Christmas Cookie Challenge review: Homemade Holidays


It’s that time of the year again- baking and eating season! Returning to Food Network is the Christmas Cookie Challenge. Each episode, five experts in cookie making and decorating compete in two challenges for a grand prize of ten thousand dollars.

Every year, I make cookies as soon as fall weather even hints at being in the air. My most popular is a pumpkin whoopie pie. A couple of years ago, I wanted to up my cookie game so I took a class on decorating with Chef Marc Rosenkoetter and Kimie Ono. Imagine my excitement when Marc went on the Christmas Cookie Challenge last year! He didn’t win, but this Food Network show holds a special place for me based on my love of baking and seeing Marc on TV.

Host Eddie Jackson kicks things off by introducing the “homemade” theme. For the first round, the decorating challenge, each baker must create cookies that look like realistic homemade gifts. They need to mimic at least two types of material such as paper, wood, glass, or metal. They will have ninety minutes. Really fancy decoration takes time as you need the icing to dry, so those ninety minutes will fly by.

Ashley Landerman is a bakery owner from Texas. She started her career as a chef and transitioned to cookie making thirteen years ago so she brings a lot of experience to the table. She is making a citrus sugar cookie, using orange, lemon and lime zest.

Her first cookie is a postcard. For this she uses a simple square cookie. To give it a more paper-like appearance, she pipes a wavy line of white icing, like paper cut with special scissors. She then creates the postcard scene- a red truck carrying a Christmas tree.

Her second cookie is meant to represent a stained glass ornament. Ashley demonstrates amazing piping skill when she hand-pipes all her cookies with an intricate design in black to mimic the lead in stained glass. She then floods inside those black lines with bright colors to form an image of a candle. To add even more dimension, she mixes airbrush dye with grain alcohol for a watercolor effect over the top of her icing.

Alex Copeland, a home bakery owner from Ohio, holds cookie parties in drag. His parties sound like a blast as decorators get to spend the day with “Plenty O’Smiles,” the cookie decorating queen. Sadly, his fun personality does not show up in his cookie choice as he is making vanilla sugar cookies.

Alex’s first cookie will be a rocking horse. First he floods the cookie with icing for a base, and then, using a paintbrush and food coloring, he lightly adds fine lines of darker brown. It really does look like woodgrain. He then adds a dark brown mane and tail, making sure to give it movement.

Alex’s second cookie is a knitted cap. To demonstrate the knitted texture, he pipes vertical lines and then little horizontal lines over that. He finishes the cap with a swirled white icing pompom.

Sara Bogart is a home bakery owner from Colorado. She too is making a vanilla sugar cookie. She rolls her dough super thick, saying the more cookie, the better. Her extra thick cookies prove to be a problem in the timed challenge, though. While everyone else has their cookies out of the oven and is working on decoration, she is still waiting. As she obsessively opens her oven, Eddie tells her, “if you keep lookin’, you not cooking.” She finally gets them out with forty-seven minutes left which is not much time to cool and decorate them.

Sara decorates one cookie to resemble a pickle jar snow globe. She floods the cookie with blue icing and pipes on a green tree for the scene in the globe. She pipes the green on her wet blue icing so that it sinks in, and then goes over the tree again with a darker icing once dried so it has a more 3-D effect. She adds pearl sprinkles for the snow in her globe.

Her second cookie is supposed to be a cookie cutter ornament. She is clearly into recycling. She starts by piping a gray border around her star-shaped cookie to represent the cutter. She then uses icing to glue a small tree to the center of the star, adds a metallic shimmer with luster dust, and hangs the whole thing up.

Marlyn Birmingham is a home bakery owner from Canada. She creates online cookie decorating tutorials and wonders if she has “contributed to training the enemy.” She is making a dark chocolate cookie. To create a knitted mitten, she floods her cookie with light blue and then immediately adds white lines that sink into the blue. She quickly drags a needle through the lines for a bit of a knitted look, and then to reinforce that, she pipes lines of tear drops.

Her other cookie is a rocking horse. To make her wood grain, she floods the cookie with a golden color and then adds lines of brown icing, again using the wet on wet look so the two colors become one layer. I do not find it nearly as successful as Alex’s woodgrain, and I think her horse looks like a zebra. Her lines are just too thick. She adds a purple mane and tail to finish it off.

