We baked. We judged. We have declared the winners of The News & Observer’s holiday cookie contest.
More than 70 readers entered recipes in this inaugural contest. The entries were narrowed to 21 recipes, which a crew of volunteer bakers helped me test. All who baked got to judge. After much tasting, we picked four winners and two honorable mentions.
Erin Czmiel of Cary took home the grand prize, a set of CorningWare French White casserole dishes, with her New Zealand Holly Cookies, a spiced sugar cookie sandwiched together with a layer of raspberry jam and decorated with painted holly leaves and berries. The recipe came from her late sister-in-law, Donna. Czmiel has carried on the tradition of baking these holiday favorites since her sister-in-law’s death.
Below is Czmiel’s moving essay and others from our winners about how each cookie became a family tradition.
Maybe their words and recipes will inspire new traditions for your family.
Grand-prize winner, Decorated category: Erin Czmiel of Cary
Recipe: New Zealand Holly Cookies
In 1979, I started dating my husband. At that time, my husband’s brother was engaged to a lovely woman named Donna. When I met Donna, she would whip up yummy food items. Her specialty was desserts. That first year I met my husband’s family, there were so many desserts at the holidays. My favorite was the New Zealand Holly Cookies. Donna would make these cookies every year. She would paint a holly leaf with food coloring on the top of the cookie. They always looked like a bakery had made them. Donna gave me the recipe years ago, but I did not start making them until recently. Donna died a few years ago from breast cancer. I have kept the family tradition going by making these cookies every holiday season. I always think of her during this time.
Drop cookie winner: Marielle and Frank Curcio of Wake Forest
Recipe: Andes Mint Cookies
My daughter Marielle and I have been baking together since she was old enough to hold a spatula. Seven years ago, when she was 8, she wanted to be like her dad and enter a cookie in the N.C. State Fair cookie competition. I went online to look for a recipe that would be easy for her and found the one for Andes Mint cookies. Not only was it easy, but it was an instant hit: a couple of honorable mentions, a third-place, a second-place and a blue ribbon – awards for five straight years. (Meanwhile, dad went 0-for-5 in the ribbon category, to his daughter’s eternal amusement.)
After its success in the fair, the Andes Mint Cookie became our go-to dessert, and remains so today, whenever we sign up (or are conscripted) to bring something to a bake sale or party. More importantly, every December, we make an assortment of cookies to give out to family and friends, and these are often mentioned as the favorite. We call it “the award-winning Andes Mint cookie,” and Marielle has the ribbons to prove it.
Chocolate cookie winner: Bruce Nawrocki of Raleigh
Recipe: World Peace Cookies
I didn’t think cookies could bring people together, but I was wrong. I live on a small suburban cul-de-sac, and there aren’t many opportunities in the hectic pace of life to foster a sense of community. I thought we needed some event near the end of the year to help bring neighbors together, provide a chance to catch one’s breath, catch up on what’s been important to us during the past year, and what’s expected and exciting about thecoming year. But there were already so many activities near the end of the year! Adding another would be asking too much. Then I heard of the idea of a holiday cookie party – neighbors bake a batch of their favorite cookies to share. I tried it several years ago, and it was a success – a new tradition that I have held every year since. A big favorite, and my contribution to the first year’s party are these World Peace Cookies. I first heard about the recipe on the radio show “The Splendid Table.” These butter-rich, sandy-textured slice-and-bake cookies are deliciously chocolaty and salty.
Slice and Bake winners: Virginia Walker of Apex and Molly Beeke of Raleigh
Recipe: Cream Wafers
Walker wrote: In 1968, we bought our 3-year-old daughter her first china tea set for Christmas. After all the presents were opened, she had to serve “tea.” As with most little girls, our daughter had her daddy wrapped around her little finger. So who else better to enjoy her first tea with her new tea set than her daddy. She needed a special cookie to go with tea. So mommy got out her trusted “Betty Crocker Cookbook” and found the perfect cookie: the cream wafer. They were a big hit and continue to be a big hit every year. That little girl is now 47 and she gets them every Christmas. Spoiled? No, dearly loved.
Beeke wrote: There was a small flower shop in Hornell, N.Y., called Swackhamer’s Florist. The shop was having a Christmas celebration in 1992. The cream wafer cookies were one of the treats on the buffet table. They were to die for. They are now my always-requested cookie for cookie exchanges, my children’s favorite and the recipe I have had to copy and hand out more than any other.
Honorable Mention: Victoria Larraz of Raleigh
Recipe: Sweet Carolina Biscotti:
We’ve seen it done before – Jack Daniel’s steak au poivre or Italian-herbed monkey bread – where European and American flavors combine in a recipe. It might be a chic thing to put on a plate. My favorite is gazpacho with a dash of Tabasco. Or it might be worse than lasagna-flavored potato chips. Like it or hate it, I find recipes sometimes need to roam.
My introduction to these biscotti came from my friend Meredith. My father and all his family live in Europe, and my mother and all her family live in Raleigh. What Meredith’s biscotti did, with the blending of Southern pecans into a classic European treat, was link the two sides of me.
Because yes, I am that girl who eats grits in Spain and who adds cornmeal to her biscotti recipe in Raleigh.
Honorable Mention: Anne Brill of Cary
Buckeyes became a holiday tradition in our family 35 years ago when Grandma Wentworth sampled a buckeye at a party and noticed that everyone raved about how delicious they were. Today three generations of us make buckeyes.
Buckeye moments are enmeshed in our holiday memories. We laugh about the year that a granddaughter became sick to her stomach. Grandma later discovered a layer of buckeyes had disappeared overnight from the tin on the attic stairs. There were races to see which grandchild could be first to find the buckeye tin packed away in their grandparents’ car after arriving for Christmas. When a snowstorm impeded travel one year, the buckeyes still arrived by priority mail in time for Christmas! But our most memorable buckeye moment occurred when a granddaughter was working for Hallmark Magazine and made sure the food editor had Grandma Wentworth’s recipe to test for publication. No surprise, her buckeyes were featured in the December 2006 issue, which Santa placed in all the Christmas stockings.
Soon Grandma Wentworth, age 96, will arrive for the holidays. Once again we will be making buckeyes: rolling, dipping, sampling for quality control and creating priceless memories.
To see printable versions of the recipes, click on the links below: