Past winners of the Very Merry Cookie Challenge

12/03/2013 3:44 PM

12/03/2013 3:52 PM

Baking requires hands-on learning, so dive into our Very Merry Cookie Challenge web app and explore the nine cookie recipes that have won. You’ll be ready to bake your own award-winning batches in no time.

2004 winner

Apricot gems

Yields about 16 2-inch-square bars

This crunchy-crusted, apricot-topped bar cookie won Sharon G. Johnson of Bedford the top prize in the bar-cookie category and grand prize in the first Very Merry Cookie Challenge.

“I’m flabbergasted!” Johnson said. “I’ve never done anything like this before.”

She’s been making the bars for several decades, but they’re “not even what I bake for Christmas. I like to decorate cookies.”

Baking, said Johnson, is her favorite thing to do. She adapted these bars from a cookbook she ordered from a mail offer, “Favorite Recipes of America” (Favorite Recipes Press, 1968). She thinks it’s the combination of the crumbly crust and the unusual apricot topping that makes them a hit.

2/3 cup dried apricots

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1 1/3 cups sifted flour, divided

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

1 cup brown sugar, packed

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 cup nuts

Confectioners’ sugar for garnish

1. Rinse apricots, place in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil; lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes; drain, cool and chop finely. Set aside.

2. Meanwhile, grease an 8-by-8-by-2-inch pan. Mix butter, granulated sugar and 1 cup of flour until crumbly; pack into pan. Bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes or until light brown.

3. Allow to cool slightly (base can be prepared in advance and kept overnight at room temperature before completing cookies).

4. Sift together remaining 1/3 cup flour, baking powder and salt.

5. Place eggs in a separate bowl, beat well and gradually beat brown sugar into them; then add flour mixture. Mix in vanilla, nuts and chopped apricots and spread over baked layer.

6. Bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into topping comes out clean; cool completely in pan. Cut into bars; roll in confectioners’ sugar. To store, wrap bars individually in plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Nutritional analysis per bar: 184 calories, 9 grams fat, 24 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, 39 milligrams cholesterol, 134 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 43 percent of calories from fat.

— Sharon G. Johnson, Bedford

2005 winner

Pecan passion

Yields 1 dozen

“I taught myself to bake as a skinny, sugar-hungry teenager in order to satisfy my cravings for pecan pie, pecan pralines and chocolate fudge.” That explains Lillian Greenslade’s winning recipe, which was inspired by a recipe in one of her favorite dessert cookbooks from renowned cook and author Maida Heatter.

Greenslade said she practices recipes on her husband’s dominoes group, whose members eat anything and everything. Although she’s never afraid to trot out new efforts, she says her joy comes from making holiday favorites that have become family treasures.

The now-famous pecan passion cookies are as extravagantly and decadently rich and delicious as she promised. “Eat more than one at your waistline’s peril,” she warned.

Bottom layer:

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1 large egg

1/4 cup cocoa

1/4 cup flour

Pecan topping:

1 tablespoon dark rum or cognac

1/3 cup whipping cream

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 1/2 cups firmly packed brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup light Karo syrup

2 cups toasted pecan halves

1. To make bottom layer, using an electric mixer, blend butter, sugar, salt, vanilla and egg in a bowl. Add cocoa and flour and blend.

2. Spread mixture into a greased, 9-inch square pan. Bake at 375 degrees for 15 minutes. Remove from oven and let stand.

3. Meanwhile, prepare topping by combining rum or cognac with the cream; set aside. In a heavy, 3-quart saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. With a wooden spoon or spatula stir in sugar, salt and Karo. Stir until the surface of the mixture is boiling well.

4. Place a candy thermometer in the mixture and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until temperature reaches 250 degrees.

5. Remove from heat and quickly stir in cognac-cream mixture, which will bubble up. Add pecans and stir well. Pour hot mixture over the bottom layer in the pan. Spread so pecans are evenly distributed.

6. Bake for 25 minutes — and no longer — at 375 degrees. Remove pan from oven and let cool completely. Turn out of pan and cut into bars.

Nutritional analysis per cookie: 377 calories, 27 grams fat, 35 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, 56 milligrams cholesterol, 94 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber, 61 percent of calories from fat.

— Lillian Greenslade, Fort Worth

2006 winner

Sonja Henie cookies

Makes 60 small cookies

One judge called this cookie “perfect.”