Our final competitor is Alexis Ruddock, an organic bakery owner from Texas. Her bakery is not just organic; she can also do glutton-free, vegan, egg free, and dairy free bakes. She prides herself on making everything from scratch. She is making a lavender butter cookie.

Making everything from scratch is never going to work in a timed competition. As the others work on decoration, she stands at the stove making her own royal icing using egg whites and powdered sugar. With just thirty-two minutes left, she finally starts decorating.

Alexis makes her own mason jar gift. She uses blue royal icing to flood the cookie and then pipes a very stiff brown icing over that for a burlap fabric effect. Her other cookie is a fabric coaster. To create it, she floods her cookie in red and then pipes alternating blue and white lines. She drags through those lines for that fabric look, and then finishes with alternating green and red tassels.

Somehow, they all finish and are ready to present to the judges- Ree Drummond, Matt Adlard, and Brandi Milloy.

Alexis is up first. Brandi feels the mason jar does not read as realistic glass as there are no reflections or even shininess in the icing. It is just a flat blue. Her coaster is well-received though, and Matt loves the little tassels. Lavendar is tricky but everyone loves the flavor of her cookies. However, after all that fuss with homemade icing, her icing is too wet.

Alex presents his little cap and rocking horse. The judges have nothing but good notes on his decor. They love the piping on the hat and his wood grain effect. The judges like that his cookies are not overly sweet but Matt is disappointed in the simple vanilla flavor.

Sara explains her pickle jar craft to the judges. Ree is amused that it is a pickle jar specifically and suggests a single forgotten pickle slice floating in the jar for a touch of humor. Though Sara has also not created any light reflections in her jar, Brandi feels the pearls let her get away with it. They add movement and dimension.

Her second cookie is less well-received. The judges frankly find the design confusing. I think it is meant to represent a silver star cookie cutter with a little tree suspended in the middle but they don’t get that. Brandi recommends negative space in the middle so it reads as cookie cutter and not unfrosted cookie.

As she has the little tree cookie, she would not really lose much cookie overall to have cut out her star cookie. She too made a vanilla cookie. This time, the judges don’t complain about the simplicity and they enjoy the cake-like texture of her thick cookies.

Ashley’s cookies are frankly beautiful to look at. Matt is awestruck by her piping on the stained glass cookies and Ree loves her vivid colors. Ree also loves her scalloped edge on the postcards. The judges also love the citrus in her cookie and she walks away with the most positive comments of the bunch.

Contestant Marlyn Birmingham and host Eddie Jackson during the first challenge, as seen on Christmas Cookie Challenge, Season 3. photo provided by Food Network

Marlyn presents last. Though the judges don’t think her woodgrain looks like a zebra, they do tell her they think her horse is a unicorn. Also, her choice of purple has done her no favors as the judges feel it reads baby shower rather than Christmas. The judges do enjoy her dark chocolate cookie with sweet icing as it is a perfect balance.

Before round two, we lose two competitors. Alexis is eliminated for having a non-realistic mason jar and Sara is also eliminated for creating a cookie that didn’t read as a cookie cutter.

Next up is the display challenge. The three remaining competitors must create a cookie garland for a fireplace. As it is going over a fireplace, they need to incorporate one smoked item- smoked paprika, smoked almonds, smoked gouda, or smoked scotch. They also must use two doughs and must include at least three 3-D ornaments. All of this in four hours.

Ashley decides to go with a winter wonderland theme. She makes a spicy gingerbread cookie and a gouda shortbread cookie. She makes a ridiculous number of cookies, including snowflakes and candy canes.

For her 3-D cookie, she cuts a round disk of gingerbread dough. She then presses that disk over a silicon mold so that the cookies will bake into bowl shapes. Her goal is to stick two cookie bowls together to make a round ornament and I think she is crazy. Each disk is hand-pressed so they will all have a little bit of a different shape.

Low and behold, she is able to create her 3-D cookie. She uses multiple tips to pipe white and red designs on the bowls and sticks them together with icing. To speed the frosting of her other cookies, she dips each snowflake into icing, but then follows up with lines of piped icing and sparkling sugar.

