When we asked for your best holiday cookie recipes back in October, we knew we’d get recipes from every corner of Central Texas and from every decade in the past 100 years.
Between attending cookie swaps, baking cookies for Santa and eating holiday treats at the office, I’ve seen enough cookies to start to categorize them in my head: the thumbprint and rolled cookies that visually delight, the kitchen sink cookies that speak to our love of utility and resourcefulness, the more savory crumbly cake cookies that, as judge Kristina Wolter points out, are great for nibbling on while you drink a cup of tea with your grandma.
In any cookie contest, you know there will be a number of chocolate chip cookies or snickerdoodles. But we actually had far more gingerbread and white chocolate and cranberry cookies than the everyday cookies we tend to eat year-round. Chocolate, cherries and bourbon also danced their way into the party that was my inbox in the weeks that followed our request.
When all the entries were in, about 85 in total, I started sifting through them to find the gems that stood out on a first read. From there, I sent the recipes to the judges — Jennifer and Randy Bartos of Make It Sweet,Tiff’s Treats co-owner Tiffany Taylor Chen, Mindy’s Bakeshop owner Mindy Cohrs and Wolter, owner of GirlGoneGrits Food Styling — and to a batch of volunteer cookie bakers, without whom we couldn’t have completed this contest. (Shoutout to my volunteer bakers Kristin Vrana, Martha Hopkins, Teresa Morris, Emily Kealy, Jackie Stone, Emily Quigley, Rachel Matthews and Alyssa Arora, who helped bake some of the submissions.)
From all those delicious entries, we selected the top five and asked the finalists to bake their cookies and bring them to the Statesman so I could meet them and hear more about their love of cookies in general and these special recipes.
So many of our contestants talked about how much joy it gives them to bake and share cookies this time of year. Some of them lovingly pack them into boxes to ship across the country, while others make them for their co-workers or favorite softball team.
Few of our contestants bake (and ship) as many cookies as Arleen Acton, who was the winner of our taste contest with her iced lemon cookies. The Leander-based baker, who moved to Central Texas from Indiana a few years ago, starts making cookies before Thanksgiving so she can make any tweaks to the recipes and test out new ones to add to the rotation. She packs them up carefully by placing layers of bubble wrap and parchment paper — cut to match the size of the tin — between the cookies, so they won’t shake around. She then sends dozens of these cookie packages to friends and families all over the country.
The pistachio-topped lemon cookies she brought in were just perfect, in part because they were bite-size but also because they were baked and iced with such precision. Each was uniform, and the judges loved the salty, tart, sweet combination of the shortbread, nuts and lemon icing.
But all of the finalist cookies, like the stories and bakers behind them, were just delightful and so very different. Sue Dorrance’s ricotta cookies plucked us out of 2016 and into Northeastern Pennsylvania in the 1950s. For her magical cookies, Barbara Reiss has used every salty, crunchy snack in the pantry, including Triscuits, which she does not recommend. (Pretzels hold their crunch better, she reports.)
Father-daughter duo Lily and Les Canter had the biggest smiles on their faces as they showed off 15-year-old Lily’s lemon frosting-filled gingersnap cookie sandwiches that were a near-winner for the whole contest. Lily is the baker in the family; dad just mixes together the dry ingredients and helps devour the results.
Anna Núñez had the most moving story, though, but not because of her cookies. The day we emailed her to let her know her white chocolate cranberry cookies were a finalist, she was in Houston, recovering from a mastectomy. Most of this year, she’s been undergoing treatment for breast cancer, including more than a dozen rounds of chemotherapy. She’s a single mom to a sixth-grade daughter, and baking has been something that has kept her somewhat sane during a very challenging year, she said. She couldn’t make it to Austin to drop off her cookies, but she was able to bake a batch to send to the Statesman with two women from her office. Those same women had already donated sick days so that Núñez didn’t have to miss a paycheck and cooked her food while she was in treatment.
Núñez’s story was a powerful reminder of not only the joy in giving but the necessity of generosity. Baking and sharing holiday cookies might simply brighten someone’s day, but for someone else, it could provide an even greater lesson about the deep goodness in humanity.
We wanted to share all the finalists’ recipes and stories so you could decide for yourself which cookie (or cookies) you’d like to add to your own baking repertoire this year and be reminded of just how powerful a single little cookie can be when you know a little about where it came from.