Miriam Simmons said of the cookie named for her great-great-great aunt from Austria — the famous Norwegian figure skater — “it has been in our family for a few generations. My mom, who is a great cook, remembers her Austrian grandmother making [it] as a small child in the 1930s. Over the years, the family came to credit our Austrian relatives for the recipe.”

At the holidays, cookies are her favorites, but she also likes making rolls, cheesecakes, pies and “fancy vegetable dishes.”

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup butter, softened

1 egg, separated

1 cup sifted, unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup chopped pecans

Red raspberry jam (with seeds) for filling

1. Cream sugar with butter, add egg yolk and beat until light. Blend in flour. Add vanilla. Roll dough into balls about 1 inch in diameter. Dip in egg white and in chopped nuts.

2. Place on cookie sheet; make an impression in the center of each cookie with finger or thimble. Bake 5 minutes at 300 degrees and press centers down again.

3. Continue baking another 15 minutes. Cool; fill impressions at center of each cookie with 1/8 teaspoon jam.

Nutritional analysis per cookie: 29 calories, 2 grams fat, 2 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 7 milligrams cholesterol, 17 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 65 percent of calories from fat.

— Miriam Simmons, Weatherford

2007 winner

Date-pecan double-deckers

Yields about 18 bars

Lillian Greenslade is no stranger to our Very Merry Cookie Challenge winners’ circle. In our first contest, in 2004, she was a runner-up; in 2005, she won best in show with her pecan passion cookies.

She’s a dedicated baker, with a slew of State Fair of Texas ribbons, known particularly for her cakes.

Greenslade, who’s in the kitchen baking “twice a week, sometimes five times a week,” said she has been making her date-pecan double-deckers for 30 years. The judges loved their “great holiday taste” and ease of preparation.

Pastry layer:

1 1/4 cups sifted flour

1/3 cup sugar

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

Top layer:

1/3 cup packed light-brown sugar

1/3 cup granulated sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 cup chopped toasted pecans

8 ounces pitted dates, chopped

Garnish:

Powdered sugar

1. Make the pastry layer: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch square pan. (Note: Instead of greasing pan, professional testers suggest lining it with foil, leaving some overhang and buttering the foil. When cookies have cooled, they can be removed from pan by grasping the overhanging foil and lifting the foil from the pan. Then the cookies can be cut into bars.)

2. Combine flour, sugar and butter and blend to crumblike consistency. Pack into bottom of prepared pan and bake about 20 minutes, until edges are lightly browned.

3. Make the top layer: Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl, combine the sugars, eggs and vanilla, and beat well.

4. Sift flour with baking powder, salt and nutmeg, and add to sugar-egg mixture. Stir in pecans and dates.

5. While pastry layer is still hot, pour batter into pan. Return to 350-degree oven and bake about 20 minutes.

6. Cool in pan; sprinkle top with powdered sugar, then cut into bars.

Nutritional analysis per bar: 203 calories, 10 grams fat, 27 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 37 milligrams cholesterol, 96 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber, 44 percent of calories from fat.

— Lillian Greenslade, Fort Worth

2008 winner

Peppernuts (Pfeffernusse)

Makes 27 dozen cookies

Pam Thomas’ winning cookie, peppernuts, “became a holiday tradition in my family after my mom and sister moved to a small Kansas community with a strong Mennonite heritage,” she said. During the Christmas season, these small, hard, nut-size cookies are served to guests with coffee and tea “or set out for snacking, like a bowl of nuts,” she adds.

“Peppernuts are fairly labor-intensive — that’s why we always bake these cookies when my three sisters, their families and my mom are all together at Thanksgiving time,” she said.

Some peppernuts have a strong licoricelike anise flavor — not to everyone’s taste — but the anise flavor is mild in this recipe.

1/2 pound margarine

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 egg, beaten

2 tablespoons dark syrup

3 3/4 cups flour (or a bit less)

2 teaspoons soda

1 teaspoon cloves

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon anise oil, optional

1. In a large bowl, mix ingredients together in order given. Dough may be used immediately or chilled in refrigerator to be baked later.

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pinch off pieces of dough and roll into pencil-sized rolls. Cut rolls into 1/4-inch to 1/2-inch pieces.

3. Place on cookie sheets and bake 5 to 7 minutes, or until peppernuts are brown on the bottom.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 12 calories, trace fat, 2 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 1 milligram cholesterol, 12 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 23 percent of calories from fat.

— Pam Thomas, Keller (adapted from The Buhler Mennonite Brethren Church Cookbook, Buhler, Kan.)

