Christmas Cookie Challenge review: Christmas Traditions


Five cookie makers will recreate Christmas traditions in edible form in Christmas Cookie Challenge. Who will hit just the right note of spice and nostalgia to take home $10,000?

Christmas Cookie Challenge host Eddie Jackson starts us off with an introduction to the first of two cookie making challenges. Recalling the tradition of sending Christmas cards, the bakers will need to create two card cookies. One card should have a heartfelt sentiment and one should be funny. Each card needs to include an image and a message, and they will have just ninety minutes to complete the challenge.

As the bakers race to their stations, we begin to meet them. Stephanie Torres was a chef in the Coast Guard. She is now a stay-at-home mom who started her cookie business to keep her sanity, especially as her Coast Guard husband is often away for months.

She is making a pumpkin spice toffee cookie. Her sentimental cookie is meant to be from her small daughter to her husband. For this card, she pipes on a coast guard boat with a Christmas tree on the deck. She then imitates a child’s handwriting to write, “I miss you, daddy.” This would be a card for when her dad is at sea for his three-month stints with the Guard.

For her funny cookie, she starts by brushing white food color onto her raw cookie dough. Once baked, this creates a rustic crackled effect. Onto this, she pipes a wreath, Christmas lights, a small wine glass and the phrase, “let’s get lit.” To really drive home the Christmas card concept, she makes a tag and envelope for each cookie out of edible paper.

Next we meet Cheryl, and she is a hoot. She sports a kooky little festive hat and she has a personality to match. She is making an orange cinnamon clove cookie. As she explains her ideas to Eddie, things quickly derail. For her silly cookie, she tells him that everyone knows that Santa checks his list twice which kind of sounds like chicken and rice. So she is making a chicken. Eddie says “interesting” as he walks away from her.

To make her cookies even more unique, Cheryl decides you should be able to open them like a card.  She uses an ice cream scoop to make a small indent in her dough, bakes them off, fills the indent with sprinkles, and sandwiches two cookies to hide the pocket of fun.

For her sentimental cookie, Cheryl pipes two penguins kissing on a red background and writes “I heart you” on them. Immediately I worry that this looks like a Valentine’s Day cookie and wonder why she hasn’t added little Santa hats to the penguins or anything else to drive home the holiday. She then decorates her chicken cookie. She does give him a knitted scarf but realizes that she has no space to write anything about Santa’s list. Instead she simply writes “be good.” It is really one of the weirdest cookies ever and I love it. However, I don’t see how either cookie meets the challenge.

Allan Hursig is a tall drink of water from Texas, wearing cowboy boots no less. He is making a pumpkin spice sugar cookie. His family has a weird tradition of sending donkey-themed Christmas cards so his silly cookie is a donkey face that says “mule-tide greetings.” I mean, we have a chicken so why not a donkey? His sentimental cookie is in the shape of a scroll and features the locations of New Mexico, Texas, and Oregon, the places his family lives. On the scroll he has piped “no matter how far apart, we’re always close at heart.”

Daniel Michalek has been trying to get onto the show and has finally earned his chance. In the meantime, he has studied the episodes to develop a strategy based on judges’ preferences as well as the failures of other bakers. I am immediately worried as this never works well for contestants. They tend to get in their own heads and stick with their strategy instead of just focusing on their own strengths.

Daniel is making a brown sugar cookie. He’s purposely under-baking it because he knows Ree likes that, but this of course neglects the two other judges. Having seen others be overly ambitious and go home, he wants to make a very simple set of cookies. He creates one cookie with a very rudimentary angel shape on a blue background and the words “joy and peace.” For his other cookie, he creates a green background, a simple gingerbread man shape, and the words “oh, snap.” For the gingerbread man, he does add a stripe to his legs and hands and a very simple face but the angel has no features at all.

Ashley Spraggins is our final baker introduced. She is from St. Louis and wants to make a regional specialty- the gooey butter cookie. Featuring cream cheese and butter, she knows it is a risk and she is not wrong. Her dough sticks and refuses to stay in shape. She takes awhile to get her shapes to her satisfaction and gets her cookies in with just thirty minutes left.

This leads to further disaster. Having already admitted that her handwriting on cookies in not great, being rushed only makes things worse. Her funny cookie idea is two clinking elf wine glasses with the phrase, “let’s get lit.” Sadly, her piping comes out uneven, shaky, and the glasses and writing are hard to read. Honestly, I thought the glasses looked like witch legs.

For her sentimental cookie, her inspiration is beautiful but her execution is not. She wants to honor her brother, who has passed. She pipes two penguins holding hands and the phrase “always time.” Unfortunately, this one seems even more rushed and the writing is basically illegible. Her icing runs over the edge which only makes things worse.

It’s time for judging and this time we have Aarti Sequeira, Gesine Prado, and Ree Drummond. I want to start a petition for these ladies to be the permanent panel. Aarti in particular brought awful puns, lots of laughter, and gentle but honest critique to the table.

Cheryl is up first with her chicken and penguin cookies. My husband notes that she clearly likes birds. Gesine looks completely lost when Cheryl explains the story behind the chicken cookie and in fact thinks Cheryl has misheard “naughty and nice” instead “check it twice” for chicken and rice. My husband and I agree that maybe it would help to have the chicken dressed like Santa with a hat and fake beard and “chicken it twice” or something as the saying.

