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Minnesota's favorite cookie contest has a heartwarming, belly-filling new book

From left: Candy Cane Sugar Cookies, Kit Kat Christmas Bars, and Apple Cardamom Pecan Star Cookies

From left: Candy Cane Sugar Cookies, Kit Kat Christmas Bars, and Apple Cardamom Pecan Star Cookies Courtesy photos

Fifteen years ago, Star Tribune food critic Rick Nelson decided he needed a cookie. Not just any cookie, but the best cookie. And he knew Minnesotans could provide it.

Nelson had been sifting through the Taste section archives and noticed that there was more reader interaction in the ‘70s and ‘80s, particularly around a column called “Recipe Request,” where one reader asked for a recipe and others sent theirs in. That kind of dialogue wasn’t happening in the Taste section in 2003, likely because of a little thing called “the internet.”

Nelson’s solution? The Star Tribune Holiday Cookie Contest.

The cookie-recipe frenzy has since become an annual tradition for local bakers, so much so that the University of Minnesota press recently published The Great Minnesota Cookie Book, a compilation of 80 recipes from the contest’s history authored by Nelson and Strib Taste editor Lee Svitak Dean.

“Part of me thinks there’s something very special about Minnesota and baking,” Nelson says. “It’s cold here half of the year, and people love to warm up their houses by turning on their ovens and baking.”

Every year, between 200 and 300 Minnesotans do just that as they attempt to perfect their sugary recipes. Bakers of all ages and skill levels enter, from teachers representing classrooms to one county jail inmate, typing up or handwriting their proprietary formulas and sending them to the Star Tribune (which is City Pages' parent company).

“It’s a very reader-friendly contest. We don’t have a lot of rules,” Svitak Dean says. “You don’t have to be an advanced pastry chef to make a cookie. You can experiment, and there’s really almost no risk.”

Many entries have German or Swedish roots thanks to Minnesota’s long history of immigration from those regions, but over the last five years, bakers have become increasingly adventurous, incorporating trending ingredients like sea salt, brown butter, espresso… and even kale. “We discovered that cookies should never have kale in them,” Nelson says with a laugh. “It was a valiant effort, but no.”

From the hundreds of recipes received, between 16 and 24 are named semi-finalists based on a read of the recipe alone. Then, a volunteer pastry chef bakes every semifinalists’ cookie to ensure they’re judged on a level playing field. (This is a change from the early years of the contest when Nelson’s Star Tribune colleagues would each bake one kind of cookie, then gather for a taste-test to determine a winner.)

This year, eight judges tasted the semifinalists’ cookies and debated their merits—and flaws. “We got into a lot of… I wouldn’t say ‘heated’ discussions, because it’s cookies, and everybody’s happy with cookies, but there were a lot of opinions being brought forth,” Nelson says.

Appearance is also an important factor in determining the winner. “A lot of our readers bake all of our cookies in the contest every year and they make a platter out of them, or they want to make the winning cookie and they want it to really stand out on a platter with a bunch of other cookies, so one of the things we’re looking for is a great-looking cookie,” Nelson says.

The judges also analyze ingredients; Nelson’s a big believer in using whole, scratch ingredients, and you’re not likely to impress him with a cookie containing pistachio pudding mix or cold cereal. Another thing they don’t want? Repeats. After 15 years, it’s pretty hard to reinvent the cookie, but participants are encouraged to check out the contest’s online archive before entering to make sure their entry hasn’t been done ad nauseam.

Amateur bakers often send in the stories behind their cookies, too, and that’s part of the charm. People become attached to both the flavor and the feelings they experienced when they first ate them. Nelson recalls William Teresa, a Minneapolis entrant who studied abroad at the Università di Bologna in Italy. He began dating a young woman there, and every weekend, the couple would visit her family in Cesena. One of the grandmothers baked a crispy almond cookie she served during these visits, and Teresa loved the cookie so much that before his departure, he asked the grandmother for the recipe.

She refused. So, he returned to the States intent on replicating that cookie. And when he finally felt satisfied with his version, he entered his Italian Almond Cookie recipe in the Star Tribune Holiday Cookie Contest—and won.

If you’re feeling inspired to enter the contest next year but don’t know what kind of recipe the judges are looking for, Nelson hints that he’s interested in cookies that “change or flip our idea of what a cookie is.” Just stay away from savory creations. (Remember the kale!) While some savory sweets have made it to the semifinalist stage, to Nelson, they’re just not winning material: “If you can put chevre on it, it’s not a cookie.”

“It has a more appetizer type of feel to it,” Svitak Dean adds. “If you put these out without a note on a cookie platter, someone’s going to grab one and be disappointed because it’s not going to be what they expected. And not in a good way.”

Even if you didn’t dare to enter this year, you can pick up a copy of the book and give its recipes a go. Even better, make it a shared experience with the next generation of bakers.

“Cookies are really the gateway to baking,” Nelson says. “There’s an affinity to cookies just for that reason. That’s where so many of us started baking.”