Christmas Cookie Challenge review: Center of the Season


What is being revealed in this episode of Christmas Cookie Challenge? Are you ready to slice it open?

Have you ever seen the cookie dough you can get at the grocery store with a design inside? Ever wondered how to make a cookie like that, other than buying the ready-made dough? On this week’s episode of Christmas Cookie Challenge, you can watch five talented bakers show you how it’s done.

Christmas Cookie Challenge host Eddie Jackson introduces the decorating challenge to the five competitors- create a slice and bake cookie that features a design inside. They have just ninety minutes to create their design, slice, bake, and decorate their cookies.

As the bakers race to start working, we meet each one and see their unique technique for making the slice and bake cookie. Josh Juarez is a dog bakery owner from Texas. Don’t let the dog bakery thing fool you. Josh is a classically trained pastry chef who at one time was a banquet chef for Hilton. He uses the same human-grade ingredients and fine decorating skills for his doggy clients.

Josh is making an orange and lemon zest sugar cookie and plans to make a snow globe. To start, he colors four different shades of dough- red, blue marble, yellow, black. He rolls three tubes of natural-colored dough, each a bit smaller than the last. He also rolls a thin tube of red. He stacks these four tubes- the largest, the next largest, the red, and the smallest to create his snowman shape. The red is for his scarf. He uses egg wash to get all the tubes to stick together and puts the whole thing in the chiller so that the center will hold shape.

Once it is all chilled, he gently presses his blue marbled dough around and carefully rolls it into a log. He has now effectively made a slice and bake cookie with a central design. But he doesn’t stop there. He actually makes two slice and bake cookies.

For his second cookie, he makes a rectangular yellow tube, surrounds that with a rectangle of red, and then adds an exterior covering of black over the whole thing. This cookie now forms the base of his snow globe, once attached to the blue-covered snowman cookie. When Josh slices into his final creation, he gets amazingly detailed snow globes.

Once baked, he adds a hat, eyes, nose, arms, and buttons to the snowman with icing, as well as piping white dots around him for the snow in the globe and adding an icing and sparkling sugar snowdrift at his feet. He also pipes the word joy in the yellow “plaque” portion of his globe base.

Sasha Gustafson is a bakery owner from LA. She studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris so she knows her stuff, but this slice and bake challenge has thrown her. She decides to make a sophisticated espresso almond sugar cookie. She hopes to create a teddy bear in a Christmas sweater inside her cookie.

She begins by coloring some of her dough brown and some green. She rolls it out and uses a cutter to cut out teddy bear shapes from the brown and the green doughs. She then cuts the heads and legs off her brown teddy bears (“bear” with me here) and slices her green teddy bears the same way. She does all this surgery so that she can use the green center as her bear sweater and reattach the brown head and feet.

She attempts to stack up her frankenbears, but there are too many little pieces. They start to fall apart and she struggles to create an even, straight log of bears. Thinking dough around the outside of her bear log will hold it together, she doesn’t chill her teddy bears before wrapping them up in the exterior dough.

Not surprisingly, when she attempts to slice her dough, Sasha does not have bears. They have fallen apart and become misshapen when she added the outside dough so now she just sort of has abstract shapes floating in her cookies. Frustrated, she pulls the whole thing apart and starts over.

Host Eddie Jackson and contestant Joshua Juarez during the first challenge, as seen on Christmas Cookie Challenge, Season 3. photo provided by Food Network

She is thinking the numerous pieces is what did her in before, so this time, she cuts out all her brown bears, glues them together with egg wash, and then decapitates and removes the legs of the whole set of bears at once. She then inserts her log of green sweaters so now, instead of creating each bear one at a time and then stacking, she has created a stack of bears that she then dissected and reassembled.

Once she slices into this batch, it is a little improved, but the bears are still sort of squished and some are missing body parts. She decides to use icing to fill in the amputated and missing limbs and to make sure they look like bears. She pipes cute little designs on their sweaters, but these bears have still clearly seen some things.

