The holidays will be scented with chai and cinnamon chips, if the 2012 Very Merry Cookie Challenge proves a reliable indicator. Yes, these were the distinctive ingredients that surfaced in several recipes this year in the Star-Telegram's ninth annual holiday cookie contest in which you, our readers, were the competitors.
And fortunately for Andrea Hicks of Keller, who used cinnamon chips and chai in her original interpretation of a favorite family recipe for snickerdoodles, it is a winning combination. Hicks' chai snickerdoodles recipe was chosen unanimously as the champion cookie by a panel of eight professional bakers who judged this year's final round.
You can make the chai snickerdoodles using the recipe that follows, but you can also buy them by the half-dozen and help those in need. The Central Market stores in Fort Worth and Southlake will bake and sell the cookies, starting Wednesday, with proceeds benefiting the Goodfellows Fund, which provides aid to local families at the holidays.
And although the finals-round judges tended to lavish the most praise on the simpler recipes, the runner-up in this year's contest was the all mond cookie, by Lezlie Davis of Fort Worth, who used 15 ingredients in her original recipe for a nutty, tart-yet-sweet cookie.
The other six finalists included two very dark chocolate cookies, a feather-light treat that reminded us of a wedding cookie, a cranberry-oatmeal cookie, a micro pecan tart and a slightly pumpkin-ish cookie that also called for the cinnamon chips, which we learned are rather new at the grocery store.
That eight finalists could be determined was a feat in itself: Readers entered more than 130 recipes in October, and our select cookie committee culled those to choose 28 semifinalists. Their creators were invited to bring a fresh batch of cookies for our staff to taste and rate, and our finalists were chosen at the end of a sweet afternoon in November.
For the first time, we had two male bakers among the finalists, and our youngest finalist yet doesn't even have a driver's license -- and she is as busy as any adult we know.
A couple of weeks ago, our panel of professional bakers tested the finalists' recipes and brought their research into the Star-Telegram offices for a final taste test and lively discussion. After careful consideration, the chai snickerdoodles emerged victorious. So, deck the halls with chai and cinnamon chips!
Here are the eight finalists, their stories and judges' comments.
Grand prize winner
Andrea Hicks, Keller
A former library aide, Hicks grew up making snickerdoodles from a recipe her mother brought home from a cookie exchange one holiday season. Hicks was just a child when she took on the recipe herself.
"Growing up in a Southern home, we did a lot of cooking and baking at the holidays, and eventually I was in charge of baking," says the Alabama native, 45. "The snickerdoodle was the first cookie I baked all by myself. I baked a batch of these every year for my friends, all through high school."
For her contest entry, Hicks wanted to come up with a new version of her favorite. The process began when her 18-year-old son, Chris, brought home a new product that he found working at his part-time job at Kroger. He asked his mom if she could make something with the new cinnamon chips from Hershey's.
"They sat in the pantry for a month until I decided what to do with them," she says. "I thought they might go well in this cookie."
A friend had gotten her on a chai tea kick, and it occurred to her that rolling the cookie-dough balls in the tea mix would infuse them with flavor. Voila -- a star was born.
Hicks says she considered entering the Very Merry Cookie Challenge a few times since her family moved to Keller five years ago from Indiana for her husband's job. Back in Indiana, she'd won a second-place ribbon in a chocolate contest.
In fact, chocolate is what she works with most often: She first worked with ganache recently to use atop her chocolate-orange Bundt cake. And she says she makes a mean lemon brownie, sort of like a blondie but with a tart glaze.
But fortunately, Hicks stood by her snickerdoodle recipe this fall. And the habit seems to run in the family, too, as daughter, Katie, 14, has declared that the snickerdoodle is her favorite cookie to bake, too.
What the judges said: Elisha Lance of LaBella CupCakes, the judge who tested this recipe, was crazy about this cookie the minute she tasted her test batch. "It was so good I just wanted to keep eating them," she said, noting that the recipe worked perfectly. All the judges raved over the nicely crisp exterior produced when Lance used a baking stone. One change she made in the recipe was to replace the Crisco with unsalted butter.
A note: Because cinnamon chips are rather new, one judge went to three stores before finding them. Central Market has them in plentiful supply; some Tom Thumb, Kroger and Wal-Mart stores are stocking them, too. If you can't find them, the judges agreed that butterscotch chips would work well in this recipe.
Makes 4 to 5 dozen cookies
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened (or 1/2 cup butter and 1/2 cup Crisco shortening)
3/4 cup light brown sugar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup Hershey’s cinnamon chips4 tablespoons Oregon Chai Tea Latte Mix (see note)
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mix butter and sugars until creamy; mix in eggs.