Iced Lemon Cookies
Arleen Acton of Leander — our overall winner in the taste category — has been making this lemon shortbread cookie for about three years now, and with its balance of salt, sweet, tart and crunchy, it’s a winner, either in this contest or in your cookie tin. She makes them smaller than you might expect them to be, so, as with all cookies, the yield will vary greatly depending on the size of the dough you place on the pan.
For the cookies:
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp. grated lemon peel
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
1/4 tsp. salt
3 Tbsp. sugar, for flattening cookies
For the topping:
2 cups powdered sugar
1/2 to 3/4 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup coarsely chopped shelled pistachios
In large bowl, beat butter and sugars until light and fluffy. Beat in egg, oil and lemon peel until well blended. Beat in flour, baking soda, cream of tartar and salt until well blended. Cover dough with plastic wrap, refrigerate 2 hours.
Heat oven to 325. Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Place 2 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheet. Flatten cookies into 2-inch rounds with bottom of glass dipped in sugar. Bake 9 to 11 minutes or until light golden brown.
Blend powdered sugar and enough lemon juice for desired spreading consistency. Spread frosting on cooled cookies. Sprinkle pistachios on frosting before it sets.
— From Arleen Acton
Father-Daughter Gingersnaps with Lemon Filling
Lily and Les Canter are always goofing around in the kitchen. Lily is the youngest of four kids in this active Austin family, and she started baking more seriously a few years ago. These soft gingersnaps stand out because they aren’t too gingery and are just divine with the lemon filling, which is a somewhat new addition to the cookie in the Canter household and one that turns it into a sandwich. Make sure you chill the dough well before baking, and Lily mixes the dough by hand in the pot in which she melts the butter. Her dad, Les, is in charge of sifting together the dry ingredients and making sure they all get eaten in a reasonable amount of time.
For the cookie:
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground ginger
3/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cloves
2 cups sugar, divided
1/4 cup dark molasses
1 large egg
For the filling:
2 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter (3/4 stick), at room temperature
1 Tbsp. finely grated lemon zest (from 1 medium lemon)
1 Tbsp. lemon extract
1 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice (from 1 medium lemon)
Melt the butter in a large, heavy saucepan over low heat. Cool to tepid. While the butter is cooling, sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, salt and cloves. Set aside.
Using a wooden spoon, stir 1 1/2 cups of the sugar, the molasses and egg into butter, mixing until smooth. Add the dry ingredients, one-half at a time, and blend well. Cover with wax paper and chill for 30 to 45 minutes, until firm.
Heat oven to 375 degrees and butter two cookie sheets. Shape dough into 1-inch balls between the palms of your hands. Place the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar in a shallow dish and roll the balls of dough in the sugar. Place the balls 2 inches apart on the cookie sheet. Bake 8 to 9 minutes. Let cool.
To make the filling: Place the powdered sugar, butter and zest in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and mix on low speed until the mixture looks crumbly. Gradually increase the speed to medium and beat until smooth, about 2 minutes. Reduce the mixer speed to low, add the lemon extract and juice and beat until combined, about 30 seconds. Increase the speed to medium and beat until fluffy, about 1 minute more. Spread a thin layer between two cooled cookies and then serve. Makes about 20 cookie sandwiches.
— From Lily Canter
Barbara Reiss was stuck in New Orleans one Christmas because it was too snowy in New York for her to fly home. She was with her sister, who was a teacher and always received piles of granola, pretzels and nuts for Christmas from her students, and they decided to use those snacks in their own version of a kitchen sink cookie. Use any combination of salty, crunchy snacks you might find in the pantry. As Reiss says, these cookies are fun, flexible, not fancy but really delicious. Ever since her husband and brother-in-law called them the best cookies ever at Christmas that year, she’s made them for birthday parties, gifts and celebrations. “In our family, cookies make miracles,” she says.
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup granola (or other cereal, such as rolled oats)
1/2 cup crushed salted pretzel pieces (or other salty snack food)
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips, chopped chocolate candies, or a small bar of good dark chocolate, chopped into chunks
1/2 cup chopped pecans or other nuts (optional)
Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in medium bowl.
In another bowl, beat butter and sugars at medium-low speed until just combined, about 20 seconds. Increase speed to medium and continue to beat until light and fluffy, about 1 minute longer. Scrape down bowl with rubber spatula. Add egg and vanilla and beat on medium-low until fully incorporated, about 30 seconds. Scrape down bowl again.
