It's one thing to win that coveted title of Top Chef. It's another when you're back to compete against the winners from past seasons, each eager to claim ultimate bragging rights.
So instead of looking for new reader recipes for Taste's annual reader cookie exchange this year, we decided to step back and savor the delicious fruits of the recent past. Just since the year 2000, we've vetted and tested our way through hundreds of solicited recipes to give you the goods on about 75 favorite holiday cookies. Of those, which ones sprung to mind to create a "best of the best" plate of cookies for 2007?
The catch, of course, was that we could pick only 10.
The decisions weren't easy. Over just the past seven years, we've published the best cookies from readers in all kinds of categories: Best Fancy, Best Fast, Best Cookie for Santa, Best Classic, even Most Baltimore. We've sampled delicate butter cookies, chunky no-bake cookies, fragile snowballs, stars and twists, colorful mandelbrot, spicy pfeffernusse and dark-chocolate chewies.
Obviously, representing these diverse tastes on our plate of cookies would be key. That led us to our first choice, a rustic Glazed Apple Cookie from 2000 that delivers an ample hit of fresh fruit, along with frosting and nuts for holiday decadence.
Helen M. Radcliffe of Glen Arm, who sent us the recipe seven years ago, told us recently that she's still making this cookie at the age of 83. "It's different, and my family enjoys it," she said.
The same year's cookie issue featured a homemade version of the Berger Cookie from Suzanne Laubheimer of Parkville, which won for "Most Baltimore" cookie. When we baked it again recently, we agreed that this "Berger" mimicked the original very well, with a thick, crusty coating of icing covering a soft sugar cookie.
The following year brought us Cathy LaFleur's White-Chocolate-Dipped Gingersnaps, our pick for 2001's "Best Classic Cookie." The recipe actually had been sent in by LaFleur's neighbor in Bel Air, who loved the recipe so much she'd added it to her own holiday baking repertoire. LaFleur, disaster manager for the Red Cross in Maryland, told us she made about 1,000 cookies a year for friends and family. This spicy, pretty confection, which she got from her mother-in-law, was always one of them.
When we caught up with LaFleur recently, she said she was still keeping up that impressive pace. One of her secrets seems to be starting early. "I already made it this weekend," she said - before Thanksgiving had even come around.
Maria Springer, who runs a cooking school north of Baltimore, said she often uses her Linzer Schnitten - a festive bar cookie we picked from our 2003 cookie exchange - in her pastry classes, because they're quicker to produce than a traditional linzer cookie.
She said by e-mail recently that she came up with the bars this way: "One year I did not have much time to make a quick little pastry and, thought of the Linzer dough. I did not have time to grind the almonds ... so I just left them out. I did not have time to cut out the cookies and sandwich them."
Since then, Springer has come up with a number of variations for the bars. Sometimes she divides one cookie sheet into four sections with different types of jam. Sometimes she adds Droste cocoa powder to the dough for a chocolate version. Sometimes the cookies are cut in diamonds, sometimes in squares. And she sometimes adds almonds to the pastry, which makes it "softer and a little more crumbly."
Pam Polcaro's Walnut Cups, a pick from 2004, are still a hit with her family. The Elkridge mother of four got the recipe from Gourmet magazine in 1993, the year she got married. "They're just so good, and they're so special," she said. "It's almost like a little bite-sized pie." They also can be made with pecans, she said. (Another bonus: They freeze well.)
Austrian Twists from the same year, sent by Cheryl West of Lisbon, were another memorable fancy cookie. The simple dough is filled with a mix of sugar, pecans and cinnamon, rolled up crescent-style and drizzled with a sweet glaze.
We thought 2005 was an especially good year, with three recipes worth repeating. Donna Macek's soft, fudgy Espresso Thumbprints, which she found in a supermarket magazine, were such a favorite that one of our staffers had already incorporated it into her holiday baking. They'll satisfy lovers of both chocolate and coffee, with a grown-up hit of liqueur in the filling and a sprinkling of peppermint candy.
