Just three weeks ago I was wandering the main shopping street in the old town of Heidelberg, Germany, when a lovely sight made me think of you and the community of readers and colleagues who make this section possible each year.
There, in the window of a corner bakery, was a stunning display of typical European cookies, many of them of German origin. Some I knew, like the star-shaped and iced zimtsterne and very familiar thumbprints, and others were new to me, the tiny chocolate neros and finger-shaped sandwich cookies called maltesers.
I bought a bag full to nosh and another one to give the young German program director on the Viking Jarl, the boat on which we were cruising down the picturesque Rhine River. What better way to say thank-you than with beloved cookies? Perhaps they would remind him of his mutti back at home in Cologne.
Cookie traditions run deep in families, spanning generations and miles. Today marks the 12th year that we've been running readers' favorites cookie recipes. Twelve years! That's difficult to believe. I am so grateful to the readers and colleagues who have helped forge new traditions for thousands of people. After all, not all of us come from a family of bakers.
Even after all these years, when the call for recipes goes out in August, you respond enthusiastically. Again we received about 500 recipes, many of them painstakingly written by hand. For that, I thank each and every one of you.
Culling the pile to about 30 for testing is never easy. Chief recipe tester Karen Pryslopski, who is a photo assignment editor at the Tampa Bay Times, and I spent about five hours on a late September Saturday with coffee and discerning eyes to pick out the best to try.
After a dozen years, we easily spot recipes that we've already published. That list grows each year. Those that are too fussy or require ultra-pricey ingredients and special equipment, likewise, don't make the cut.
Our goal is to find two dozen diverse recipes that are fairly simple to make. We shy away from snickerdoodles, sugar cookies, gingerbread and the like because those recipes are readily available from many sources.
With an assist from newsroom staffers Barbara Moch and Michelle Stark, the cookies were all tested by the end of October, leaving time for designer Brittany Volk and photographer Scott Keeler to work their magic.
We also present on the Web all the selected recipes, with photos, of the 12th annual Christmas cookies package with shareable links to Facebook and more.
When we pore over the submissions, we look for a mix of drop cookies and bars, iced and plain, plus those with nuts and those without. And we make sure there are chocolate entries. We always seek out a no-bake, this year Tropical Cookie Balls from Doris Carter of Tampa. It is a soft, flavorful cookie fueled by coconut, rum flavoring and a heaping helping of diced tropical fruit.
This may sound odd, but sometimes we test cookies that we don't particularly like in the end, but they still make the cut. That's because our newsroom tasters love them. We try to put our own likes aside (Karen is a fiend for coconut and I would eat anything with peanut butter) and consider how each cookie would play on the platter. We want a mix of shapes, textures and, of course, flavors.
Some cookies are simply good, like the Shortbread Cutouts, a recipe sent in by Gail Sloan of Tampa. We imagine them with a cup of tea on Christmas afternoon. Some are trendy, such as Sea-Salted Coffee Toffee Bars from Deborah Roy Harrington of Seminole. Others are a bit messy and chock-full of goodness, like the PB&J Bars recipe contributed by Karen.
Even though we've done this many times, we are still surprised at which entries turn out to be our favorites.
This year, we fell in love with the Rosemary Apricot Squares from Mary-Ann Janssen of Dunedin. The cookie base includes fresh, minced rosemary that lends a slight savoriness. Instead of the usual preserves, the apricot filling is made from stewing dried apricots in brandy, among other things. At first, we wondered why we couldn't just use a prepared ingredient (always thinking of shortcuts), but following the recipe results in a sticky-sweet filling, similar to the consistency of the middle of a Fig Newton. Preserves would not provide the depth of flavor or consistency.
Another submission that surprised us was the Cherry Walnut Bars from Marj Talbott of Spring Hill. It almost looks like something you'd make for Valentine's Day. The flavor is fabulous and they'll serve a lot. Their sweetness begs them to be cut small.
The hands-down surprise favorite in the newsroom this year: the so-called Almond Cookies from Norma Jean Browning Hauer and sent in by her daughter, Shary Hauer of Clearwater Beach. We changed the name to Almond Delights since that's a more appropriate description of the end result, plus the shape is more bar than cookie. But whatever you call them, they will get high praise. The buttery cookie base is baked briefly then topped with an egg-white meringue sweetened with brown sugar and flavored with almond extract. Baked a bit more, the top becomes delicate and crackly, almost like the trendy French macaron.
It may not be the most gorgeous cookie you've ever seen — we cut them in wedges for fun — but trust us, they are divine.
In yet another, but sweet, variation of the all-of-the-sudden everywhere British World War II slogan — keep calm, bake cookies and let's add one more thing: Create traditions. I like to think we've given you a head start.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.