Christmas Cookie Challenge review: Picture Perfect Christmas


Can you believe it’s December already and the competition is getting fierce on Christmas Cookie Challenge? The countdown to the holiday has begun and many people are working on their decorations.

How about a cookie decoration to mix things up a little? Five cookie makers will push the boundaries of normal decorating to create “pretty as a picture” cookie scenes on this episode of Christmas Cookie Challenge. Who has the flavor, technique and artistry to bring home the 10,000 dollar prize?

Host Eddie Jackson gets us started right away by announcing the first challenge. Everyone must create a mosaic design on one large cookie. The cookie must be at least six inches and should feature a Christmas scene in a mosaic style. They will have two hours to create their cookie.

My first thought about the challenge is that they will need to create a mosaic out of little decorated cookie pieces placed on top of their larger cookie. But this is not the way any of the bakers consider the challenge. Instead each is approaching things in a slightly different way, but all are using non-cookie mediums to create their mosaic tiles.

Pete Hutchison, a research audiologist by day, has a fun pop culture style to his cookies and worships Beyonce. He even recreated her iconic pregnancy photo in cookie form and he is clearly very good. He is planning a very interesting holiday wassail flavored cookie and he brings armfuls of items to his station. His cookie includes multiple spices, instant black tea, apple cider mix and apple butter.

As an audiologist, he wants to do something related to hearing, so he plans to create a scene of three platinum jingle bells hanging from thread on a dark blue background. For his tiles, he colors sugar paper, applying silver leaf to some of it for his bells. He cuts up his sugar paper into irregular pieces and then sets the pieces into royal icing. Unfortunately, his icing is too thick so he ends up with peaks and valleys where he applies his tiles, leaving the surface of his cookie uneven. All the same, it does read as a mosaic pattern.

Lucie Radcliffe has an Instagram where she posts her cookie designs, and Pete knows her and feels a little intimidated. Lucie has a background in fine arts and her cookies tend to be realistic portraits or recreations of famous art pieces. She is making an orange, cinnamon and clove sugar cookie as her base. On top of that, she will create a poinsettia with coating chocolate mosaic tiles.

To make the tiles, she melts green and red coating chocolate and spreads it thinly to dry quickly. She adds gold flecks to the green and red sparkling sugar to the red and then makes large pieces for her poinsettia. As she carefully creates her picture, Pete wonders if it is really a mosaic. All her tiles are very large so the whole thing reads as a flower from close and far. It doesn’t have the classic mosaic effect of looking like color blocks close up and becoming a picture from afar.

Lourdes Paschal is a second grade teacher with the energy and bubbling personality to match. She refers to her students as “Mrs. Paschal’s Rascals,” which is adorable. She is making a Mexican vanilla sugar cookie and plans to create a Christmas angel scene. Like Lucie, she is mostly using coating chocolate, although she is also incorporating some piping. As she adds her many chocolate tiles, her icing scoots out toward the edge of her cookie, eventually slipping off the edge and taking her edge pieces with it.

Stephen Horner considers himself the underdog in the competition as he has only been making cookies for a year. He is an artist who has been using cookie decorating to pay the bills. He has a painterly style that carries over to his cinnamon vanilla sugar cookie with orange royal icing. I have to admit, Stephen’s inexperience does seem to shine through as he struggles throughout the round.

First, his dough is too dry and crumbly. Lourdes, ever the teacher, offers to help him. He adds heavy whipping cream to the dough which seems to correct the problem.

Stephen wants to depict Santa in his sleigh, riding across the face of the moon. To help him stand out, he uses six different cookie cutters and then squishes the cut outs together for baking so that he has a cookie in the shape of Santa and the moon. He is worried that his cookie will break at the seams and it does break, though it seems to be not at a seam but at the center of the moon. He does his best to glue it together again with royal icing.

Feeling rushed for time, Stephen decides that he can’t pipe a border and wait for it to dry so he floods his whole cookie at once. Of course, the icing drips off the edges of his cookie but he figures he can clean it up later and pops it into the dehydrator.

Once somewhat dried, he takes them out and paints on his scene using irregular shapes and spacing to make the painting look like a mosaic. I kind of feel like this is a cheat as he is not using real tiles, but it does have the look of a mosaic. Stephen must paint with a feather touch as his icing isn’t dry. Noting the icing drooped over the side of his cookies, he decides to just paint that too.

Sarakay Hannel is a classically trained pastry chef who clearly has experience on her side. She is making a vanilla citrus cookie with lemon icing but she has decided to think way outside the box on her mosaic. She pipes out rosettes and then brushes them with luster dust to give them a metallic sheen. She uses a watercolor technique to paint the backdrop of her cookie and then places the rosettes to create a tree pattern. She likes her design but does worry that she hasn’t made a mosaic at all.

At last it is time for the judging of round one. Our judges today are Gesine Prado, Dwayne Ingraham, and Ree Drummond. We start with Stephen. He has triumphed over adversity to deliver a cookie, but I frankly find the painted design hard to read and I was able to see him create the design. How will the judges, seeing this for the first time, read it? Gesine looks at it with tilted head and I expect her to complain that it is muddled but instead she praises it for being truly mosaic as the picture is not immediately apparent.