"I absolutely must make at least three batches during the holidays because they go so fast," Macek told us recently.
When we told Randi Braman we had selected her MomMom Shelly's Chocolate-Chip Mandelbrot to publish again, she said she'd just made them the day before. "It's still a big hit; it's still a staple," the doctor said of her mother's recipe, which features chocolate chips and maraschino cherries in a soft, festive cookie that's perfect for Hanukkah or Christmas.
We also particularly liked Liz Barclay's Cranberry-Orange Blondies from the same year. The frequent cooking-contest competitor, who lives in Annapolis, told us she's still making the blondies because she loves the combination of cranberries and citrus. "It's a great item to give away, easy to make and a little bit unique," she said.
And from 2006, we picked a traditional cookie with a trendy twist - the dainty Rosemary Butter Cookies that Meghan Murphy and Evan Hoffman of Parkville made for their wedding. The Martha Stewart recipe appealed to them because rosemary is a symbol for remembrance. We liked the savory surprise of the herb in the dainty cookie.
Glazed Apple Cookies
Makes 5 dozen
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 cup butter
1 1/3 cups brown sugar
1/4 cup milk
1 cup raisins
1 cup chopped, peeled apples
1 cup nuts
1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/2 tablespoons milk
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Sift flour, baking soda, salt and spices and set aside. In a separate bowl, cream butter and brown sugar; add egg. Stir in dry ingredients. Add milk and mix well. Stir in the raisins, apples and nuts.
Drop by teaspoon on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for 12 minutes. To make icing, combine confectioners' sugar, butter, vanilla and milk. Spread over cooled cookies.
Helen M. Radcliffe, Glen Arm
Per cookie:85 calories, 1 gram protein, 3 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 14 grams carbohydrate, trace fiber, 8 milligrams cholesterol, 45 milligrams sodium
Suzanne Laubheimer's Version of the Famous Berger Cookie
Makes about 4 1/2 dozen
1 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
3/4 cup granulated sugar (divided use)
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
3 cups chocolate chips
Beat butter, confectioners' sugar, 1/2 cup granulated sugar and salt in a bowl until well blended. Add egg and vanilla.
Beat until light and fluffy. Sift flour, baking soda and cream of tartar and stir into creamed mixture. Chill about 2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Shape dough into 1-inch balls; place 2 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheet. Press to flatten with a glass buttered on the bottom and dipped in remaining 1/4 cup granulated sugar. Rebutter if necessary and dip in sugar each time. Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until light brown on the edge.
When cookies are cool, melt chocolate chips in a small, heavy-duty saucepan over lowest heat possible; stir. When chips begin to melt, remove from heat and stir. Return to heat for a few seconds at a time, stirring until smooth, then ice cookies.
Note: Don't make cookies on a damp, rainy day because it takes too long for icing to set.
Suzanne Laubheimer, Parkville
Per cookie: 117 calories, 1 gram protein, 6 grams fat, 4 grams saturated fat, 14 grams carbohydrate, trace fiber, 15 milligrams cholesterol, 26 milligrams sodium
Makes about 6 dozen
2 cups sugar, plus sugar for rolling
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
1/2 cup molasses
4 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking soda
1 tablespoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
two 12-ounce packages vanilla baking chips
1/4 cup shortening
Combine 2 cups sugar and oil; mix well. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in molasses. In another bowl, combine dry ingredients and add to molasses mixture and mix well.
Shape into 3/4-inch balls and roll in sugar. Place 2 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheet.
Bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes or until cookie springs back when touched lightly. Remove to wire rack to cool. Melt chips and shortening over low heat or double boiler (don't boil water in double boiler). Dip the cookies halfway; shake off excess. Place on waxed baking sheets to harden.
