Christmas Cookie Challenge review: Christmas Mischief


In this episode of the Christmas Cookie Challenge, five bakers will create festive cookie masks fit for holiday selfies, and then the bakers must deliver a 3-D elf scene. Who can bring the creativity, flavor and technique to win $10,000?

Host Eddie Jackson starts us off with the first challenge of this Christmas Cookie Challenge episode. In just ninety minutes, the five bakers need to create Christmas character masks on a stick that the judges can pick up and hold to their faces. Somehow, the bakers need to balance yummy cookie texture with the ability to withstand being held up on a stick.

Ryan Wood, a baker from New York City and founder of a cookie baby sitting service, is making a key lime sugar cookie. Inspired by a former hometown, he is making a Mardi Gras masquerade mask. However, he is also incorporating the ever-popular giant mustache which will sit just under his mask.

To create his cookie, he uses two cutters and pushes the dough together. It is a risky move as the cookie can be weak at the joint. He decides to bake a single popsicle stick into the dough. Once baked, he gives his cookies a test and they do stay on their sticks. To make sure they are still Christmasy, Ryan decorates the mask in traditional green and red, swirling the edges of the colors to create a really pretty twirled effect. He finishes the cookie with white dots.

Pinar Gwyn is making a lemon zest sugar cookie. Rather than using multiple cutters, she traces her cutters onto waxed paper and cuts that out so she can make one whole cookie. Her design is a reindeer mask. Her reindeer sports a floral headband and little white freckles on the nose.

When Pinar takes her cookies out of the oven, she immediately breaks off an antler. Worried that royal icing won’t dry fast enough, she sticks it together with chocolate, only to have the same antler break again as she tries to stick it back together. She is now very worried that her cookie is just too soft. Rather than court disaster and try to pick up her cookies on the stick, she decorates them without moving them further.

Scott French tells us he has been decorating for twenty-two years. His background is in architecture and he has made some very large cookies, including a 3-D car sculpture and a six-foot mask. He is making a butter sugar cookie. For his icing, he uses Mexican vanilla extract, which is clear, as well as butter. He says this creates a marshmallow-like flavor. I am not a huge fan of royal icing as I find it tastes too much like powdered sugar, so I would be really keen to try his recipe.

Scott’s cookie is like no other. He plans to make a very realistic Santa face that includes eyebrows, 3-D nose, cheeks, chin, mustache and beard. When held up, only the judges’ eyes will show and they will have a Santa appearance. Not only is this a unique take as it is not in a traditional mask shape, but it really nails the kind of prop people would love in a photo booth at a party.

Scott wants a realistic look to his mask so he starts by hand-drawing his shape for a cutting template. He builds up the 3-D nose in dough before baking and inserts two sticks for extra stability. After baking a little longer than normal for structure, he frosts the cookie in a flesh-colored royal icing, allowing it to drip over the edges. He wants to hide the edges for more realism. Normally icing over the edge is a bad thing, but he compliments it with carefully piped details so his cookie does not look messy or rushed.

Bri Orozco is making a granola sugar cookie that includes pecans, sliced almonds, shredded coconut and orange zest. I am worried about the inclusions and if they will compromise the stability of her cookie. She is making a cat mask. Her mask is in the shape of a cat face, but the cat itself is wearing a mask as well as a Santa hat.

Bri frosts her cookie in a maple royal icing. Unfortunately, it is too thick for flooding and she gets bubbles and lumps. To try to alleviate that, she shakes her cookies which helps the icing to level somewhat. This is a technique I use too, though usually just to get out any imperfections once I have pushed the icing into the corners with a tool.

Contestant Leslie Srodek-Johnson and Host Eddie Jackson, as seen on Christmas Cookie Challenge, Season 3. photo provided by Food Network

Brittney Dervin, our final baker, is brimming with confidence. Announcing that she did not come to lose and that she is the best baker in Chicago, she tells us that she and her fiancé used their wedding fund a year ago to open a home baking business. Hoping to win so she can have her wedding, Brittney assesses the work of the other bakers and decides to make a large, full face mask. She makes an almond sugar cookie and creates a very large nutcracker shape. Unlike everyone else, she decides to insert her sticks after her cookies have baked.

Though I expect disaster, Brittney successfully gets her sticks inserted and starts to decorate, but she simply does not have time. Her giant cookies are taking too long. At four minutes left, she hasn’t started on her third cookie, and at under two minutes she is frantically trying to get icing on that cookie. Her icing colors bleed together and the whole thing ends up messy and clearly rushed.

Time is called and we meet our judges- Vivian Chan, Dan Langan, and Ree Drummond. Pinar is up first with her lemon zest reindeer mask. Ree loves the burgundy roses in the reindeer’s headband as well as her little freckles. However, only Dan is able to pick the cookie up on the stick. Ree just gets a stick with no cookie and Vivian gets half a mask. On the plus side, the judges find her lemon cookie light and delicious.

Brittney is next with her almond sugar cookie nutcracker mask. Dan points out that it is rather messy and Vivian doesn’t feel it screams Christmas. She wishes for more traditional colors like red and gold. They are able to successfully pick up the masks so inserting her sticks after baking has worked out, and the judges enjoy the flavor.

Scott presents his Santa face in a butter sugar cookie with butter vanilla icing. The judges are wowed by the realism and uniqueness of his cookie. Dan flat out says it is one of the coolest things he has ever seen. Ree jokes that she has never eaten such a realistic nostril before. The judges also enjoy the flavor of his cookie, especially the marshmallowy icing.