Using a wooden spoon or a mixer on slow speed, add flour mixture and mix until just incorporated and smooth. Gradually add granola, pretzels, chocolate and nuts and mix until well incorporated, ensuring that no flour pockets remain and ingredients are evenly distributed. (Restrain yourself from eating the raw cookie dough.)
Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper. Scoop dough into balls, each about 1 1/2 tablespoons, then roll between palms until smooth. Place cookies on prepared baking sheets, spacing them about 2 1/2 inches apart, or about 8 to 12 per sheet. Freeze at least 20 minutes or refrigerate at least one hour before baking. (They will still spread a lot.)
Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Bake one sheet at a time until cookies are deep golden brown, 13 to 16 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through.
Let cool completely before gently moving cookies to wire rack. They will be fragile, especially on the edges. Makes 24 to 30 cookies.
— From Barbara Reiss
Joan White’s Ricotta Cookies
Sue Dorrance from Round Rock surprised us with her mom’s ricotta cookies. “These were a staple back when I grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Every bridal shower, every baby baptism featured these cookies,” she says. “When I eat these, I think of all the people who enjoyed these cookies with me over the years.”
Like many Italian ricotta cookies, this one has a somewhat cakelike consistency, and they aren’t very sweet, but they are just right with the royal icing on top. Dorrance is a librarian at Stony Point High School, and she tints the icing with blue and gold when she makes these cookies for the softball team. “I am their super fan,” she wrote in her submission.
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
2 cups sugar
1 lb. ricotta cheese
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tsp. vanilla
4 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
For the icing:
1 lb. powdered sugar
3 Tbsp. milk, plus more for thinning icing
Food coloring, as desired
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Using standing mixer, if possible, blend butter and sugar. Add cheese, blend well. Add beaten eggs and vanilla and mix until blended. Mix in flour, 1 cup at a time; add baking soda and salt with the first cup of flour.
Drop by heaping teaspoonfuls on greased cookie sheet — they will spread a bit. Bake 15 minutes or until edges just begin to brown. (You can check the bottom of a cookie; it should be golden but not brown.)
For the icing: Blend powdered sugar with 3 Tbsp. milk. If necessary, add more milk, a little at a time, to make a spreadable consistency, but not so thin as to be a glaze. Add food coloring as desired, and spoon a little on top of each cooled cookie. Depending on size of cookie, this recipe can make 4 dozen or more cookies.
— From Sue Dorrance
Anna’s White Chocolate Cranberry Cookies
Anna Núñez has had an incredibly difficult year as she has been undergoing various treatments for breast cancer, including a mastectomy in mid-November. Baking cookies has been a soothing ritual for her this year, and they also represent the kind of kindness that makes the world go ’round. Two of her co-workers fed her and her 12-year-old daughter and even drove these cookies from Houston to Austin just before Thanksgiving so we could photograph and taste them for the final round of judging.
“At church and school, I have always shared my baked love, and in an incredible twist of fate, I was blessed for the gifts of food in return during my cancer battle,” she wrote after finding out she was a finalist. “To me, food is love, which is why I love to bake and share my cookies, breads and cakes with everyone. Even throughout my chemotherapy, I have continued to bake cookies for daughter’s school monthly Teacher Appreciation Lunches because I wanted to do my part as a parent. I cannot volunteer or donate money, but I can show my love and gratitude through my baking.”
This cookie bakes at a low temperature, allowing it to spread more slowly as it bakes. Her trick to making soft cookies is moving them from the hot cookie sheet to a clean, cooled one, not a wire rack. The combination of white chocolate and cranberry is a delicate one that kept me coming back for seconds even though I usually don’t like white chocolate.
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground Saigon cinnamon
1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter, at room temperature
1 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated white sugar
1 Tbsp. Mexican vanilla
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups dried cranberries
1 bag (11 oz.) white chocolate chips
Heat oven to 325 degrees. By hand, whisk together flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon in a small bowl. Set aside.
In a large bowl, cream together the butter, sugars and vanilla. Beat in the eggs, cranberries and white chocolate chips.
Combine dry ingredients into the creamed mixture, being very careful not to overmix. Carefully spoon dough onto a cookie sheet and bake for 8 to 10 minutes until golden brown.
— From Anna Núñez