Cathy LaFleur, Bel Air
Per cookie: 153 calories, 2 grams protein, 8 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 18 grams carbohydrate, 0 grams fiber, 6 milligrams cholesterol, 124 milligrams sodium
Makes about 40 half-inch slices
2 1/2 cups flour
2/3 cup sugar
1 cup butter (2 sticks)
zest of 1/2 lemon
vegetable shortening for greasing pan
2 cups of your favorite jam
powdered sugar for dusting
Process flour, sugar, butter, lemon zest and egg in food processor to make a dough. Let it rest in refrigerator for 30 minutes. Brush cookie sheet lightly with shortening -- do not use oil or cooking spray. Divide dough in half.
Press half of the dough into the pan with your fingers. Brush or use a spatula to spread the jam on top of the cookie dough. Sprinkle with nuts, if desired.
Roll remaining dough into thin ropes/strings about 1/2 inch thick and place diagonally/crisscross over the jam and nuts (if using) to create a lattice over the whole pan.
Bake in a 375-degree oven until lightly browned. When cooled, cut into bars and dust with powdered sugar.
Maria Springer, Phoenix
Per cookie: 122 calories, 1 gram protein, 5 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 20 grams carbohydrate, 0 grams fiber, 17 milligrams cholesterol, 9 milligrams sodium
Makes 2 to 3 dozen cookies
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened, plus 1 tablespoon, melted and cooled (divided use)
3 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped fine
In a bowl of an electric mixer, cream 1 stick of the butter with the cream cheese until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the flour and salt and beat the mixture until it forms a dough.
Shape the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic and chill for 30 minutes.
Press rounded teaspoons of the dough into mini-muffin tins and work the dough evenly onto the bottoms and up the sides of the tins (by hand or with a mini tart shaper) to form 1/8-inch-thick shells.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a bowl, whisk together the egg, the brown sugar, the melted butter and the vanilla until the mixture is combined well.
Divide the filling among the shells, sprinkle it with the walnuts and bake the cups in the middle of the oven for 15 minutes to 20 minutes, or until the crusts are golden.
Let the cookies cool in the tins on racks for 10 minutes, remove them from the tins carefully and let them cool completely on the racks.
Pam Polcaro, Elkridge
Per cookie: 83 calories, 1 gram protein, 5 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat, 9 grams carbohydrate, 0 grams fiber, 16 milligrams cholesterol, 44 milligrams sodium
Makes about 5 dozen cookies
1 package dry yeast
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup butter, softened
3 egg yolks
one 8-ounce carton sour cream
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups powdered sugar
3 tablespoons milk
Combine yeast and flour; add butter, mixing well with hands. Stir in egg yolks and sour cream. Shape dough into 4 balls; wrap in waxed paper and refrigerate overnight.
To make the filling: Combine sugar, pecans and cinnamon.
Set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Work with 1 portion of dough at a time.
Place on a lightly floured surface and roll into a 1/4-inch thick circle. Spread 1/4 cup of the sugar mixture evenly over circle and cut into 16 equal wedges.
Roll up each wedge, beginning at the wide end and rolling to a point. Seal points firmly. Place on greased baking sheets, point side down. Bake for 18 minutes or until lightly browned. Transfer to wire racks. For glaze, mix powdered sugar and milk until smooth. Drizzle over twists while they're still warm.
Cheryl West, Lisbon
Per cookie: 84 calories, 1 gram protein, 5 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat, 10 grams carbohydrate, 0 grams fiber, 19 milligrams cholesterol, 23 milligrams sodium
Rosemary Butter Cookies
Makes about 5 dozen
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary (not dried)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup coarse or sanding sugar (available in cake- or food specialty stores)
In the bowl of an electric mixer, mix butter and granulated sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Mix in egg and vanilla. Add flour, rosemary and salt; mix on low speed until incorporated. Divide dough in half; shape each piece into a log. Place each log on a 12-inch by-16-inch piece of parchment. Roll in parchment to 1 1/2 inches in diameter, pressing a ruler along the edge of parchment at each turn to narrow log and force out air. Transfer to paper towel tubes. Freeze 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Roll logs in sanding sugar; slice 1/4 inch thick. Arrange 1 inch apart on prepared sheet. Bake until edges are golden, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer to wire racks and let cool.
