For the past few weeks, my food section colleagues and friends and I rolled, cut, shaped, decorated and baked holiday cookies. It was a daunting but rewarding task and testament to how much Pittsburghers love their holiday cookies.
We received more than 140 recipes from readers who entered our first Holiday Cookie Contest. I had the seemingly impossible task of narrowing that down to about two dozen of the best-sounding ones. Every time I tried to cut the number of keepers, I wanted to keep more. (I love to bake, and trying new recipes is almost as enjoyable as tasting new cookies.) But, sticking to our ground rules, I eliminated old standards and similar-sounding cookies and was able to come up with two dozen interesting ones to test.
Our testers were staff writer Gretchen McKay, Sauce columnist Margi Shrum, copy editor Karen Carlin, food editor Bob Batz Jr. and me. I baked most of them. We had to do all the work, but we also had the pleasure of taste-testing the wonderful, beautiful cookies.
I've been baking and testing recipes for at least 13 years now, and I've made mistakes along the way. But for each mistake, I learned something new about the chemistry of baking. Here are a few rules I follow.
1. If you're trying a new recipe, read it thoroughly before you begin. Make sure you have all the ingredients and you understand the recipe completely.
2. Baking batches and batches of cookies during the holidays can be hectic. I measure out and label the ingredients for each recipe ahead of time. I store the dry ingredients in plastic bags and wet or liquid ingredients in plastic jars or containers. When I'm ready to bake, everything is measured.
3. I always use butter (room temperature) even if the recipe calls for margarine.
4. Measure flour carefully. There are different opinions on how to measure flour and what works best -- sifting before measuring; fluffing the flour a little, then spooning it into a measuring cup and leveling off; or using a scale to weigh the flour. But just dipping a measuring cup and scooping out the flour can result in too much, which may produce cookies that are dry, heavy and flavorless. I fluff the flour and then spoon it into my measuring cup.
5. When I make drop cookies, I use a cookie scoop. The scoop releases the dough easily and all the cookies are the same size. Cookie scoops come in different sizes from 1 1/2 tablespoons to 3 tablespoons.
6. Last but not least, I always use an oven thermometer.
-- Arlene Burnett
Our judging guidelines were taste, eye appeal and creativity, and we wanted our winners to be a nice mix.
Co-workers stared longingly through the glass wall of the conference room where we spread out platters and plates of cookies, which were beautiful to look at. We hit them hard and didn't mince words, unless maybe we were talking with our mouths full.
Gretchen: "Kids will love these!"
Karen: "There's some serious alcohol in here."
Bob: "Those are the ones I really wanted to try."
Bill Wade photographed the spread as well as each cookie as we munched along.
We managed to keep the moochers at bay until we agreed on our winning cookie and five runners-up. (We were surprisingly in synch on our favorites.) Then we invited the entire office in, and they devoured the rest, leaving only trails of crumbs.
First Place: Scottish Empire Biscuits from Nancy Conley of West Mifflin. (Her recipe is below.)
We all thought these were great at first taste, but also gave them points for how they look: The red and white cookies were among the most holiday-looking in our assortment. (Pittsburghers make every sort of cookie this time of year, not just "holiday" ones.)
So our $100 prize goes to Mrs. Conley.
"I won first place and $100? That's wonderful!" she exclaimed at the news. "My mother made these cookies for the Folk Festival when it was at the Syria Mosque, a long time ago -- about 50 years. She taught me how to make the cookies, and now I make them every Christmas."
We'll be sending baking books to our five runners-up (we'd planned to pick only three, but we just couldn't). The winning cookies are, in no particular order:
• Zaletti (Italian Christmas Cornmeal Cookies) from Marci Woodruff of Squirrel Hill.
• Butterscotch Lace Cookies from Aimee McMahon of Penn Hills.
• Chocolate Raspberry Crumb Bars from Sharon McAndrews of Kennedy.
• Lemon Ricotta Cookies from Pearl Ehrenberger of Carnegie.
• Orange Coconut Tartlets from Shirley Ricci of Cranberry.
Click the names for recipes.
Those and some of the others we tested are linked on the left.
Next week, we'll also run more of the recipes we tested.
We know that the dozens of other recipes are very special to those who submitted them, and winners, too. Several of them have been family favorites for generations. One submission arrived with a photocopy of a family photo.
To everyone who participated in our contest, thank you.
And happy holidays.
• First-prize winner: Nancy Conley, West Mifflin
"My mother made these all the time for the Folk Festival."
- 1 egg
- 2 cups flour
- 1/4 pound butter (1 stick), room temperature
- 4 tablespoons sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- Small jar cherry jelly or your favorite flavor
- Icing (see below)
- 1 jar maraschino cherries, drained and cut in half
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Mix egg, flour, butter, sugar and baking powder.
Knead to form a soft, smooth dough. Roll dough on a floured surface or between sheets of parchment or wax paper to about 1/8 inch thickness.
Cut out circles with a floured cookie cutter (about 2 inches). Place cookies about 1 inch apart on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.
Bake about 10 to 15 minutes or until cookies are slightly golden around the edges. Cool completely.
Spread the bottom of one cookie with about 1/2 teaspoon of cherry jelly. Place another cookie over the jelly. Spread cookie with icing. Place cherry halves in the center of each cookie.
Makes about 1 to 1 1/2 dozen. Recipe can be doubled.
For the icing
- 1 cup powdered sugar
- 4 tablespoons butter, softened
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
- Pinch salt if desired
- 1 3/4 tablespoon milk
Mix together sugar, butter, vanilla and salt and add milk to spreading consistency.
-- Nancy Conley, West Mifflin
Arlene Burnett can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1577. First Published December 4, 2008 5:00 AM