Ree too seems to struggle a bit, especially sitting to the side of the cookie. Gesine feels that the icing drooping over the sides and the uneven roll of the cookie makes it harder to decipher from a side angle. However, Gesine is impressed by his shape so using all those cutters has paid off. The judges like the taste of his cookie and say it is well-baked, so he has also managed to save his previously dry dough with that cream.

Lucie presents her poinsettia. It is much cleaner and very easy to read, maybe too easy. Dwayne feels it is not a true mosaic as the pieces are so large. They do love the gold flecks in her leaves and the way they extend beyond the cookie base. However, they find her cookie to be a little dry, too cakey, and lacking clove flavor. While working on her chocolate pieces, she forgot her dough in the chiller. She ended up not being able to roll out the rock-hard dough to a thin cookie and that has hurt her texture.

Lourdes presents her angel next. She has clearly made a mosaic but as her icing pushed off the edges, she is left with a sloppy looking cookie. The judges enjoy her fluffy icing and the texture of her Mexican vanilla sugar cookie, though Dwayne finds it on the verge of too sweet.

Pete is next with his holiday wassail bells cookie. The judges like his mosaic though Gesine comments on the peaks and valleys in his icing. They do love his unusually flavored cookie and, surprising given the number of ingredients, Gesine calls it subtle.

Sarakay is last to present her vanilla citrus cookie with lemon icing. Ree appreciates the sophisticated look of her tree made of metallic rosettes but basically everyone agrees it is not a mosaic. It’s a pretty, tasty cookie with lots of skill but does not meet the challenge.

It is no surprise when they eliminate Sarakay. Less certain is the second elimination. Sweet Lourdes goes home for the messiness of her cookie.

For the final round, the three remaining bakers will need to create a picture out of individual cookies. They must have at least twelve cookies, two doughs, and must include a liqueur. They have two hours to pull of this feat.

Pete and Lucie rush to the liqueurs and Pete grabs the crème de menthe. Lucie wants it too so they “rock-paper-scissors” and Pete wins. Late to the game, Stephen comes for the crème too. Lucie ends up selecting anisette and Stephen picks kirsch.

Stephen decides to go with really interesting flavors- a cherry and kirsch cookie and a sage brown butter and orange cookie. He plans to create a woodland Christmas scene. His plans to create his scene on square cookies arranged themselves into a square. On the upper cookies, he will paint the woods. He will leave the lower cookies white with frosting billows for snow. On top of his scene, he will have Santa and woodland creatures. Learning nothing from round one, Stephen ices his cookies in a hurry and the icing runs over the sides. As before, he goes on with his plan despite his runny icing.

Lucie is making a lemon and anisette sugar cookie and a classic gingerbread. She plans to make an angel almost entirely out of hearts. She will use hearts placed upside down for the ruffles of her skirt. She will use a heart for her bodice. Cutting out just the bottom of a heart, she creates arms bent at the elbow. Her angel looks adorable but Lucie realizes to her horror that she has created two right arms. She had planned the two arms to meet in the middle of her waist but finally decides to put one arm raised above her head and hopes she can spin a story about dancing.

Pete is making a peppermint vanilla marshmallow cookie based on the scent of his shampoo (seriously). He has never used liquid in his dough before so he makes his dough, pokes wells in the made dough and then folds in crème de menthe in the weirdest way to add a liqueur that I could imagine. His second cookie is a maple pancake cookie.

For that one, he makes maple candy and breaks it up. That broken candy goes in his dough which, when baked, turns into little surprise pockets of maple syrup flavor. He also makes a maple frosting. He makes an angel cookie too but, true to his style, it is Beyonce. His angel is surrounded by wings, all made with icing piped onto leaf shapes. In the midst of this flurry of wings is Beyonce in a golden gown and featuring a golden halo.

Time is up and Stephen presents his winter wonderland for judging. All the judges appreciate his painting and details but they all comment on the messy edges and the general rushed look overall. Ree seems surprised in trying his sage brown butter cookie, calling it woodsy and interesting in a way that wasn’t obvious if she liked it. Gesine says it is almost savory and Dwayne calls it complex. All the statements could be taken in a good or bad way. His kirsch cookie is a more obvious hit.

Lucie is next to present her sweet angel. When they question her weird arm placement, she says she is singing and Ree fills in that her arm is lifted in praise and they all buy it. Cut to Lucie in her talking head interview giggling nervously about getting that one past the judges. The judges find her work to be clean, beautiful and clever in her use of the heart shape. Gesine does note that her icing has buckled where the cookies touch. Both cookie flavors are praised. Lucie used just a little anisette and had worried it would disappear like her clove, but they taste it in her cookie.

Pete presents last. The judges love the glamour of his cookie and his details such as Beyonce’s halo and perfectly created hair. They do wish his wings had clearer piping as his icing was just a little too thin to hold the peaks he created. Sadly, they do not really taste the crème de menthe in his cookie which is ironic as every baker wanted that flavor. They adore his maple cookie, especially Gesine who makes her own maple syrup.

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In the end, Lucie’s beautiful, neat, delicate and delicious angel wins the day. Congrats to Lucie! She should have a much merrier holiday with ten thousand dollars in her stocking!