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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.