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Nuts, cherries, brandy lend their flavors to cookie contest winners

Clockwise from top left: Cherry Pinwheels, Almond Ricotta Bars, Brandy Cherry Cookies and Pistacio Pinecones. (Minneapolis Star-Tribune)
Clockwise from top left: Cherry Pinwheels, Almond Ricotta Bars, Brandy Cherry Cookies and Pistacio Pinecones. (Minneapolis Star-Tribune)
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Since 2003, the Star Tribune’s Taste Holiday Cookie Contest has been shining a spotlight on wonderful recipes. And some memorable stories, too.

The top cookies in this year’s contest: Cherry Pinwheels, Brandy Cherry Cookies, Pistachio Pinecones and Almond Ricotta Bars. (Nut Goodie Thumbprints also won, but Nut Goodie candy bars can be difficult to find outside of the Midwest). The recipes are all below.

Happy holidays to one and all, and happy baking.

CHERRY PINWHEELS

Baker: Pam Hopf of Edina, Minnesota

Why we love it: Festive and tasty, these beauties stand out on a cookie tray, and they’re surprisingly easy to prepare.

Our suggestion: Not a fan of cherry? Just about any fruit preserve — lingonberry, apricot, raspberry — works with this festive cookie. “The original recipe called for Damson Plum,” she said. “But that’s more purple, and I wanted something red. I don’t like baked strawberry, but I think that cherry is pretty.”

THE RECIPE

Makes about 2 dozen cookies.

Taste Tip: This dough must be prepared in advance. Dough can be prepared up to 2 days in advance and refrigerated, or wrapped in plastic wrap and then aluminum foil and frozen for up to a month. From a recipe in Gourmet magazine.

2 1/2 cups flour, plus extra for rolling dough

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

1 cup granulated sugar

1 egg, separated

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/3 cup cherry preserves

2 tablespoons decorative sugar

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, salt and cardamom, and reserve.

In a bowl of an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat butter, cream cheese and granulated sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add egg yolk and vanilla extract, and beat until thoroughly combined. Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture in 3 batches, mixing just until combined and dough forms. Divide dough into 4 equal pieces, flatten each piece into a block, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, at least 2 to 3 hours.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper.

On a lightly floured surface using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll dough blocks (1 at a time, keeping remaining dough refrigerated until ready to roll) to 1/4-inch thickness. Working quickly (dough is easiest to work with when chilled), trim edges to make 8- by 12-inch rectangle. Rewrap scraps in plastic and chill, until ready to re-roll.

Using a pastry wheel, cut rectangle into 2-inch squares. Using a spatula, transfer squares to prepared baking sheets, placing 2 inches apart. With a small knife, carefully make a 1-inch-long cut in 1 square, from tip of each corner in toward center, halving each corner (you will have 8 points). With tip of knife, lift every other point and gently fold into the center (forming a pinwheel), overlapping ends slightly. Press center lightly to form a small well. Brush cookies with a lightly beaten egg white. Place 1/2 teaspoon jam in center and sprinkle with decorative sugar. Repeat process with remaining chilled dough and scrapes.

Bake until edges are pale and golden, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from oven and cool 5 minutes before transferring cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.

BRANDY CHERRY COOKIES

Baker: Kathleen Sonsteng of Laporte, Minnesota

Why we love it: The secret to this tender sugar cookie? Brandy-soaked cherries, with a hint of Chinese five-spice powder.

Our suggestion: Experiment with different varieties of fruit brandy. We tried Calvados (apple brandy), and loved the results. We also found that refrigerating the dough — a step that Sonsteng skips — helps the cookies hold their shape.

THE RECIPE

Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

Taste Tip: This dough must be prepared in advance. Five-spice powder is a blend of equal parts cinnamon, cloves, fennel seed, star anise and Szechuan peppercorns and is available in the spice aisles of most supermarkets. If cherries are large, chop them. From a recipe in Country Home magazine.

1 cup dried cherries

1/2 cup brandy

2 1/2 cups flour, plus extra for dough, if necessary

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon five-spice powder

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup sugar, divided

1 egg

1 egg yolk

In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine dried cherries and brandy. When brandy starts to simmer, remove from heat and let stand for 30 minutes. Drain, reserving both cherries and liquid.

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, salt and five-spice powder, and reserve.

In a bowl of an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat butter until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add 3/4 cup sugar and beat until thoroughly combined, about 1 minute. Add egg, egg yolk and 2 teaspoons of the reserved brandy liquid (discard remaining liquid), and beat until thoroughly combined. Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture, mixing just until combined. Do not overmix (if dough is sticky, add more flour, 1 tablespoon at a time; you need to be able to roll dough into balls in your hands). Stir in drained cherries. Shape dough into 1-inch balls and refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper.

