Winning holiday cookie recipes

Recipe contest gives us reasons to celebrate

aweigl@newsobserver.comDecember 26, 2012 

  • Our thanks Thank you to all our volunteer bakers and judges: Matt Lardie, Becca Gomez Farrell, Jill Warren Lucas, Thea Neal, Courtney Carter, Susan Scates, Angela Neal, Sarah Ovaska, Debbie Moose, Angela Marinelli, Felice Bogus, Ashley Chaifetz, Alexandra Graddy-Reed, Claire Cusick, Kristen Baughman, Matthew Glassman, Heather McKenney and Colleen Minton.
  • Cream Wafers This recipe, printed in the “Betty Crocker Cookbook,”(General Mills Corp., 1972),won the slice and bake category in The News & Observer Holiday Cookie Contest 2012. From Virginia Walker of Apex and Molly Beeke of Raleigh. 1 1/4 cup soft butter, divided 1/3 cup whipping cream 2 cups all-purpose flour Granulated sugar 3/4 cup powdered sugar 1 teaspoon vanilla Green or red food coloring MIX 1 cup butter, cream and flour together in a standing mixer or in a medium bowl with electric mixer. Pull dough together into one ball, wrap with plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator. HEAT oven to 375 degrees. Divide dough into thirds. Roll out a third of the dough at a time to 1/8-inch thickness on a flour-covered surface. Keep remaining dough in refrigerator until ready to roll. Cut into 1 1/2-inch circles. TRANSFER rounds to a small bowl filled with granulated sugar. Toss rounds in sugar until both sides are coated. Place on ungreased cookie sheet. Prick each round with fork about 4 times. Bake 7 to 9 minutes or just until set but not brown. Cool. CREAM 1/4 cup butter, powdered sugar and vanilla in standing mixer or in bowl with electric mixer until smooth and fluffy. If needed, add a few drops of water for proper spreading consistency. Tint with a few drops of desired food color. Yield: About 60 sandwich cookies
  • Sweet Carolina Biscotti This recipe won an honorable mention in The News & Observer Holiday Cookie Contest. From Victoria Larraz of Raleigh. 1 cup whole pecans 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour 1/2 cup yellow cornmeal 1 1/4 teaspoon baking powder 1/4 teaspoon salt 2 eggs 3/4 cup sugar 1/2 cup vegetable oil 1 teaspoon vanilla extract Cooking or baking spray 1 cup milk chocolate chips, preferably Ghiardelli HEAT oven to 400 degrees. BLANCH pecans in hot boiling water for 2 minutes. Drain, rinse and towel dry. Spread pecans on an ungreased baking sheet and toast for 7 minutes. Cool. Chop pecans and set aside. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. COMBINE flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt and chopped pecans in a large bowl. In another bowl, stir together eggs, sugar and vegetable oil. Gradually add egg mixture to flour mixture, stirring just until the dry ingredients are moistened. DIVIDE dough in half. With lightly-floured hands and on a lightly-floured surface, shape each portion into a 12-inch by 2-inch log. Spray cookie sheet with baking or cooking spray. Place logs three inches apart on greased cookie sheet. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Cool 10 minutes. CUT each log diagonally into 3/4-inch slices with a serrated knife. Return slices cut side down to the baking sheet. Bake for 7 minutes. Turn slices and bake 7 more minutes. Set aside to cool completely. MELT chocolate chips in a bowl set over a saucepan with simmering water. Stir occasionally. Dip bottoms of the biscotti in the melted chocolate or spread chocolate on one side of the biscotti. Set upside down on wax paper to harden the chocolate. Yield: 12-15 cookies
  • New Zealand Holly Cookies This cookie won the grand prize in The News & Observer Holiday Cookie Contest 2012. From Erin Czmiel of Cary. 2 cups all-purpose flour 1 cup sugar 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 3/4 teaspoon baking powder 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup butter, or 8 tablespoons 1 slightly beaten egg 1/4 cup milk, plus 2 to 3 tablespoons, divided 2 cups sifted powdered sugar 1/2 teaspoon vanilla Green and red food coloring 2/3 cup raspberry jam HEAT oven to 375 degrees. COMBINE flour, sugar, cinnamon, baking powder and salt in a medium mixing bowl. Use two butter knives or a pastry cutter to cut butter into the flour mixture until size of small peas. Make a well in the center. Combine egg and 1/4 cup milk; add all at once to the flour-butter mixture. Stir until moistened. ROLL dough to 1/8-inch thickness on a lightly floured surface. Use 2-inch round or star cookie cutter to cut dough. Place on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until the bottom is brown. Cool on a wire rack. PLACE about 1/2 teaspoon raspberry jam on bottom of cookie and top with another cookie. Repeat with remaining cookies. STIR powdered sugar, vanilla and 2 to 3 tablespoons milk in a small bowl to create a glaze. Spread on top of each sandwich cookie. Use a paintbrush to paint a few holly leaves and a stem with the green food coloring and holly berries with the red food coloring. Yield: about 45 sandwich cookies