2. Combine flour, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt, and stir into cream mixture. Stir in cinnamon chips. Mix well.
3. Scoop into 1-inch balls and roll in chai mix to coat. Place on cookie sheets (or a baking stone) about two inches apart.
4. Bake 7 to 9 minutes; cool slightly on pan until firm. Cool completely on cooling rack.
Note: This chai mix is available at Central Market and other grocery stores. If you can’t find cinnamon chips, butterscotch chips may be substituted and will yield a sweeter cookie.
Nutritional analysis per cookie, based on 4 dozen: 101 calories, 4 grams fat, 15 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 20 milligrams cholesterol, 55 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 37 percent of calories from fat.
— Andrea Hicks, Keller
All mond cookies
Lezlie Davis, Fort Worth
Davis is a Jane of all trades, so it is no surprise that she has come up with a fabulous cookie recipe. Working on the kitchen staff at the Kimbell Art Museum's restaurant keeps Davis -- who is also an aspiring novelist -- involved with food, one of her many passions. That is, when she's not working as a palm reader at private parties.
Davis, whose family comes from West Texas, is from resourceful stock. When she decided to enter this contest, she spent weeks developing an original cookie recipe.
"I worked like a fool on this recipe and made everyone I know -- and a few strangers -- try these cookies, I was so determined," says Davis, who worked cream cheese, almond butter, cranberries, sliced almonds and white chocolate chips into the mix to produce an impressive flavor and texture profile.
What the judges said: Carol Ritchie, a chef who runs the cooking school at the Southlake Central Market, tested this recipe. "It was intense in the making, but then I tasted it, and I was in love! It has so much in it, and then some more," she says. Ritchie says that though there are lots of steps involved in this recipe, she thinks it would be good for making with children, because it teaches them how to follow a series of procedures.
Judges liked that the cookie was crunchy and chewy, but a couple recommended reducing the amount of sugar. Ritchie says she didn't let the dough rest for the full 24 hours, and that didn't compromise the results one bit.
All mond cookies
Makes 3 dozen cookies
1 1/2 cups unbleached flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups light brown sugar, divided
2 cups dark brown sugar, divided
2 large eggs
1/2 cup organic crunchy almond butter
6 ounces butter
2 ounces cream cheese
1 tablespoon Mexican vanilla
2 cups dried cranberries, divided
2 cups sliced almonds, divided
2 cups white chocolate chips, divided
1 cup white sugar
1. In a large mixing bowl, mix flour, cinnamon, sea salt and baking soda together.
2. In separate bowl, place 1 cup light brown sugar, 1 cup dark brown sugar, eggs, almond butter, butter, cream cheese and vanilla. Cream ingredients together. Gently add flour mixture.
3. Add 1 cup cranberries, 1 cup almonds and 1 cup white chocolate chips. Cover mixture and refrigerate for 24 hours.
4. Mix remaining cups of cranberries, almonds and white chocolate chips together in small bowl. Place remaining cups of the brown sugars and white sugar together in larger bowl. Cover both bowls and put aside.
5. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Take refrigerated mix out. Scoop out 1 teaspoon of dough and roll into ball. Roll ball in large bowl of sugar. Place on ungreased cookie sheet. Flatten ball with fork. Scoop 1 teaspoon of cranberries, almonds, and white chocolate chips and place of top of cookies.
6. Bake 10 to 12 minutes until cookies have browned around the edges. Remove from oven and cool.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 302 calories, 15 grams fat, 40 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams protein, 24 milligrams cholesterol, 161 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 43 percent of calories from fat.
— Lezlie Davis. Fort Worth
Gail Meade, Fort Worth
Meade spent many years making this very old-fashioned cookie from her mother-in-law's recipe. Because the special ingredient, ammonium carbonate, became very difficult to find, she stopped making the cookie. Years passed before her 13-year-old grandson, Jeremiah Bray, decided he wanted to make his grandfather's favorite cookie, and he set out to locate the ammonium carbonate via online suppliers. He surprised his grandfather, and a family favorite was reborn. That was two years ago.
This fall, when Meade and her grandson decided to enter the contest together, their supply of ammonium carbonate didn't arrive in time for Meade to make our semifinals round. She substituted baking soda, and the cookies turned out beautifully.
Meade, who works as a receptionist, doesn't bake very often, but she likes making pies. She's also passionate about cooking chili and spaghetti from family recipes.
