cake Boss' video on YouTube and thought, 'Oh, that's what I want to do, but my way.' Eventually, I thought, 'Hey, I can make this my own business.' "
Find the recipe for Malted Milk Ball Cookies here.
Finalist: Diablo Snowballs
Baker: Becky Brandt of Long Lake.
The scoop: It's the texture — and nutty flavor — of the cookies that resemble what some call Russian Tea Cakes and others refer to as Mexican Wedding Cookies, with a few happy surprises.
Recipe evolution: By borrowing elements from what were a specialty of her mother's formidable holiday baking regime, Brandt honors cherished family traditions while at the same time inserting her own imprint by adding cocoa powder, chocolate chips and cayenne pepper. "They're a twist on a classic," she said. "I like them because I'm a chocolate lover, but they also remind me of my mom. I like to customize things. There are so many different versions of recipes, which means that you can take what you like from them and make them your own."
Judges' reactions: "This is a fun reimagination of the powdered sugar-coated cookies that so many people make during the holidays." "The cayenne is a wonderful tease." "They're a great not-too-sweet treat."
Baker's tip: "Toasting the pecans is really key," she said. "It makes a big difference in the flavor, so I wouldn't omit that step. Also, if I know that I won't be serving these to kids, I'll add more cayenne, and make it more of an adult cookie."
Our suggestion: Instead of cayenne pepper, try ancho chile powder, which is made with dried poblano peppers; the results will be slightly smoky, with less heat.
Favorite baking tool: "I love my cookie scoops, because when I'm making a batch of cookies I like them all the same size," she said. "I have three different sizes, because sometimes I want a snack, and sometimes I want something big."
Pandemic baking: "I've done all the stereotypical things," she said. "I tried sourdough but learned that I'm not patient enough to keep the starter healthy. But, oh, my gosh, over the past year and a half, I've definitely been baking a lot more. Probably too much."
Find the recipe for Diablo Snowballs here.
Finalist: Tiramisu Twists
Baker: Joanne Holtmeier of Edina.
The scoop: All of tiramisu's building blocks — rum, chocolate and espresso — are present and accounted for. Bellissimo!
Recipe evolution: While hosting an Italian-themed dinner party, Holtmeier engaged in a favorite culinary exercise, which is transforming beloved standards — in this case, tiramisu — into cookies. "Cookies are easy, casual and fun to serve," she said. Her starting point? An eggnog-inspired cookie from her husband's grandmother's recipe arsenal.
Judges' reaction: "It's shocking how much it delivers on the flavors of tiramisu." "I love the espresso flavor, and I don't even drink coffee." "The log shape really stands out, and it suggests the ladyfingers that are used to make tiramisu."
Baker's tip: "They freeze really well, fully assembled, in a single layer," she said. "They're great for a Christmas party because you can just take them out of the freezer a little while in advance, and they'll look and taste great."
Our suggestion: Instead of using rum extract, consider spiced rum. Try Ålander, the Nordic-style spiced rum from Far North Spirits, produced in Hallock, Minn.
Favorite baking tool: "I have probably three dozen cookie cookbooks, and they're a fun source of inspiration," she said. "When you think about it, cookies are basically flour, butter, sugar, eggs and then whatever else you want to add. There are endless ways to reinvent the same old thing."
Impressive pedigree: Holtmeier won our 2020 competition with her Spumoni Squares and was a finalist in 2017 (Limoncello Kisses), 2018 (Coffee and Irish-Cream Dreams) and 2019 (Italian Cream Cake Cookies).
Why she entered: Holtmeier submitted recipes for several years before becoming a first-time finalist. "It has become part of my fall routine," she said. "It forces me to write down and do something with all of the ideas that I have swirling around. It's fun, whether you have the luck of being a finalist, or not. And you end up with good cookies."
Find the recipe for Tiramisu Twists here.
A big 'Thank you'
Our sincere gratitude to our volunteer bakers, led by Amy Carter, for preparing our 19 semifinalist recipes. Thanks also to Burnsville High School in Burnsville — and instructors Matt Deutsch and Beth Asfeld — for making the school's culinary classroom facilities available to us. And we could not have conducted our contest without the skill, creativity and hard work of Lilly Banasik, Matt Schmidt, Ella Banasik, Sun Cowles, Margaret Tolle, Pat Carlson, Jessica Bartl, Minhigh Nguyen and Ulises Hernandez.