Anthony Coriano, a bakery owner from California, is very young. He tells us he started selling cookies at age eight, and he is now in his twenties. He is making an orange, nutmeg and vanilla shortbread that sounds delicious. Perhaps he has been watching Sasha and her bears because his design is the simplest of all.

Anthony is making a brown log and putting it inside a white log and then adding a thin layer of red. His design is a circle. Anthony plans to make up for his design with piping. Once baked, he has lots of time to pipe gingerbread men faces surrounded by Christmas lights. Not a bad idea for a home baker, but it doesn’t seem that impressive for a competitor.

Chelsea Hunt is a bakery owner from Arizona. A former event and social media planner, she has a flare for decoration and style. However, she decides to keep it fairly simple as well, worried about completing the challenge. She decides she will make a traditional sugar cookie and use it to create a Christmas ornament design.

To make her design, she colors her dough in different shades and then rolls it out. She stacks her different colors on top of each other and then cuts a slice so all the colors show as lines in her rectangle of dough. Laying this rectangle flat, she uses a round cookie cutter to make circles with her lines of color running through. She then carefully lines up each circle so the colors all align perfectly to create her inner tube. Finally, she covers that with the naturally colored sugar cookie dough.

Once sliced, Chelsea is worried that her design is too simple and doesn’t read as an ornament. It just looks like a circle. She uses icing to pipe cute little decorations on each ornament and she also punches a hole in each and threads in a red ribbon. So now her ornament cookie is an actual ornament.

Tiphanie Cannon is a bakery owner from Iowa. She is making an almond vanilla sugar cookie and is taking inspiration from home. She will actually make Iowa in the center of her cookie. Like Chelsea, she builds up layers (seven total) of colored doughs and then slices through them to get a rectangle of layered, multi-colored dough. She then uses an Iowa cookie cutter on the dough and stacks all her Iowas up.

I do have to wonder if she requested an Iowa cookie cutter in advance, if they can bring in some tools of their own, or if the show just has a ridiculous number and variety of cutters. Because who has an Iowa cookie cutter if they are not from Iowa? Anyway, she covers her stack of Iowas with her naturally colored dough and then covers the whole thing in egg wash. She does this so she can coat the whole cookie log in white non-pareils. Once sliced, she is happy with her cookie but wonders if the judges will know the shape of Iowa. She finishes the cookie by piping “home” on it and coating the piping with gold luster dust.

Our judges this week are Vivian Chan, Dan Langan, and, as always, Ree Drummond. Tiphanie is up first with her Iowan cookies. As she feared, Vivian does not recognize the shape and wishes she would have written “Iowa” on them rather than home. She thinks they look a little like squished mittens. Dan feels her cookie design is not consistent. As for taste, Vivian finds the cookie under baked but really likes the crunch of her non-pareils.

Sasha is up next with her war-torn bears. Vivian is disappointed that she had to rely so heavily on her piping to convey the design. However, the judges love her cookie, finding the espresso adds just the right amount of bitterness.

Chelsea delivers her ornaments and the time she has taken to thread ribbon through them has paid off. Dan thinks they look like the cover of a magazine. Ree loves that her icing accents but does not hide her central design. Ree apparently likes an underdone cookie because she says it is cooked just enough, while the other judges state that it is not baked enough.

Anthony brings up his gingerbread men faces. Ree loves the many colors of his icing but Dan calls him out on his simple design. His cookies do have a good snap and excellent nutmeg flavor.

Josh’s snow globes are the last to be judged and they are stunning. They surely represent the pinnacle of what this challenge can be. The judges are really impressed with his many dough colors and the precision and detail of his cookie dough design.

Before they taste, Eddie tells them that Josh has a dog bakery. They hesitantly go to sample their cookies and we see their concern mount when the cookie seems hard to snap. However, Dan says the cookie is surprisingly tender on the inside and Ree calls it the tastiest dog treat she’s ever had.