Now it is Bri’s turn to present her cat mask in a granola sugar cookie with maple icing. Vivian misses the whiskers on the cat which Bri ran out of time to make. Dan notes that she was not able to get rid of all of the bubbles in her thick royal icing. However, her cookie stays on the stick and the judges think it is delicious.

Ryan is last to show off his Christmas masquerade mask made of key lime sugar cookie. Dan enjoys his swirled red and green icing but finds the white dots to be inconsistent and rushed. Sadly, his cookies do not stay on the sticks well, perhaps being compromised by his technique of sticking two cutouts together. Also, the judges struggle to find any key lime flavor.

Brittney’s ambition has done her in and she is sent home along with Ryan for his non-functional masks that do not taste of lime.

Having narrowed the field to three bakers, we hear our final challenge. In the spirit of Elf on the Shelf, Eddie introduces Fondante, the naughty elf of the set. The contestants will need to create a 3-D cookie tableau depicting the mischief that elves get into. They need to use two doughs and include a special ingredient. Originally butterscotch, chocolate, marshmallow and caramel, Fondante has changed these to sriracha, jalapeno, chile de arbol, and cayenne.

When time starts, Scott rushes over and grabs the cayenne. It is a good choice. A powder is easy to add to a cookie and cayenne has a pretty neutral flavor. Bri grabs fresh jalapenos which seem harder to get into a cookie, and Pinar selects dried chile de arbol. No one takes sriracha which is good as it is not just spicy but also has vinegar and garlic notes.

Pinar is concerned as she doesn’t like spice at all and has no idea what her ingredient tastes like. She decides she has to rehydrate them to use them, but I imagine she also could have ground them and used them as a powder. I think that would make it easier to distribute the flavor evenly throughout the dough.

In any case, Pinar puts some diced rehydrated pepper into a Turkish coffee cookie with chocolate chips. She also makes a baklava inspired cookie with maple icing. Her plan is to make a 3-D Christmas tree and then to upend it into a red pot. She wants to make an elf next to the upside-down tree, holding a string of lights and looking naughty.

Once baked, Pinar makes her tree and then places it upside down in her edible pot. The top is not even so she ends up using a lot of melted chocolate to hold it in place. She then starts to pipe green needles on her tree but she quickly runs out of time. With just moments to spare, she tosses some sprinkles onto the board for fallen ornaments and uses fondant around the base of her elf to get her standing up. I find the whole thing looks a little messy.

Scott is making a lime butter sugar cookie. To avoid a complaint like Ryan got about lack of flavor, he glugs in quite a lot of lime extract. His second cookie is a Mexican wedding cookie with cayenne. His story is that there is a snowman selling snowballs. An elf comes along and replaces the snowballs with fireballs. The snowman comes back and sits on the elf in frustration.

To make his scene, Scott creates a wooden sign with “snowballs for sale” but snow crossed off and fire added. Under the sign, he places his Mexican wedding cookies as the snowballs. To make his snowman, he uses a technique I have never seen. Similar to making cake pops, he blends cooked cookies to a powder and adds in royal icing. He then forms this into balls, dips them in chocolate and sparkling sugar, and uses those balls to build his snowman. His elf appears as just a pair of feet under the snowman.

Bri starts off by soaking her jalapenos in ice water. Eddie notes this will take some of the heat out of the peppers, which I had never heard of as a trick. Usually I just remove the ribs and seeds if I want to get some of the heat out of a pepper. Once soaked, she attempts to add her jalapeno to a chocolate ganache. She adds more and more but can’t taste the pepper. Eventually she adds unsoaked jalapeno and decides she has gotten enough heat into her ganache.

She uses her ganache on top of gingerbread to create a woodgrain so that she can then build Santa’s wardrobe. Her idea is to show an empty wardrobe with a naughty elf standing near, wearing Santa’s suit. Her second cookie is a vanilla sugar cookie. She uses this for her elf and for a Christmas tree nearby. She stands her tree up on her board and then pipes red icing around the base like a tree skirt, mostly for stability. Sadly, the tree topples over and gets red frosting all over. Unable to get the tree to stand, she leaves it flat and blames that on the elf too.

All too soon for the bakers, it is time for judging. Bri is up first. Her wardrobe features a light inside which Vivian really likes, but Dan doesn’t think her box reads as a wardrobe. Vivian also notes the red on her tree. The judges enjoy the thin icing on her vanilla sugar cookie and are excited that they can taste jalapeno in her ganache but not the heat. Vivian, who does not appreciate heat, is particularly grateful to not get the heat.

Scott brings up his snowman scene. Unlike the others, he seems to have gotten all his planned elements complete without mishap. The judges love the details in his design such as his woodgrain and melted snow effects. Both his cookies pack a punch of flavor. His Mexican wedding cookies are hot, which Vivian does not like. His lime cookies are very strong but overall enjoyed by the judges.

Pinar presents her elf and upturned tree. Vivian immediately notices that the elf is Pinar and loves that she has made a cartoon version of herself. Dan notes the messier bits such as her hastily piped tree. The judges enjoy her baklava inspired cookie, though Dan wants more nuts and for the nuts to be toasted. They also like her Turkish coffee cookies but the coffee has completely masked any chile.

In the end, with a perfect combination of detail, flavor, technique and use of the special ingredient, Scott wins the day. He accepts his prize in tears but really, with his talent in 3-D cookie sculpture, I think this was his competition to lose.

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So who wants to make cookie masks for a party now? What fun to create all the traditional photo booth props in cookies! I might also have to go try Scott’s cookie ball technique and his marshmallow icing. Until next time, happy baking!