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Star-Telegram.com

2011 Very Merry Cookie Challenge

Posted Wednesday, Dec. 07, 2011

By June Naylor

Special to the Star-Telegram

Are we desirous of a simpler time, longing to reconnect with comforts of childhood? Perhaps, because the cookies finishing in the top two spots in our annual Very Merry Cookie Challenge speak to tradition and old-fashioned flavors. In fact, few of the trendy, fancy sorts of cookies we've seen in recent years reached the final round in this year's competition.

The 2011 grand prize-winning cookie is the ginger burst, created by Pat Laster of Grapevine. A first-time contestant, Laster won with her sensational twist on the good ol' gingersnap, a recipe she took to new heights with a couple of smart tweaks.

The runner-up is the nutty yum-yum, created by Jan Clark of Crowley, who combined cinnamon, brown sugar, pecans, peanut butter chips and a dash of ginger (see a new trend?) to fashion a cookie that offered a happy balance of crunch and flavor.

Taking honorable mention is the pecan-mocha crunch bar, entered by Kathy Davault of Mansfield, who turned in one of the rare "beauty" cookies in this year's contest.

These three, along with three other cookies that reached this year's final round, were deemed the best of the best among more than 70 recipes received from readers in October. Our preliminary-round panelists chose 20 semifinalists, who were asked to bring a batch of their cookies to the Star-Telegram offices for a taste-testing by dozens of cookie enthusiasts in our ranks. The six cookies with the highest scores then proceeded to the final round.

And that's when the competition got tough: We asked professional bakers, along with last year's victor, to test the recipes and bring their results to the final-round judging. When they sat down together to dissect the recipes and critique the baked goods, nobody pulled any punches. Baking is serious business to these folks, but they happily agreed that the ginger burst deserved this year's crown.

And the win comes with more than bragging rights. Laster's championship cookie will be baked and sold at Central Market stores in Fort Worth and Southlake, through Dec. 21; the sales will benefit the Star-Telegram's Goodfellow Fund, which provides holiday gifts for local children in need. Here are the six 2011 finalists, complete with recipes. Have a very merry cookie-baking time.

Grand prize: Ginger bursts

Pat Laster, Grapevine

Laster had never entered a cooking or baking contest before submitting this entry.

The retired school principal, 69, has logged plenty of time in the kitchen, however, having learned beside her resourceful mother growing up on a farm in northwest Arkansas.

"She was always making things a little better by trying a slightly different slant on a recipe," says Laster, who did just that to come up with her supremely impressive cookie.

Deciding to ramp up the gingersnaps she'd make for friends and serve at afternoon tea time, she opted to include crystallized ginger in the recipe. To top it off, she came up with a lemon-cream cheese topping that turned what one judge called "the quintessential holiday cookie" into a sensational entry that balanced tart and pungent, sweet and spicy flavors.

Laster's passion for baking for friends knows no bounds, by the way. After her cookie was chosen as this year's winner, we learned that Laster baked her semifinals-round batch and delivered them to the Star-Telegram's downtown offices while hobbling around on crutches, having broken a leg tumbling down an airport escalator. Winning this contest, she says, is a bright spot in the midst of physical therapy and doctor visits. We think this cookie can cure any blues that come along.

GINGER BURSTS

Makes 2 to 3 dozen

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup brown sugar

3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened

1 egg

1/4 cup molasses (recommended: organic)

2 1/4 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ginger

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon cloves

3/4 cup chopped crystallized ginger

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup coarse sugar crystals, for rolling

Lemon curd-cream cheese spread (recipe follows)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In large bowl, combine sugars, butter, egg and molasses. Beat until light and fluffy.

2. Add flour, baking soda, spices, crystallized ginger and salt; mix well. Cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate 1 hour for easier handling.

3. Shape dough into 1-inch (or smaller) balls; roll in sugar crystals. Place on parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake 9-12 minutes.

4. Ice or drizzle, if desired, with lemon curd-cream cheese spread.

Nutritional information per cookie, based on 2 dozen: 205 calories, 9 grams fat, 29 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 35 milligrams cholesterol, 186 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 41 percent of calories from fat.

-- Pat Laster, Grapevine

LEMON CURD-CREAM CHEESE SPREAD

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, room temperature

1/2 cup prepared lemon curd (see note)

Beat cream cheese and lemon curd thoroughly with an electric mixture until smooth and creamy. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving as a spread for ginger bursts or other cookies. Note: Lemon curd is available at Central Market, World Market, Whole Foods and other grocery and specialty food stores.

Runner up: Nutty yum-yums

Jan Clark, Crowley

Clark was shooting from the hip when she first crafted this cookie two years ago.

