With this year’s extra-cold Minnesota fall, many of us have already had a hankering to turn on our ovens and bake. Just in time, Lee Svitak Dean and Rick Nelson have published The Great Minnesota Cookie Book: Award-winning recipes from the Star Tribune’s holiday cookie contest. It is full of recipes to warm our kitchens and hearts.
Star Tribune columnist/reporter Rick Nelson recently spoke with Northern Community Radio’s Maggie Montgomery and Katie Carter about his new book and told us about the history of the cookie contest that inspired it:
“In 2003, for some reason I had discovered the Taste archive, which has a copy of every issue of Taste that’s been published since October 1969 when the section debuted. They were in all of these boxes, and I started unearthing all the boxes and I was so fascinated by the way the section looked and the way the section read in the 70s and the 80s. There were so many reader interaction components to it which we don’t have today, in part because of the web.
“So we were kind of approaching the holidays (because as you know in a food section the holidays are very important the whole year; we kind of time our entire schedule around a lot of holidays). We were thinking, ‘How do we approach baking in December?’ And I just kind of thought back to those Taste sections and thought, ‘Why don’t we have a reader recipe contest as a way to pay homage to that tradition in Taste?’ Everyone at the table around me kind of nodded their head, mostly because they thought, ‘Oh great, that’s something you’ll do.’
“And as it happened it was something that I did. I worked very closely with Lee, my editor, and we thought that it’d be a fun kind of a thing. It was such a hit that first year that we thought, ‘Well, we’d better do it again’ that next year, and it was an even bigger hit the next year, and the next year, and the next year. And here we are. On Saturday we’re going to be going through 20 recipes for our 16th annual holiday cookie contest.
“One way we’ve measured the big deal it’s become—I think three years ago the Star Tribune left its longtime home and moved into this office building that has this really big atrium on the first floor—we connected with a bakery. On the day we announced our cookie contest winners, that bakery baked about 600 versions of each one of those 5 cookies and we gave them away in our atrium. It is a mob scene!
“This year [the contest] had about 200 entries. We usually average between 150 and 300 entries. We spent last weekend going through all of our entries, sorting them out, looking at which ones kind of resembled the ones we already have in our arsenal of recipes, or looking at the ingredients and saying ‘You know, pistachio pudding mix really shouldn’t be an ingredient in a cookie.’ So we kind of set those aside and we came up with 20 that we really wanted to try. Those are being baked for us by a bunch of bakers. We’re convening on Saturday morning and we’re going to taste test all 20 of them and pick our winner and our 4 finalists from there.
“We have a bunch of criteria that we look at. One, flat out: is it delicious? And two: what does it look like? A lot of people bake with the thought of making a cookie platter, so you want to bake a cookie that’s going to jump right off that platter visually. Is it something that no one’s ever seen before? The goal of our contest is to give our readers recipes they are unfamiliar with and that they can add to their baking arsenal. Also, we really love the stories behind the cookies. We’re journalists and we love to tell stories. So while we’re going through the judging contest, Lee and I will tell the other judges, ‘So here’s the story behind this cookie; isn’t it fascinating?’ That can play a little role as well.
In the interview below, Rick Nelson explains what’s inside the book, discusses cookie trends over the past 15 years and tells us about the cookie that should have been a winner but wasn’t. You’ll want to listen to the whole thing!