Before the final round, we lose two bakers. Anthony is out for his overly simple design. Sasha is also out for the opposite reason. Her overly complicated bears did not read as bears in the end and she had to rely on piping.

For their final challenge, the bakers must create a 3-D Christmas centerpiece for a Christmas dinner table. Because it would normally be surrounded by Christmas dinner, they must include one traditional spice or herb such as sage, cumin, tarragon, or thyme. They will have two and a half hours to pull it all off.

Josh decides to make a tree themed centerpiece. He makes a tree pattern out of paper and whips up a sturdy orange gingerbread. He cuts tree pieces from his gingerbread and then cuts little snowflake shapes out of his tree pieces. Once baked, he fills the snowflake holes with blue isomalt and then sticks the tree pieces together with chocolate so they stand up.

Josh’s trees are large and stand up so he thinks there is no way to get them iced and dried in time. So, Josh attempts to airbrush his trees silver. Frustrated that the airbrush is taking too long to make a good solid silver color, he switches to using a paintbrush. He worries the silver will give his cookies a weird taste, and I do too. His cookies also have very little frosting, which worries me. He does frost the edges of the trees in white for snow.

Josh also makes a spiced eggnog rum cookie. He cuts these into snowflake shapes and uses them as decoration on his trees. Unfortunately, he burns the cookies. He has no time to remake them, so he brushes them with thyme infused butter and calls it good.

Tiphanie is making a German advent wreath. This wreath lays flat and has four red candles sticking out of it. Every week before Christmas, you light a candle. Tiphanie plans to make a ridiculous number of cookies so her wreath has plenty of volume. She starts to make leaves, stars, gold balls and candles out of vanilla butter cookies and she just keeps putting more and more in the oven.

Finding herself a little behind, her second dough is a lemon graham cracker with sage. She uses this to make the round base of the wreath on which she will stack all her other cookies. For the rest of the challenge, Tiphanie frantically pipes loads of cookies, bemoaning her choice to do so many. She just manages to get everything in place when time is called.

Chelsea wants to make a rustic box full of Christmas goodies like fruit, herbs, poinsettia flowers, and pinecones. She makes an apple spice cookie that cleverly uses apple butter and packets of apple cider mix for flavor. She also makes an orange cranberry sage cookie.

Worried about time and remembering that Ree liked her under baked cookie, she purposely pulls her cookies out a little early. I am worried if they are too soft to create her box, but they seem to hold up. However, her sides don’t all fit together. After trying to get the fourth side to stick, she gives up and creates an open box, spilling its contents. Unfortunately, some of her contents are not cookies and are not even edible, like pinecones.

It is finally (or too soon, depending on your perspective) time for judging. Chelsea presents her rustic box. Dan can see the chocolate on the side of her box and asks if it had a fourth side. She admits it did, but Dan actually likes the elegant spill of items out of the box. Vivian doesn’t like the inedible and non-cookie items in the box, as expected.

Also to be expected, Vivian and Dan think her cookies are under baked while Ree finds them just barely baked enough. They like the sage in her orange cranberry cookies and they absolutely love her apple spice cookie. Vivian likens it to a warm hug.

Tiphanie is next to deliver her German advent wreath. The judges are shocked by how many cookies she has created with a variety of shapes and icing, but Dan does feel it is sort of rushed and not as elegant as he would hope. Ree loves the texture of the vanilla butter cookie and Dan really likes the earthy, woodsy flavor of the sage in her lemon sage graham cracker. Vivian wants the recipe.

Josh is up last with his tree display. Vivian loves the different techniques he has used and finds the whole look to be sophisticated. Dan is impressed with the appearance but wonders what all that silver will taste like. Luckily, they like his orange gingerbread and do not find any off flavors from the color. His spiced eggnog cookies are overbaked, but the thyme butter brushed over them seems to have helped.

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In the end, Josh’s elegant display wins the day and wins him ten thousand dollars. Certainly not a bad day’s work, and I think he successfully made all the humans jealous that his baked goods are for dogs.