What the judges said: Meade's shipment of ammonium carbonate arrived about the time we notified her that her cookie made the finals round, so she sent the special ingredient to the finals judge who would be testing her recipe. When Melody Fitzgerald of Sugar and Frosting Bakery and Southern Breeze Cafe in Keller used it, her only complaint was that "it made the whole bakery stink, just like ammonia!" The cookie was exceedingly light and airy, but one of the judges found it to be too crumbly to be enjoyable.
Fitzgerald found the baking time of 20 to 25 minutes too long, and suggests reducing it to about 18 minutes.
Makes about 3 dozen
1 cup shortening (or unsalted butter)
1/2 cup butter
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons powdered ammonium carbonate (see note)
2 1/2 cups sifted flour
1 cup shredded coconut
Powdered sugar, enough for coating
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cream the shortening and butter. Add the sugar and ammonium carbonate and cream well. Add flour a little at a time, then add coconut.
2. Form small balls between hands about 3/4 inches in diameter. Place on cookie sheet 1 inch apart.
3. Bake 20-25 minutes at 325 degrees or until lightly browned.
4. Roll in powdered sugar while still warm.
Note: Ammonium carbonate, a predecessor to baking soda and baking powder, must be ordered online.
Nutritional analysis per gem: 155 calories, 9 grams fat, 18 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 7 milligrams cholesterol, 97 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 52 percent of calories from fat.
— Gail Meade, Fort Worth
Special Dark snow scenes
Phil Ruffin, Sansom Park Village
Ruffin bakes more often now that he is between jobs. A longtime telephone systems worker, Ruffin particularly enjoys baking for company.
"When one of my boys was little, I decided he would like making cookies for the holidays. I found a quick recipe for basic chocolate thumbprint cookies and used Merry Morsels, which are no longer available, to look like decorated Christmas trees in the thumbprints," says Ruffin, who added powdered sugar to complete little snow scenes.
Deciding to enter this contest, Ruffin got serious about improving his recipe. Because dark chocolate is among his favorites, he worked it into his recipe development until he wound up with a creamy dark cookie, finding that colored chips worked well on top.
What the judges said: Sally Schwartz, pastry chef for Tim Love's restaurants and catering, worked the recipe through, deciding that dark brown sugar should be used (the recipe only called for brown, but didn't specify light or dark); choosing to use real coconut extract rather than flavoring; and leaving salt out altogether. We've left it in, so home bakers can decide their own preference.
Because Schwartz liked the coconut aspect, she decorated the tops with unsweetened coconut that she dyed red and green. She commended the recipe for its simplicity and short list of ingredients. She adjusted the baking time from 10 minutes, as the instructions asked, to 30 minutes.
Special Dark snow scenes
Makes 4 dozen small cookies
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa (see note)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon nonfat dry milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon coconut extract
8 ounces (2/3 package) Hershey’s Special Dark morsels
Red, green and brown decorative baking morsels
Sifted powdered sugar, for decoration
1. Sift flour, cocoa and salt into a small bowl.
2. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Mix in egg, dry milk, vanilla and coconut extract. Gradually add dry ingredients until just mixed. Fold in the dark chips. Chill about 1/2 hour.
3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Drop about a tablespoon for each cookie onto parchment paper, then top with one each of the green, red, and brown morsels.
4. Bake about 30 minutes. Cool slightly, then lightly sift powered sugar over the cookies to create a snow scene.
Note: Use Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa; using regular cocoa results in lighter cookies.
Nutritional analysis per cookie: 80 calories, 4 grams fat, 9 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 10 milligrams cholesterol, 58 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 44 percent of calories from fat.
— Phil Ruffin, Sansom Park Village
Double dark chocolate chunk espresso bombs
Sara Thrash, New Fairview
Our youngest contest finalist ever, 14-year-old Sara, created her stellar recipe this summer when she was hankering for a good, new cookie to bake.
"I looked through all my recipes and couldn't find one that I wanted to make, so I started browsing around online. I found a recipe for what looked like some amazing chocolate cookies, and decided to give them a try. Because I didn't have a couple of the ingredients on hand, I had to get creative, but the results were delicious. Since that day, whenever I made my double dark chocolate chunk espresso bombs, I tweaked the recipe just a little until it made what I think is the best chocolate cookie ever," says Sara, who lives northwest of Fort Worth in New Fairview.
Sara has been "obsessed with cooking and baking ever since I can remember," she says. She began playing with her mom's mixing bowls as a very small child and began baking cookies with her mom by age 6 or 7.
