The Very Merry Cookie Challenge started in the fall of 2004 when the head of the Features department said, “I think we should do a cookie contest. Let’s figure out how.”
Talented and enthusiastic, it turned out! The recipes came in by the hundreds each year. (In those “old days,” we allowed entries to be mailed in, hand-written on recipe cards. In more recent years, recipes had to be submitted electronically through email or through our website.)
A group of baking-minded staffers would cull through them, discuss the recipes and narrow the initial entries to several dozen semifinalists. And then, on what became Star-Telegram employees’ favorite day of the year — “cookie day!” — the semifinalists would bring their cookies in for everyone in the building to taste and rate.
The top finishers became the finalists. Their recipes were given to local bakers, chefs and pastry pros in the area, who made them and got together for one last “professional” tasting. The experts chose the winners and runners-up, and a new baking star was born.
When Amy Beskow received the call that she’d won the 2009 contest, she was speechless at the other end of the line.
Just 25 years old at the time, the Cleburne native said, winning was the best thing that could happen to someone still learning the ins and outs of cooking.
“It was a huge confidence booster and it was really fun,” she said.
With a winning recipe to her name, she said, she made her toasted oatmeal with golden raisins, pecans and coconut cookies for every party or get-together she went to after the contest. She even gave them as presents.
“I got sick of those cookies, and I haven’t made them in a while,” Beskow said with a laugh, adding that she does, however, usually make them for holidays.
The following year, Tamara Reese won for her T’s toffee temptations and became a celebrity in her own right.
“People would call me or email me about it,” said Reese, of Fort Worth. Some, she said, even cut the recipe out of the newspaper and sent it to her.
That year, Fort Worth’s Blue Bonnet Bakery baked and sold her cookie to benefit the Goodfellow Fund for two weeks in December.
When the bakery started to have a hard time keeping up with the demand, Reese started receiving calls asking if she could make some batches of the cookies herself to sell. She happily obliged.
Three years later, Reese said, the requests for her cookies haven’t slowed down (no matter what time of year it is).
Having just suffered a terrible fall that left her mostly immobile, 2011 winner Pat Laster entered the cookie contest hoping it would be a way to take her mind off her physical ailments, she said.
She never before had entered a cooking contest. To her surprise, she won, using a recipe for “ginger bursts” that she said she often made for friends.
Since winning the contest, Laster said, she still makes the cookies by request for friends and family. She often gives them as gifts or takes them to gatherings, and her church has even auctioned off some of her famous ginger cookies.
And while her cookies won the judges over two years ago, they are still winning others over today. Case in a point: a doctor she gave her cookies to as a present.
“He said, ‘I wasn’t a cookie eater, but I ate them all,’” she said.
Central Market Fort Worth also is hosting a Cookie Exchange at its Cooking School on Sunday afternoon.
Participants in the class will work in teams to make the past winners’ recipes, and everyone will swap cookies and leave with a tray of all of them. The cost is $60, and as of press time, there were just 15 places left. Sign up at www.centralmarket.com.
Additionally, the Star-Telegram is producing a Cookie Challenge cookbook of the 80 best reader recipes — winners, runners-up and finalists — that have appeared in print since the contest started. It’s the perfect stocking stuffer for the baker in your life. And proceeds from the $10 purchase price go entirely to the Goodfellow Fund, too.
Buy them at the Very Merry Ultimate Cookie Challenge events at Central Market. Or stop by and purchase them at the Star-Telegram’s front desk beginning Dec. 16.
Since 2009, the cookie contest has served as a fundraiser for the Goodfellow Fund. For four years, the Star-Telegram partnered with Sublime Bakery, Blue Bonnet Bakery or Central Market to make and sell the winning cookie for a period in December. The local bakeries then gave to the newspaper’s holiday charity.
In those four years, $12,200 was raised to help needy kids in the community.