Place remaining 1/4 cup sugar into a shallow bowl. Roll dough balls in remaining 1/4 cup sugar to coat. Place dough 1 inch apart on prepared baking sheets. Bake until lightly browned and set on the edges, about 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from oven and cool 2 minutes before transferring cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.

PISTACHIO PINECONES

Baker: Linda McEwen of Mahtomedi, Minnesota

Why we love it: A simple cut-and-bake formula, dressed up for the holidays with pistachios and white chocolate.

Gluten-free: McEwen has prepared this recipe using her favorite gluten-free flour mix (it’s the Cup4Cup brand, available at Williams-Sonoma and many Target stores), and was pleased with the results. “You can’t tell the difference,” she said.

THE RECIPE

Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

Taste Tip: This dough must be prepared in advance. If salted, dry-roasted pistachios are unavailable, toast and salt them yourself. To do so, place nuts in a dry skillet over medium heat, sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring or shaking the pan frequently, until they just begin to release their fragrance, about 2 to 3 minutes (or preheat oven to 325 degrees, spread nuts on an ungreased baking sheet, sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and bake, stirring often, for 4 to 6 minutes). Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. From a recipe in Midwest Living magazine.

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 vanilla bean

2 cups flour

2 cups finely chopped salted, dry-roasted pistachios, divided

12 ounces white chocolate

1 tablespoon vegetable shortening

In a bowl of an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat butter for 30 seconds. Add sugar, vanilla extract and salt, and beat until just combined, scraping sides of bowl occasionally. Split vanilla bean in half lengthwise. Using the tip of a paring knife, scrape seeds from bean into the butter mixture, and beat until thoroughly combined. Reduce speed to low, add flour in 1/2 cup increments and mix just until combined. Stir in 1 cup of pistachios.

Divide dough in half and shape each half into logs measuring 1 1/2-inches in diameter, giving log an oval shape (one with distinctive wider and narrower ends) so that cut cookies will resemble pine cone shape. Wrap each log in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 hours or up to 2 days.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper.

Using a thin-bladed knife, slice chilled logs into 1/4-inch slices. Place dough slices 1 inch apart on prepared baking sheets. Bake until just firm and browned on the bottoms, about 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from oven and cool 2 minutes before transferring cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.

In a microwave-safe bowl (or in a double-boiler over gently simmering water), melt white chocolate and shortening and stir to combine. Place remaining 2 cups chopped pistachios in a wide bowl. Dip the wider end of each cookie in melted white chocolate (to resemble a pine cone), then dip in the pistachios. Transfer cookies to waxed paper and let stand until set.

ALMOND RICOTTA BARS

Baker: Karen Cope of Minneapolis.

Why we love it: Kringle lovers — and cream cheese fans — will love these rich, elegant, almond-packed treats.

It started at the mall: A lemon ricotta cookie encountered at the Mall of America’s Nordstrom Cafe sparked Cope’s imagination. She test-drove a few versions and ultimately decided to go the bar cookie route, adding an icing and then playing with flavors.

THE RECIPE

Makes about 4 dozen bar cookies.

Taste Tip: To toast almonds, place nuts in a dry skillet over medium heat, and cook, stirring or shaking the pan frequently, until they just begin to release their fragrance, about 2 to 3 minutes (or preheat oven to 325 degrees, spread nuts on an ungreased baking sheet and bake, stirring often, for 4 to 6 minutes). Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.

For bars:

2 1/2 cups flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra for pan

2 cups granulated sugar

2 eggs

2 teaspoons almond extract

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 (15-ounce) container whole-milk ricotta cheese

For frosting:

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature

4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

3 cups powdered sugar

1 teaspoon almond extract

1/2 cup sliced almonds, toasted (see Taste Tip)

To prepare bars:

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter bottom and sides of a 13- by 18-inch half-sheet pan.

In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder and salt, and reserve.

In a bowl of an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat 2 sticks butter and granulated sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat until thoroughly combined. Add 2 teaspoons almond extract and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, and beat until thoroughly combined. Reduce speed to low, add ricotta in 3 additions. Gradually add flour mixture and mix until just combined.

Spread batter in prepared pan and bake until cake is set, lightly golden and the edges start pulling away from sides of pan, about 35 to 45 minutes. Remove from oven and transfer pan to a wire rack to cool completely.

To prepare frosting:

In a bowl of an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat 1 stick butter and cream cheese until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Reduce speed to low, add powdered sugar and 1 teaspoon almond extract, and mix until uniform and creamy. Spread frosting over cooled bar cookies, slice into squares and top squares with toasted almonds.

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