To string up her cookies, Ashley uses gold wire to create an ornament hanger for each cookie and then sticks that through twine. She does this to keep her cookies from falling into the center of the twine. And Ashley just keeps adding cookies- more and more. Right at the end, one falls off and she worries that the whole thing will come crashing down due to the weight put on her twine.

Alex’s theme is tacky Christmas. He will use ornaments, bulbs, snowflakes, bows, and sweaters for his shapes. He decides to make a hot cocoa cookie using smoked paprika and dehydrated mini marshmallows. He is also making an orange sugar cookie. He has wisely considered how his two flavors will go together, and chocolate and orange is a good combo.

Alex tastes his hot cocoa cookie once baked and discovers his paprika has disappeared. I’ve found that baking often does that, so I always put in more spice than needed. I think the aromatic compounds in the spice cook off, leaving a lot less flavor. Alex decides he has to add another smoked element so he makes a scotch royal icing for his orange cookie.

To make his 3-D cookie, Alex stacks three sweaters on top of each other. The middle sweater has a hole cut in it to allow room for candy. While he technically hits the brief, I don’t love the idea of the stacked cookie. I just don’t see how that would be pleasant to eat. However, a sweater that bursts out colorful candy does reinforce his ugly sweater theme. That’s good because I don’t think his sweaters are ugly at all. They are all one color and have no designs, so they are really just sweaters.

To string his cookies, Alex starts with a thin green string. Right away, cookies start falling off, so he switches to a thick red ribbon. This seems to work.

Marlyn is going with a nature theme with pinecones, birds, etc. She is grinding smoked almonds and putting those plus toffee bits into her sugar cookie. I am worried about this plan as I find smoked almonds very salty and smoky. She is also making a vanilla sugar cookie with a lemon royal icing.

Her plan to hang her cookies is daring. She is baking paper straws into her cookies so she can just string them up like macaroni. I am highly doubtful this will work as I don’t think the straws will stay attached to the cookies. She is worried too as the straw is making her cookies less structurally stable at that point.

For her 3-D cookie, Marlyn is going the sandwiched cookie route too, stacking three cookies and decorating them like pinecones. I am now even more worried about these heavy cookies holding up on the string. As an added touch, she has stuck real lights into the back of her Christmas light cookies, so she has gone all out on new techniques.

Marlyn pushes thick black wire through her straws and to my surprise, they hold. She is actually done three minutes early.

Ashley is first to present her garland to the judges. It is literally strung across a fireplace mantle. Ree is blown away by her 3-D spheres and loves the vintage ornament look of her piping. Matt is amazed that she has intricately piped a ridiculous number of cookies.

As odd as it sounds, the judges enjoy her gouda shortbread, especially Matt. He thinks it is a good English cookie. Her gingerbread cookies are good too, but Brandi wants more spice.

Alex helpfully tells the judges that he wants his garland to “vomit Christmas.” Yum. He introduces his one cookie as a smoked paprika hot cocoa cookie, even though he knows the paprika isn’t there. The judges ding him on lack of paprika but like the cocoa cookie all the same. His orange cookie with scotch icing is a hit and reminds Brandi of an old fashioned.

For his decoration, the judges wish he would have leaned into the ugly sweater idea more. Brandi wants a whole closet full of sweater options on his garland. Of course, compared to Ashley’s, his garland does look sparse.

Marlyn presents last. The judges are amazed by her straw technique and Ree loves that the cookies appear to be floating without visible support. Matt loves the lights. Shockingly, Matt says her almond toffee cookies don’t taste like almond or toffee. However, the ground almonds and toffee have given her cookies a great chewy texture. Her vanilla cookies are well-received with good vanilla and lemon flavor.

In the end, Ashley’s abundant and meticulously decorated display wins.

So what have we learned? If you want to win the cookie challenge, you need to create recognizable items or scenes. You need to know what shortcuts you can take for time that won’t compromise your cookie. You have to use Christmas colors and flavors and really focus on the Christmas theme, and if you say a flavor is present, the judges have to taste it.

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Did you learn any fun techniques to try in your cookies? I am going to try out a couple of the decorating styles and flavors soon. Until then, I think I need a sweet snack.