"My sister and I were helping my mother move from Florida to Dallas, and her kitchen was stocked with a lot of odds and ends. I simply threw some things together and hoped for the best," Clark says. "I was shocked when my sister told me these cookies were addictive."

Learning from her grandmother, Clark began her adventures in baking more than 35 years ago and has honed her skills through classes such as those at the Culinary School of Fort Worth. Clark, 53, even baked and decorated cakes for her children's wedding receptions. A published science-fiction author, Clark has also worked at PetSmart and for a veterinarian. Her love of baking has included owning a business that baked healthful treats for dogs, cats and horses.

The judges praised the recipe's simplicity and the cookie's pecan and peanut butter combination. Pastry chef Nate Watson, who tested this recipe, found them even more likable made as bars. He recommends baking these on parchment paper.

NUTTY YUM-YUMS

Makes 28 extra-large cookies or 48 bar cookies

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

Dash ginger

1 cup butter

1 cup natural cane sugar

3/4 cup light brown sugar

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup chopped pecans

1 package peanut butter chips

1. Combine first 5 ingredients; set aside.

2. Cream butter and sugars together 8-10 minutes until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, then vanilla. Add flour mixture slowly. Once everything is moist, beat for 30 seconds. Stir in nuts and chips.

3. Using a large cookie scoop, place dough portions 3 inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 18 minutes. Let cool for 3 minutes before transferring to cooling rack.

Nutritional information per cookie, based on 28: 235 calories, 14 grams fat, 25 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams protein, 34 milligrams cholesterol, 167 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 51 percent of calories from fat.

— Jan Clark, Crowley

Honorable mention: Pecan-mocha crunch bars

Kathy Davault, Mansfield

Kathy Davault ranks as the most consistent contestant in the Very Merry Cookie Challenge's history. She has entered numerous times since the contest began in 2004, and has taken honors in various past categories, such as the Best Decorated Cookie.

Davault's gorgeous no-bake bars, the most elaborate-looking entry this year, developed in a gradual process. Davault built atop her favorite base -- a blend of vanilla wafers, chocolate and nuts -- and worked to find flavors to complement toasted pecans, eventually choosing mocha, coconut and toffee, turning this into something one judge called the "perfect adult cookie."

The key, she says, was layering textures, resulting in the creamy top and crunchy bottom. Central Market's Carol Ritchie, who tested this recipe, noted that although this cookie involves a lot of steps, "they're simple steps that really work." Ritchie advises measuring out all the ingredients before starting to make the process easier.

An Arlington native, Davault, 57, owns with her husband a dental laboratory in Mansfield, and she works part-time in catering. She learned to cook when she married, "because we had to eat." Her efforts turned into enthusiasm, leading her to take culinary-school courses on weekends.

Eventually she launched her website, www.how-to-cook-gourmet.com, "to encourage other home cooks out there that they, too, could learn the art of gourmet cooking." You can bet she'll be burning the midnight oil next year to craft her ultimate entry.

"I've never been the overall winner, which is my goal. I will continue to work on that winning recipe," she promises.

PECAN-MOCHA CRUNCH BARS

Makes 16-20 bars

For the cookie layer:

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter 1/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons cocoa

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt 1 egg, slightly beaten 1 1/2 cups vanilla wafer crumbs

1 cup pecans, toasted and chopped

1/2 cup flaked coconut

1/2 cup English toffee bits (such as Heath)

For the creamy frosting:

1 teaspoon espresso powder

3 tablespoons whipping cream

1/3 cup butter, softened

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 to 2 1/2 cups sifted powdered sugar

For the garnish:

2 (1-ounce) squares semisweet chocolate

1 teaspoon butter

1. Prepare a 9-by-9-inch square pan as follows: Turn the pan upside down. Center a 14-inch-long piece of aluminum foil, shiny side down, over the pan. Press down on the sides and corners of the foil to shape it to the pan. Remove the foil. Turn the pan right side up, place the foil in the pan, and press it all over to fit it to the pan. You will have a nice overhang on each side of the pan to be able to pull the bars out before cutting.

2. Make the cookies: Combine butter, sugar, cocoa, vanilla extract, salt and egg in a heavy saucepan, and cook over low heat (eggs will scramble otherwise), stirring constantly, until butter melts and mixture begins to thicken (about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes after butter has melted). Remove from heat; stir in vanilla wafer crumbs, pecans, coconut and toffee bits. Press mixture firmly into ungreased, foil-lined pan. Cover and chill thoroughly.