"As I became more familiar with baking, I began making stuff from scratch," she says. "Right now, there are no mixes in my kitchen!"
She has even begun blogging about her baking and cooking, saying that one of her favorite new recipes is for an Italian sausage soup with kale.
This holiday season, Sara runs a bakery at home for a client list that includes her grandmother's friends. Each week, she takes orders, bakes and delivers the cookies to her customers. She is also enlisting the help of her taste-testing brother, a volunteer firefighter who is helping to raise money for the East Wise County Fire Rescue Department. Sara is baking the snickerdoodle for the fundraiser -- yep, that very popular, winning cookie -- giving all proceeds to the fire department.
"If I burn the house down while baking, it's nice to know they'll be here," she quips.
This wasn't the first time Sara has had a winner published in the newspaper: She raises colored Angora goats -- one of whom is fond of her molasses-ginger cookies -- and entered a photo of her goats in a Star-Telegram contest. "It placed in the top 20. It's funny how all my hobbies coincide," she says.
What the judges said: Robbie Werner of Stir Crazy Baked Goods says that "these are much more complex than my own cookies, but they are fun to make." She was surprised that there was only 1/4 cup butter in the recipe, but the four eggs make up for that -- somewhat. Some of the judges noted that the espresso gives a bit of grit to the cookie's somewhat dry texture so it might be a good idea to underbake these just a tad. Werner says she lined the baking sheets with parchment paper.
Double dark chocolate chunk espresso bombs
Makes about 2 dozen cookies
12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces (recommended: Ghirardelli)
1/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
2-2 1/2 teaspoons instant espresso powder or instant coffee
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
4 eggs, at room temperature
1/4 cup water
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups bittersweet chocolate chips
1. Place a rack in the center of the oven; preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper, and set aside.
2. In a small bowl, combine the chocolate and butter, place over a pan of barely simmering water and stir occasionally until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth.
3. In a medium bowl, whisk together the espresso powder, flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt.
4. In another medium bowl, whisk together the sugar, eggs, water and vanilla extract. Gradually add the dry ingredients and stir until thick and smooth. Fold in the chocolate/butter mixture, then stir in the chocolate chips.
5. Scoop level 1/4 cupfuls of the batter onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving plenty of space in between scoops. Bake until cookies are slightly puffed and the tops begin to crack, 18 to 20 minutes. Allow the cookies to cool for a few minutes before transferring to a wire rack. Serve while still warm; the cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for a couple of days.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 261 calories, 15 grams fat, 34 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams protein, 41 milligrams cholesterol, 100 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber, 47 percent of calories from fat.
— Sara Thrash, New Fairview
Sweet pun'kin pie cookies
Kathy Davault, Mansfield
No stranger to the Very Merry Cookie Challenge, Davault has placed in the finals a few times. She is so passionate about baking and cooking, in fact, that she went to culinary school and hosts www.howtocookgourmet.com. She is busy adding and photographing recipes, in addition to running a dental lab with her husband in Mansfield.
To create this recipe, Davault decided to capitalize on her family's passion for pumpkin. "During the holidays, after the pumpkin pie, pumpkin pasta, pumpkin pancakes and pumpkin fudge has all been gobbled up, we are in search of more pumpkin," she says. Davault says that because most pumpkin cookies are just too bland, she conjured up a version that combines pecans, toffee chips and -- you guessed it -- those new cinnamon chips.
What the judges said: Henry Goodrich from Central Market's Fort Worth cooking school tested this recipe, praising the texture and the inclusion of the toffee bits in the recipe. He wished there was even more pumpkin flavor; several judges thought that more pumpkin pie seasonings would work. In the end, the judges agreed that it is a very likable cookie.
Sweet pun’kin pie cookies
Makes 50 to 60 cookies
1 cup chopped pecans
1 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
1/3 cup canned pumpkin
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup toffee bits (such as Heath)
1 cup cinnamon chips (such as Hershey’s)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Toast pecans until fragrant (about 10 minutes). Watch carefully, as nuts can burn very quickly. Set aside to cool, then rough-chop.
2. Beat butter in a large mixing bowl at medium speed with an electric mixer until creamy; gradually add sugars, maple syrup, pumpkin, eggs and vanilla extract.
3. Combine flour, baking powder and salt; add to butter mixture, and mix well. Stir in the pecans, toffee bits and cinnamon chips.
4. Drop by rounded tablespoons onto parchment-lined ungreased baking sheets. Bake for 10 minutes, until just barely brown on edges. Cool on pan 2 minutes. Remove cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.