  • Andes Mint Cookies This recipe won the drop cookie category in The News & Observer Holiday Cookie Contest 2012. From Marielle and Frank Curcio of Wake Forest. 3/4 cup butter or margarine 1 1/2 cups brown sugar, packed 2 tablespoons water 12-ounce package semisweet chocolate chips 2 eggs 2 1/2 cups flour 1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda 1/2 teaspoon salt 3 (4.6-ounce) boxes Andes mints HEAT butter, brown sugar and water in saucepan until butter is melted. Remove from heat and add chocolate chips, stirring until melted. Pour into a large bowl and cool 10 minutes. MIX eggs into chocolate mixture, then add flour, soda and salt and stir just until blended. CHILL dough for an hour. (Don’t worry that the dough seems a little bit oily; it turns out fine once baked.) HEAT oven to 350 degrees. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking pads. Roll dough into 1-inch balls and place 2 inches apart on cookie sheet. BAKE cookies for about 11 minutes or when the small cracks that form on the cookies look a little wet inside. Remove from oven and immediately place an Andes mint on each cookie. After they melt, swirl each one with an offset spatula (think of it like spreading frosting on a cake but with an Andes mint instead). Remove cookies from cookie sheet and let them cool until chocolate is solid. Yield: about 60-70 cookies
  • World Peace Cookies This recipe won the chocolate category in The News & Observer’s Holiday Cookie Contest 2012. From Bruce Nawrocki of Raleigh. This recipe originates from award-winning cookbook author Dorie Greenspan and her book, “Baking: From My Home to Yours” (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1 stick plus 3 tablespoons (11 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature 2/3 cup packed light brown sugar 1/4 cup sugar 1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel or 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract 5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into chips, or a generous 3/4 cup store-bought mini chocolate chips SIFT flour, cocoa and baking soda together. Set aside. BEAT butter on medium speed until soft and creamy in a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl. Add both sugars, salt and vanilla extract and beat for 2 minutes more. Turn off the mixer. POUR in dry ingredients, drape a kitchen towel over the stand mixer to protect yourself and your kitchen from flying flour and pulse mixer at low speed about 5 times, a second or two each time. Take a peek – if there is still a lot of flour on the surface of the dough, pulse a couple of times more; if not, remove the towel. Continuing at low speed, mix for about 30 seconds more, just until the flour disappears into the dough – for the best texture, work the dough as little as possible once the flour is added, and don’t be concerned if the dough looks a little crumbly. Toss in the chocolate pieces and mix only to incorporate. TURN dough out onto a work surface, gather it together and divide it in half. Working with one half at a time, shape the dough into logs that are 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Wrap logs in plastic wrap and refrigerate them for at least 3 hours. (The dough can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 2 months. If you freeze the dough, you will not have to defrost it before baking – just slice the logs into cookies and bake the cookies 1 minute longer.) CENTER a rack in the oven and heat to 325 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats. SLICE logs into rounds that are 1/2 inch thick using a sharp thin knife. (The rounds are likely to crack as you’re cutting them – don’t be concerned, just squeeze the bits back onto each cookie.) Arrange rounds on the baking sheets, leaving about 1 inch between them. BAKE cookies one sheet at a time for 12 minutes – they won’t look done, nor will they be firm, but that’s just the way they should be. Transfer the baking sheet to a cooling rack and let the cookies rest until they are only just warm, at which point you can serve them or let them reach room temperature. Yield: 36 cookies
  • Buckeyes This recipe received an honorable mention in the chocolate category in The News & Observer Holiday Cookie Contest 2012. From Anne Brill of Cary. 2 sticks margarine at room temperature 16-ounce jar creamy peanut butter 1 pound powdered sugar 2 cups finely ground graham crackers 24 ounces semisweet chocolate chips 4 tablespoons shortening MIX peanut butter and margarine together in a medium-sized bowl with an electric mixer until the mixture is creamy. Gradually beat in powdered sugar. Then stir in the graham cracker crumbs, mixing thoroughly. Roll into walnut-sized balls and chill in the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes while you make the dipping chocolate. MELT half of the chocolate chips with 2 tablespoons shortening in either a bowl set over saucepan of simmering water, stirring occasionally, or in the microwave, on high in 20-second intervals, stirring between intervals. (Dipping takes awhile and chocolate can harden so it is best to make dipping chocolate in two batches.) SPEAR each peanut butter ball with a toothpick or small skewer, dip into chocolate, covering 3/4ths of each ball. Place on waxed paper and use your finger to press lightly on the ball, covering the hole left by the toothpick to make it disappear. Chill in refrigerator to set the chocolate coating. Keep in refrigerator, garage or other cool place until ready to serve. Yield: about 70 balls

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

Recipe: Buckeyes

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:

New Zealand Holly Cookies

Andes Mint Cookies

World Peace Cookies

Cream Wafers

Sweet Carolina Biscotti

Buckeyes

Weigl: 919-829-4848

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