Meghan Murphy and Evan Hoffman, Parkville
Per cookie: 63 calories, 1 gram protein, 3 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat, 8 grams carbohydrate, 0 grams fiber, 12 milligrams cholesterol, 31 milligrams sodium
Mom Mom Shelly's Chocolate-Chip Mandlebrot
Makes about 3 dozen
1/2 cup oil
1 cup sugar
2 heaping cups flour
1 cup chocolate chips
1 teaspoon vanilla
small jar of maraschino cherries, cut up
pinch of baking soda
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. Shape into 3 long loaves.
Bake at 350 degrees on lightly greased cookie sheets for 25 to 30 minutes. Slice and separate pieces; return to oven for 5 to 10 minutes to crisp a little.
Randi Braman, Owings Mills
Per cookie: 113 calories, 2 grams protein, 5 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 16 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 19 milligrams cholesterol, 12 milligrams sodium
Makes 4 dozen
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups dried cranberries
3/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 cup white-chocolate baking morsels
1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1/2 cup whole milk
1 cup chopped pecans
1 1/2 cups sifted confectioners' sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 teaspoons grated fresh orange rind
2 to 3 tablespoons whole milk grated fresh orange rind, as garnish (optional)
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Oil a 15-inch-by-10-inch-by-1-inch jellyroll pan. Sift flour with baking soda and salt and set aside.
In medium-sized saucepan, combine cranberries, brown sugar, water and butter. Cook over low heat for 5 minutes, stirring until cranberries soften. Remove from heat.
Place in large mixing bowl and stir in white chocolate morsels until melted. Beat in eggs until combined.
Alternately add sifted flour mixture with orange juice and milk. Blend until smooth after each addition. Stir in pecans.
Spread evenly into prepared baking pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool.
In medium mixing bowl, combine sugar, butter and orange rind. Add milk and blend until of smooth consistency. Spread evenly over cooled blondies. Garnish with grated orange rind, if desired.
Liz Barclay, Annapolis
Per cookie: 110 calories, 1 gram protein, 6 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat, 15 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 16 milligrams cholesterol, 53 milligrams sodium
Espresso Thumbprint Cookies
Makes about 31/2 dozen
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons baking cocoa
1/4 teaspoon salt
Espresso Filling (see recipe)
candy sprinkles or crushed hard peppermint candies (optional)
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Beat sugar, butter, vanilla and egg in a large bowl with electric mixer on medium speed, or mix with spoon. Stir in flour, cocoa and salt. Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Place about 2 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheet. Press thumb or end of a wooden spoon into the center of each cookie. Do not press all the way to the cookie sheet.
Bake 7 minutes to 11 minutes or until edges are firm. Quickly remake indentations with the end of a wooden spoon if necessary. Immediately remove from cookie sheet to wire rack.
Cool completely, about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, make Espresso Filling.
Spoon a rounded 1/2 teaspoon Espresso Filling into indentation in each cookie. Top with candy sprinkles, if desired.
1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
2 teaspoons instant espresso coffee (dry)
1 cup milk-chocolate chips
1 tablespoon coffee-flavored liqueur (optional)
Mix whipping cream and instant coffee in 1-quart saucepan. Heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until steaming and coffee is dissolved. Remove from heat; stir in chocolate chips until melted. Stir in liqueur, if desired. Cool about 10 minutes or until thickened.
Donna Macek, Towson
Per cookie: 90 calories, 1 gram protein, 5 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 10 grams carbohydrate, 0 grams fiber, 16 milligrams cholesterol, 42 milligrams sodium