Nutritional analysis per cookie, based on 50: 123 calories, 7 grams fat, 15 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 18 milligrams cholesterol, 76 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 50 percent of calories from fat.
— Kathy Davault, Mansfield
Cranberry crunch cookies
Tarra Knight, Benbrook
Knight learned to cook from her graduate school roommate, and she has been working on new creations ever since. A physical therapist with two small children and a husband, Knight -- who graduated from Crowley High and Baylor University -- found she most enjoys baking, but she's mastering Italian, Greek and other Mediterranean dishes, too.
Her impressive cookie recipe derives from one she discovered on a trip with her mom to Cape Cod four years ago. She began retooling it, adding white chocolate chips and sometimes adding orange cranberries when she can find them at specialty stores.
What the judges said: Tested by Kristen Shaw of Kristen's Cupcakery in Arlington, the recipe was notable for having a large number of ingredients. In fact, Shaw says, "There's a lot going on in this cookie." She noted that the cookie is very crisp right after baking, less so the next day. All judges agreed that while the cookie was sweeter than they prefer -- a couple said they would cut back on the amount of sugar used and omit the step of rolling it in turbinado sugar -- everyone praised the orange flavor that comes from zest and juice. One judge suggested using dark chocolate chips in the mix.
Cranberry crunch cookies
Makes 3 dozen
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons milk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh orange zest
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh orange juice
1 1/4 cups sweetened dried cranberries
1 cup finely ground graham crackers
1 cup toasted slivered almonds
1 cup old-fashioned oats
3/4 cup white chocolate morsels
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup turbinado sugar
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream together butter and dark brown sugar until light and fluffy.
2. In a separate bowl, mix together egg, milk, vanilla extract, orange zest and orange juice. Whisk until combined.
3. Add wet ingredients to the creamed butter and sugar. Mix well until smooth.
4. In a separate bowl, mix together cranberries, graham crackers, almonds, oats, white chocolate morsels, flour, cinnamon, baking soda and salt. Using a spatula, fold together until all ingredients are evenly mixed.
5. Slowly add the dry ingredients to the combined wet ingredients. Mix until evenly combined.
6. Shape cookie dough into balls using approximately 2 tablespoonfuls of cookie batter.
7. Pour turbinado sugar in a bowl or large plate. Roll each dough ball in the sugar to coat. Place 2 inches apart on silpat or parchment paper-lined cookie sheet. Lightly flatten each dough ball prior to cooking.
8. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until golden brown. Let cool for 2 minutes, then place on cooling racks.
Nutritional analysis per cookie: 143 calories, 7 grams fat, 19 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 13 milligrams cholesterol, 59 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 41 percent of calories from fat.
— Tarra Knight, Benbrook
Bob Horney, Fort Worth
Horney came by his baking genes honestly.
"I come from a long line of bakers dating back to the 1800s," says Horney, who shared with us a photo of the vintage Horney Bakery Wagon. "I'm the chief cook in our family, and cooking for my family and friends is my passion."
His pecan tassies and cheesecakes are always in demand, he says. His contest recipe was passed down by his mother-in-law, and he is known to make them every three to four months. Retired from the Air Force, Horney says he is his wife's "stay-at-home house boy," and that he loves to smoke and grill food and to make his own barbecue sauce.
What the judges said: Pat Laster, the 2011 contest winner, tested this recipe. It was easy to follow and came together almost exactly like a pecan pie does. One judge suggested adding a bit of bourbon to the recipe to make it even more holiday-ready. It is a good party recipe to make, especially for a buffet dinner.
Makes 48 small tarts
8 ounces cream cheese
2 sticks butter (1 cup)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups flour
2 eggs, beaten
2/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup white corn syrup
1 tablespoon melted butter
Dash of salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1. Make crust: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Soften cream cheese and butter at room temperature. Add salt and flour; mix to a soft dough. (Dough may be refrigerated for a few days until ready to use.)
2. Divide dough into 48 small balls and flatten each with palms of hands. Place into mini muffin pans, shaping into mini crusts.
3. Make filling: Mix all ingredients in order given. Put 1 teaspoon filling into each tassie crust. Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes.
4. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake an additional 10 minutes. Let tassies cool 10 minutes before removing from pans.
Nutritional analysis per tart: 111 calories, 7 grams fat, 12 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 25 milligrams cholesterol, 92 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 54 percent of calories from fat.
— Bob Horney, Fort Worth