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In 2019, we started a new holiday tradition here at the Indy: The Great Indy Bake-Off. Employees from all departments — sales to design to digital to editorial — offered up their cookies to the discerning palates of our judges. Then we shared our winning recipes with you, our readers! It was such fun, we couldn’t imagine not doing it this year.

So even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we decided to host the Bake-Off as best we could. While gathering together in one room to view the judging would be impossible, we came up with ways to make the competition work — social-distance style. Our bakers, taking all possible health precautions, baked at home, then either dropped their cookies off at the office or left them on their front porches for contactless pickup. 

The judging, socially distanced in our large building, was streamed on Facebook Live Dec. 4, so bakers and readers alike could see which cookies brought a sparkle to the judges’ eyes.

Our judges this year included Indy food writer Griffin Swartzell (who brought real expertise to the table, plus a fabulous Noel Fielding cosplay), assistant publisher Jenn Cancellier (possibly the sweetest person on staff, so an appropriate judge for a competition of sweets) and special guest judge Brooke Orist, owner/founder of Sasquatch Cookies. For who knows cookies better than the owner of the ’squatch? We at the Indy have always been enamored of Sasquatch’s fluffy, warm-out-of-the-oven cookies — and the fact that they had delivery down long before COVID came around — so we may have spent a little time fangirling over Orist’s company before we got down to business.

We presented each judge with a platter of 14 cookies — getting through all of them without succumbing to a sugar high was no small task. While chocolate chip and oatmeal starred that night, overall our employees presented a wide variety of tasty treats for our judges to savor.

“There was a nice assortment here, lots of different stuff,” Orist said. “Good submissions, so you don’t feel like you’re eating the same cookie 14 times.”

“I agree,” Swartzell added. “The bakers really put a lot into it this year, and we did get a good variety with some classics, some different ones, and some simple twists on ones that are familiar.”

But the judges had to agree on their five favorites to share with our readers. Competition was stiff (and sometimes contentious)!

Swartzell, who also judged 2019’s competition, said the baking had improved quite a bit since last year — maybe due to all that time we’ve been spending in the kitchen during quarantine!

“I’m really glad the bakers of the company brought out their A-game and really showed us what they can do,” Swartzell said.

So if you’re looking for a new recipe for your holiday cookies — simple or complex, gluten-free or gluten-full — look no further than the following, where our winning bakers share the top five recipes from the 2020 Great Indy Bake-Off.

Bon appétit, and happy holidays from all of us here at the Indy

#1 Cantuccini by Senior Account Planner Teri Homick 

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 1½ c. whole raw almonds (with skin) 
  • 4½ tbsp. unsalted butter, softened 
  • 1¼ c. white sugar 
  • Zest of one large lemon 
  • 2 eggs 
  • 1¾ c. wheat flour 
  • 1 c. almond flour 
  • 1½ tsp. baking powder 
  • Pinch of salt 
  • 3 tbsp. vin santo (fortified wine) OR 2 tbsp. almond extract plus 
  • 1 tbsp. vanilla extract

PROCESS: 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. On a large parchment-lined baking sheet, toast almonds in the oven until fragrant and slightly golden — 12-14 minutes.Leave on baking sheet to cool. 

In a large bowl, mix butter and sugar with a big spoon (you could also use a mixer set on low) until smooth. Add lemon zest and eggs and beat well. Mix in the flours, baking powder and salt. Stir in the almonds and vin santo (or extracts) until thoroughly combined. 

Dust work surface with flour, turn out the dough and divide into four equal portions. Form four long logs — about 1½ inches high, 2 inches wide and 15-16 inches long. Carefully place dough logs on the same parchment-lined baking sheet and leave room between them for spreading. Tuck in any stray almonds and ensure each log is of uniform shape and size. Bake for 25-28 minutes — until they start to turn slightly golden. Carefully lift them off baking sheet and place onto the counter to cool slightly — approximately 8 minutes. They will be a little soft and fragile. 

With a sharp serrated knife, cut each log into ½-inch to ¾-inch slices on the diagonal, by gently breaking through the surface, and chopping straight down to shear the almonds cleanly for tidy cookies. 

Arrange cookies on baking sheet with cut sides up. They are still fragile at this stage, so do not rush this step. You should be able to get all four logs’ worth of cookies back on the same baking sheet, tightly packed. 

Place cookies back in the 350-degree oven for approximately 10-15 minutes. Watch them closely, as you do not want them to overcook. Cool on a wire rack and store in an airtight container. Delicious on their own, or dunked in coffee, tea, port or Tuscan vin santo!

