Christmas Cookie Challenge review: Bright Lights, Big Cookies


In this review of Christmas Cookie Challenge, five bakers repurpose classic cookie cutter shapes and then create festive stained-glass cookie scenes. Who can combine flavor and decoration into a perfect ten-thousand-dollar cookie?

Host Eddie Jackson introduces the first Christmas Cookie Challenge in this episode. Each baker must select a traditional cookie cutter. They will use it to make two cookies- a Christmas character and a scene featuring that character. The trick is that the cookies must use but can’t reference the original shape of the cutter. It’s a fun challenge for home bakers who have limited cutters and want to create different designs.

Kara White, a baker from Seattle, is making a chocolate peppermint cookie. Knowing judge Ree Drummond likes a soft cookie, she goes for an extra tender dough. She uses a Christmas tree cutter. Turning it upside down, she creates a portrait of Santa in a golf hat. The little trunk piece of the tree functions as the top of the golfing hat, and the point of the tree is his beard.

For her other cookie, she turns the tree sideways and creates a scene of Santa golfing. This seems to me to be a less successful repurpose as she is just drawing her scene within the confines of the tree, but most of the bakers struggle to do anything other than that with their scenes.

Leslie is excited and a little intimidated to see Morgan Gaunt competing. Leslie follows Morgan on social media. Morgan is making a classic vanilla sugar cookie and using a mitten cutter. She turns the mitten on its side and decides that the thumb is the entrance to a little mouse hole. Inside the hole will be a mouse and his decorated living room. For her other cookie, she uses the mitten upside down and makes use of the thumb to accommodate the curve of a candy cane that her mouse is holding.

Worried about time, she decides not to chill her dough. Not surprisingly, the cookies spread in the oven, losing a lot of their mitten shape. Knowing the challenge is about the shape, she decides she must try again. This time, she chills her dough but she is quickly running out of time. With just fifteen minutes left, she removes her cookies from the oven and frantically tries to decorate them, but it is messy and rushed.

Leslie Srodek works in a family bakery in Ohio. Many of their recipes are one hundred years old. She relies on one such recipe in making her cherry walnut cookie. Like Kara, she grabs a tree cutter and sees Santa. Turning the tree upside down, she makes Santa’s beard. The trunk of the tree is his nose. To make them more fun, she inserts sticks so you can use the beard like a prop. Turning the tree sideways, she creates a scene of Santa in his sleigh, complete with “polarized” goggles. Leslie’s only worry is the amount of frosting she is adding for Santa’s beard. To get the fluffy texture she wants, she ends up with layers and layers of icing.

Nathan Chandler from Idaho selects a gingerbread man cutter and vanilla sugar cookie dough. He turns the cutter upside down and uses the head for the round bottom of a snowman. He then uses the cutter on its side. Again using the head, he pipes an identical but impossibly tiny snowman. In the arms, legs and center of the cutter, he pipes even tinier people coming together to build more snowmen.

Velma Perez from Texas is also making a vanilla sugar cookie but she is adding lemon and almond extracts to make hers different. She has selected a bell cookie cutter but seems at a loss for how to repurpose it. When Eddie visits her to ask about her plan, she tells him she is planning to make a Christmas character and scene, basically just telling him the challenge they’ve been given as she still has no solid plan.

She finally decides that the bell would work to show a woman in a tacky, over-the-top Christmas tree hat. She will then make a scene of this woman’s Christmas cocktail party. Unfortunately, she doesn’t plan her scene out in advance and decides in the middle of piping that she doesn’t like it. She scrapes her icing off to try again, but this makes it look a little messy.

Ninety minutes flies by and it is time for judging. Our judges today are Aarti Sequeira, Dan Langan and Ree Drummond. Up first is Kara and her chocolate peppermint golfing Santa. The judges find her cookies adorable and absolutely love the soft, fudgy texture.

Nathan presents his vanilla sugar snowman cookies. The judges are awed by his tiny details and love that his miniature snowman has all the details of his large snowman, right down to the scarf pattern. However, they feel that the scene does not take advantage of the gingerbread man shape and the judges are disappointed in his ordinary cookie flavor.

Leslie’s Santa beard is a huge hit. Aarti comments that she’s never had a beard and Ree quips that she waxes hers. Leslie’s Santa beard really does seem to be the most fun and clever use of her cutter and they also like her Santa sleigh scene. However, the mounds of frosting have hidden the cherry flavor of her walnut cookie, much to Leslie’s disappointment.

Velma is next to present her Christmas party cookie and woman with tree-shaped hat. The judges enjoy the hat cookie and feel it has met the spirit of the challenge but find her scene less successful. It doesn’t read as a party as the woman is alone. The woman also has no face and Aarti feels the bell shape she selected is not being used in the scene. Sadly, they also are not impressed with her flavor as they do not get the lemon or almond in her sugar cookie.

Morgan is last to face the judges with her mitten mouse and house. The judges enjoy her large mouse character and admire her use of the thumb for the curve of his candy cane. However, she did not flood her cookie so the mouse stands on a bare background. Her mouse house is cute and includes a lot of detail for how rushed she was. However, here she did frost the background but in a rough brown icing that Dan feels takes away from the neatness of the cookie. In general, the judges note that her cookies lack finesse. Her vanilla sugar cookie has a good texture but needs more salt.