2009 winner

Toasted oatmeal with golden raisins, pecans and coconut cookies

Makes about 2 dozen

Amy Beskow’s mother urged her to enter the Star-Telegram cookie contest, after her recipe for cookies with toasted oatmeal, golden raisins, pecans and coconut had quickly become a hit with the family.

“[My husband and I] moved into our first house last year,” Beskow said. “My father-in-law had done a lot of helping us around the house, and I wanted to say thanks. He doesn’t care for chocolate, and I wanted to do a more grown-up cookie.” So instead of a standard oatmeal-raisin, she toasted the coconut and used golden raisins; instead of cinnamon, she threw in pumpkin-pie spice; instead of white sugar, she baked with brown.

The result is a cookie that’s chewy and crunchy, deliciously comforting but not too traditional. The pumpkin-pie spice kicks the “holiday-cookie” quotient up a notch, and the toasted pecans and coconut add both texture and taste interest.

1 1/2 cups old-fashioned oats

3/4 cup shredded sweetened coconut

1 cup coarsely chopped pecans

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pumpkin-pie spice

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup (one stick) plus 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 large egg

1 tablespoon half-and-half

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup golden raisins

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine oats, coconut and pecans; spread on a cookie sheet and toast in the oven for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the pecans become fragrant. Let the mixture cool.

2. Combine toasted oats, coconut and pecans with flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and pumpkin-pie spice in a bowl. Set aside.

3. In a separate bowl, cream both sugars and butter until light, fluffy and smooth. Add egg, half-and-half and vanilla and blend until smooth. Stir in the raisins and oat mixture. Drop dough onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper in rounded spoonfuls about 2 inches apart. Bake for about 13-15 minutes or until edges of cookies are golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack for cooling.

Nutritional analysis per cookie: 182 calories, 10 grams fat, 22 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 23 milligrams cholesterol, 93 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 48 percent of calories from fat.

— Amy Beskow, Irving

2010 winner

T’s toffee temptations

Makes 7 dozen

Tamara Reese’s parents loved to cook and bake, she says. After majoring in biology and working at the University of North Texas Health Science Center for years, she realized she’s “very methodical” — the perfect attribute for a passionate baker.

“Being in the kitchen is my favorite place,” she said. “I’ve already baked rum cakes for the holidays.”

Judges praised the texture and flavor of this crunchy-chocolatey-toffee cookie but also loved how easy it was to make. In fact, the recipe tester said all the ingredients were in one aisle at his grocery store.

3/4 cup butter-flavored Crisco

3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar

3 large eggs

1 tablespoon Mexican vanilla

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 tablespoon baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats

2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

1 (8-ounce) bag Heath English Toffee Bits

1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped pecans, toasted

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a 6-quart bowl, beat shortening and softened butter on medium speed until smooth and creamy. Gradually beat in sugars and continue beating 2 to 3 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla and mix in well.

2. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt in a separate bowl. Mix well with a whisk.

3. Stir flour mixture into butter mixture, incorporating well; follow with oats and mix well. Add chocolate chips, toffee bits and toasted pecans. Mix well; dough will be stiff and may need mixing by hand.

4. Spray cookie sheets lightly with non-stick cooking spray. Using a medium cookie scoop or tablespoon, drop rounded 1/8 cupfuls of dough onto the cookie sheets. (For a standard-size cookie sheet, space the dough balls 3 across and 4 down for a dozen per sheet.) Bake at 350 degrees 11-12 minutes, depending on the crispness desired. Remove from oven and let them rest on the cookie sheet 1-2 minutes before removing them with a metal spatula to a cooling rack.

Nutritional analysis per cookie: 135 calories, 7 grams fat, 17 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 14 milligrams cholesterol, 108 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 46 percent of calories from fat.

— Tamara Reese, Fort Worth

2011 winner

Ginger bursts

Makes 2 to 3 dozen

A first-time contestant, Pat Laster won with her sensational twist on the good ol’ gingersnap, a recipe she took to new heights with a couple of smart tweaks.

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

The retired school principal has logged plenty of time in the kitchen, however, having learned beside her resourceful mother while 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,” said 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 curd-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.

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.

Lemon curd-cream cheese spread:

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

1/2 cup prepared lemon curd

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.

— Pat Laster, Grapevine

2012 winner

Chai snickerdoodles

Makes 4 to 5 dozen cookies

A former library aide, Andrea 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,” said the Alabama native “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 son, Chris, 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 said. “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.

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 eggs

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 chips

4 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 2 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

This story contains information from Star-Telegram archives.

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