3. Make the frosting: Mix espresso powder with whipping cream and set aside. Beat butter at high speed with an electric mixer. Add whipping cream mixture and vanilla extract and mix well. Gradually add powdered sugar, beating until frosting is spreading consistency.

4. Spread frosting over chilled cookie mixture; cover pan and return to refrigerator to chill thoroughly.

5. Remove bars from the pan with the aluminum foil handles and press all the foil on each side away from the bars. Cut the bars into even squares and separate slightly.

6. Melt chocolate and butter in a small, heavy saucepan over very low heat, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and cool. Spoon melted chocolate mixture into piping baga zip-top plastic bag; seal bag and snip a tiny hole in one corner with scissors. Pipe chocolate mixture in a decorative design on each cookie. Store in the refrigerator, covered. Remove about an hour before serving. These bars can be left out 8-10 hours, but store them in the refrigerator overnight.

Nutritional information per bar, based on 16: 313 calories, 21 grams fat, 33 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 52 milligrams cholesterol, 152 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 58 percent of calories from fat.

— Kathy Davault, Mansfield

Finalist: Crispy crunchies

Laura Cox, Keller

Judges liked this cookie for its combination of ingredients, including the Rice Krispies, and the clarity of the coconut flavor. Sarah Hooton of Central Market, who baked these for the final round, says the recipe comes together easily and that although these seemed a bit soft immediately after baking, they became crispier after cooling.

CRISPY CRUNCHIES

Makes 5 dozen

1/2 cup butter

1/2 cup butter-flavored Crisco

1 cup sugar

1 cup brown sugar 1 egg 1 teaspoon vanilla 1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda 2 cups flour

1 cup oatmeal

1 cup Rice Krispies

3/4 cup coconut

3/4 cup chopped pecans

3/4 cup mini chocolate chips

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream together butter, shortening and sugars. Add in egg and vanilla. Beat well. Mix in remaining ingredients.

2. Using a scoop, spoon onto cookie sheets. Allow room for cookie to expand. Bake until golden brown, about 6 to 8 minutes. Remove to wax paper to cool.

Nutritional information per cookie: 97 calories, 5 grams fat, 12 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 8 milligrams cholesterol, 55 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 48 percent of calories from fat.

— Laura Cox, Keller

Finalist: Deb's caramel-apple dreams

Debbie Nicks, Joshua

All the judges raved over the good mix of flavors and originality in this recipe, and the final product was far more cake than cookie. Set aside some time to try these. Judge Tamara Reese, last year's challenge winner, said the batch took almost three hours to make. She advises baking on parchment paper.

DEB'S CARAMEL-APPLE DREAMS

Makes 4 1/2 to 5 dozen

1 cup butter, softened

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 cup brown sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon Mexican vanilla

2 1/2 cups self-rising flour

2 1/2 cups old-fashioned oats

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

2 Granny Smith & 2 Red Delicious apples, peeled, finely chopped

1 bag Kraft caramel squares

1 cup finely chopped pecans 1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cream together butter, sugars, eggs and vanilla.

2. In a separate bowl, mix flour, oats, salt and cinnamon. Add to butter mixture and stir until ingredients are mixed well. Fold in apples.

3. Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls onto greased cookie sheet. Bake for 10-12 minutes, until golden brown. Move to cooling rack until completely cooled.

4. Melt caramel bits with 2 tablespoons water in saucepan, stirring constantly. Drizzle melted caramel on cookies and sprinkle with pecan pieces before the caramel dries.

Nutritional information per cookie, based on 4 ƒ¦1/2ƒ§ dozen: 141 calories, 6 grams fat, 21 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 17 milligrams cholesterol, 147 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 37 percent of calories from fat.

-- Debbie Nicks, Joshua

Finalist: Amaretto bars

Barbara Neely, Fort Worth

A giant hit in the semifinals round, this cookie is a must for anyone who loves amaretto. In baking the final-round batch, judge Natalie Gamez of Red Jett Sweets food truck found that the bars started caramelizing at the edges of the pan. Using a little less brown sugar could prevent that.

AMARETTO BARS

Makes 16 bars

8 tablespoons butter, softened

1 pound dark brown sugar

2 eggs

1 1/4 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons amaretto

1 teaspoon almond extract 1 cup chopped pecans

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 11 1/4-by-7 1/2-by-1 1/2-inch pan. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Add rest of ingredients; stir just until blended.

2. Pour into prepared pan and bake 30 minutes or until tester inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool on rack before cutting into bars.

Nutritional information per bar: 260 calories, 11 grams fat, 37 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 42 milligrams cholesterol, 273 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 39 percent of calories from fat.

— Barbara Neely, Fort Worth

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