With messy piping and a safe flavor, Morgan is first out. She is quickly followed by Velma for her inability to fully embrace the challenge and her missing lemon and almond flavors.

Three bakers stand for the final challenge- a 3-D stained glass cookie sculpture using a naturally staining ingredient. Kara gets red wine. Nathan gets turmeric and Leslie gets coffee.

Kara had hoped for coffee and is a little stumped by how to get wine flavor into her cookie. She decides to go for a mulled wine flavor so she adds a number of spices to her dough. She then adds a couple of spoons of wine, worried to make her dough too wet. Even with that little wine, she struggles with her dough.

She hopes to make a lantern with stained glass panels. She attempts to cut out her shapes only to find that the soft dough is not cooperating. She eventually puts it into the blast chiller but worries about time lost. When she finally feels the dough is workable, she grinds up hard candies and places the bits into the cut-outs in her dough. Panicking a bit as she sees other bakers decorating, she decides to also put unmelted isomalt into her cut-outs, hoping it will melt in the oven.

I am not surprised to see that her isomalt does not melt. The little white bits sit unchanged in her cookie. Her hard candies have melted but to me they look a little messy- bubbly, leaky, and with little color splashes on her cookies. She decides that she will melt some isomalt and then pour that over the unmelted isomalt in her cookies, hoping for it to all melt into a see-through panel. This also does not work but she decides she has gotten an unexpected frosted glass look and is pleased.

Finally having her stained-glass panels, Kara starts to decorate her panels with intricate piping details. I worry about her decision to decorate first and assemble after. Will this mar her icing? Will she have time to assemble? I am pleasantly surprised when she gets her lantern assembled without any mars in her beautiful piping.

Leslie decides to make a coffee gingerbread. She hopes to create a gift box with a large, round ornament on top. Everything about her plan is risky. She cuts large panels of dough for the sides of her box and then cuts out most of their middle. She is going to fill that space with her stained glass, but this means that her box will lack a lot of the stability it would have had with whole cookie pieces. She hopes baking the gingerbread for a long time will give it the strength it needs, but this could also be detrimental to her cookies’ taste.

To make her ornament, she greases and flours bowls and drapes her dough over them. These are fragile and could break so she makes extras. The whole technique could also fail in many ways- the dough could refuse to come off the bowls, the dough could slump and lose shape, the two pieces could refuse to come together into one sphere. Still, she pulls it off, getting her desired orb.

Rather than melting isomalt or sprinkling in crushed candies which is what bakers usually do, Leslie arranges red and green candies on a silpat and puts them in the oven to melt. There is nothing to control their shape as they melt so I expect disaster, but she ends up with a rectangle of warm, pliable stained glass. She cuts this with scissors and uses it in the empty panels of her gift box. She also cuts circles out of her warm cookie domes and molds her candy glass to the inside for curved windows. It’s brilliant.

Unlike Kara, Leslie elects to construct her piece first and decorate afterwards. She manages to make an impressive gift box with an ornament on top and a stained-glass candy bow. However she runs out of time to add much icing. She does manage to pipe Christmas scenes onto the glass of her box, another clever touch that neither of the other bakers consider.

Nathan is making a turmeric gingerbread replica of his grandfather’s oven. He hopes to have a stained-glass window in the front and a tray of cookies inside. His construct is fairly simple, mostly being a large white box. For his glass, he first pours in a clear layer of isomalt and then he adds blobs of colored isomalt on top. He swirls the colors while still warm to get a cool effect. However, I wonder how the judges are supposed to see his tray of cookies inside as his glass is quite thick.

With just ten minutes left, things go rapidly downhill for Nathan. He is trying to use hot sugar to glue his pieces together but it is drying too quickly and his oven collapses. As he tries to grab the falling pieces, he ruins the icing. Trying to simply get the box to stand, he has no time to add the top of the oven so he has a simple open box. The rack inside also breaks so he removes it and now has an empty open box.

Time is called and poor Nathan is up first. The judges sympathize with his troubles and focus on the positives. They love his technique for the stained glass and they enjoy the turmeric in his gingerbread. They also find it perfectly baked.

Kara is next with her lantern. The judges love her intricate piping and her totally not accidental frosted glass technique. Dan points out that her sides don’t really match so her lantern is a little lopsided, but it is still beautiful. The judges like the spice in her cookie but get no wine at all.

Leslie proudly delivers her Christmas gift box and ornament. Everyone is impressed by her different shapes, especially the sphere. Dan loves that she has created panels of glass, rounded glass windows, and a glass bow. Dan wishes that he wasn’t seeing so much bare gingerbread, however. The judges love the strong coffee flavor in her cookie but wish it wasn’t quite so baked.

With bated breath, the contestants await the final judgement. Leslie, with her risky design and multitude of glass techniques, has won the day. She is so pleased to have represented her family bakery well and to have made them proud.

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I completely agree with the judges’ decision. In both rounds, Leslie presented really clever ideas. Her Santa beard on a stick using a tree cutter is great fun and could be adopted by any home baker. Her decision to melt a sheet of flexible candy was brilliant and I think is the only way I would approach this technique going forward. Anyone else want to try it with me?