Aarti agrees with me that the penguins seem to be a Valentine’s cookie and recommends mistletoe above their heads. However, Aarti finds the chicken to be “clucking amazing.” The judges love the fun of the sprinkles pouring out, squealing over the surprise, and they like her orange cinnamon clove cookie.

Allan is next with his donkey and Christmas scroll. He earns from Aarti the comment that his cookies are “ass-stounding.” Gesine tells him his cookies kick ass. They enjoy the flavor and bake of the cookies too and are thrilled with his fine penmanship.

Sadly, his penmanship happens right before they see Ashley’s cookies. The judges are as gentle as possible given the loss of her brother, but they do point out that the icing has buckled and cracked and the writing is basically not legible. They enjoy the flavor of her gooey butter cookie with cranberries, though.

Stephanie presents her plate and the judges love her details- the edible envelopes, the childlike handwriting on her daughter-daddy cookie. Her cookies really are beautiful and they enjoy the flavor of her pumpkin spice toffee cookie but want more chunks of toffee.

Daniel is last to present. Immediately, his intricate plan of attack fails him. Ree, who rarely ever makes a negative comment, says his angel is unclear and looks like a ghost. She says even a simple halo could have saved it. The judges have similar complaints about his gingerbread man. In his quest to not over-reach, he has sold his talents short. Not only that, but his goal of underbaking his cookie for Ree has led to complaints from the other judges.

I am not surprised to see Daniel and Ashley eliminated. Daniel stuck to his pre-determined plan too closely and Ashley had a great vision but lacked execution.

Our final three move on to the next challenge. Keeping with the theme of Christmas traditions, the bakers will need to make a Christmas tree topper out of cookies. It must function, feature two doughs, and include a “topping” (think topping bar) such as peanuts, maraschino cherries, mini marshmallows, gummy bears, or sandwich cookie pieces. They will have two and a half hours for this task.

As soon as I see the options of toppings, I assume no one will take the gummy bears. There is just no way those will bake well. Gummy bears will melt, and if they mix, will turn an ugly brown. Imagine my horror when Stephanie grabs the bears. Allan grabs the cherries and Cheryl takes the marshmallows.

Allan’s plan is to create a scene of Santa going down a chimney. His base, which will go over the top of the tree, will be a chimney made of gingerbread with his cherry topping added. He will make his Santa and Santa’s sack out of vanilla sugar cookie dough. Right away, I worry that the cherries will compromise the structure of his base and that his cookie flavors are too simple.

To make his base, Allan cuts out different sizes of squares, bakes them and then cuts a hole in the middle. The tree top would fit through the hole. He decorates his chimney with fluffy snow and delicate icicles but finds that he is running out of time, so Santa’s sack barely gets decorated.

Stephanie plans to make a base of donut-shaped maple bacon sugar cookies. She frosts this in white to look like a snow drift, and then she makes snowflakes out of an “everything” cookie that includes pretzels, caramel bits and gummy bears.

As I expected, once she bakes her everything cookie, the gummies ooze out and make a mess of her cookies. She immediately changes gears and remakes the dough with peanuts instead. Once baked, she floods the cookies in white icing. On top of this, she paints blue and purple food coloring diluted with alcohol which gives her cookies a unique watercolored look. To finish the cookies, she pipes a fine and intricate snowflake design over the watercolor background.

To give her topper dimension, Stephanie has stacked her snowflake cookies, but this makes them too heavy for her base. She ends up adding much more icing. Feeling this has ruined the delicate look she was going for, she quickly spins some sugar and wraps her topper in the golden sugar web.

Cheryl is making her base out of a hot chocolate sugar cookie that incorporates her marshmallow topping. She cuts three large triangles and assembles them into a three-sided pyramid. To decorate her pyramid, she makes large cut outs from vanilla almond sugar cookie, decorated to look like her two cats, Wasabi and Sushi, as angels.

After creating both portraits, she breaks Wasabi and must leave him out. She paints her pyramid a golden color and attaches her one remaining cat portrait. Once on, I can’t figure out how she ever would have gotten both cats on the three-sided pyramid, so perhaps it is for the best.

Time is called and the tree toppers must stand judgement. Stephanie is up first. Her heavy snowflakes seem to be holding in place but now have a decided lean forward. Ree asks if it will stay up but it does remain standing through judging. Gesine notes that both her snowflake cookies and their icing has buckled from the lean, but Ree loves the spun sugar. It reminds her of tinsel on a tree. Aarti loves her watercolor painting and they really enjoy both cookie flavors.

Allan presents his Santa and chimney next. Gesine notes that his structure is very sturdy and Ree likes his different icing techniques such as the delicate hanging icicles. But Aarti points out the lack of detail on Santa’s bag. His sugar cookie is good but his gingerbread is great.

Cheryl is last to go with her ode to her cat, affixed to a gold pyramid. Aarti hesitantly asks if her cat is still with us and I suddenly realize that the cat angel and the pyramid do call to mind a tomb. Assured the cat is still alive, Gesine notes that the space under the structure is so large that it wouldn’t work as a tree topper. Ree loves the gold color of the pyramid. Her dark dough under the gold spray has turned it a copper golden color. They also enjoy her flavors except that they can’t find her marshmallow topping ingredient.

In the end, Stephanie’s technique and flavor win the day! She clearly displayed a lot of skill in both rounds.

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So, do you still send Christmas cards? I think it might be a dying tradition. I often buy Christmas cards with the best intentions and then never send them. Maybe this year I should try to make cookie cards instead. Those won’t get stuck in a box with ribbons and paper, only to reappear next year.