#2 Mini Wake Me Ups by Digital Director Jessica Kuhn 

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INGREDIENTS: 

  • ¾ c. Crisco butter-flavored vegetable shortening 
  • 1 c. Splenda brown sugar blend 
  • 2 tbsp. milk 
  • 2 tbsp. Baker’s imitation vanilla flavor 
  • 1 large egg 
  • 2 c. all-purpose flour 
  • 1 tsp. salt 
  • ¾ tsp. baking soda 
  • 1 c. Ghirardelli Classic White Chips 
  • ⅓ c. Nestlé Toll House Espresso Morsels

PROCESS:

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Beat shortening, brown sugar blend, milk and vanilla in a large bowl until blended. Mix in egg and then stir flour, salt and baking soda into the mix. 

Next, stir in white and espresso baking chips until evenly distributed into the mix. Drop teaspoon size balls onto a cookie sheet about 2 inches apart. Bake 8-10 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes. Place on wire rack to cool completely. 

Makes about 50 mini cookies.

#3 Ricciadelli (Gluten-free) by Senior Account Planner Teri Homick 

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 egg whites 
  • ½ tsp. lemon juice 
  • 2¼ c. almond flour 
  • 1¾ c. powdered sugar 
  • 1 pinch salt 
  • ¼ tsp. baking powder 
  • Zest of half a large orange 
  • 1 tbsp. almond extract 
  • 1 tbsp. vanilla extract 
  • ⅓ c. powdered sugar (for coating)

PROCESS:

Whip egg whites and lemon juice together with a stand or hand mixer until stiff peaks form. 

Using a fine-mesh sieve, sift almond flour, 1¾ cups powdered sugar, salt, and baking powder into a large bowl. Then fold dry ingredients into egg whites in 2 to 3 batches. Try to keep some air in the egg whites, but know this will be a sticky dough and not a fluffy meringue. 

Add orange zest, vanilla and almond extracts and fold in until well combined. 

Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Using clean hands, roll dough into balls about ¾ to 1 inch in diameter (depending on how large you want cookies to be), then roll in powdered sugar until well coated. Shape into ovals, then arrange on baking sheet with some space between for spreading, and flatten slightly. 

Leave at room temperature for about an hour or until the tops have dried out and formed a little shell. Pre-crack the shell by squeezing the cookies slightly from opposite corners. Not doing this won’t affect the taste, but pre-cracking makes much prettier white-gold contrast. 

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. When the cookies are sufficiently dry, bake for 10-12 minutes for chewier texture, or 18-20 minutes for a crisper texture. Remove from pan to cool, then store in an airtight container.

#4 Oatmeal and Dried Fruit Cookies by Front Desk Coordinator Cathy Reilly

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 1½ c. flour 
  • ½ tsp. salt 
  • ½ tsp. baking powder 
  • ½ tsp. cinnamon 
  • 1 c. (2 sticks) butter, softened 
  • ¾ c. granulated sugar 
  • 1¼ c. dark brown sugar 
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract 
  • 2 eggs 
  • 3 c. oats (quick cooking or old fashioned) 
  • 1 cup dried fruit (this recipe uses Trader Joe’s golden berry blend, which contains golden raisins, dried cranberries, dried blueberries and dried cherries)

PROCESS:

Mix flour, salt, baking powder and cinnamon together with a fork and set aside. 

In a separate bowl, cream together butter, sugars, vanilla and eggs, adding the eggs one at a time and mixing between additions. 

Mix oats into wet ingredients and combine thoroughly. Mix in flour combination. Mix in dried fruit. 

Cover and store in refrigerator for two days. (Note: I have also made this and baked it the same day and it turned out just fine — some baking aficionados believe that refrigerating the dough for a couple of days keeps the butter closer to a solid state for baking and thus allowing for less spread of the dough than a room-temperature dough.) 

To bake, heat oven to 350 degrees. 

Drop 2-inch dough balls, spaced 2 inches apart, on ungreased cookie sheets and bake for approximately 12 minutes, longer if you like a crispier cookie. Cool on sheet for about 1 minute and then remove to a cooling rack. Store in a closed container when cookies are cold.

#5 Give! Caramel Brookies by Give! Campaign Manager Alicia Cover 

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 box Krusteaz Triple Chocolate Chunk Cookies mix 
  • 1 c. (2 sticks) butter, softened 
  • 2 eggs 
  • 1 box Betty Crocker Delights Supreme Chocolate Chunk Brownie Mix 
  • Ghirardelli Caramel Sauce

PROCESS:

Mix Krusteaz Triple Chocolate Chunk Cookies ingredients as suggested on box (mix, egg, 1 softened stick of butter), cover and place mixture in fridge for 1 hour. 

Make the Supreme Chocolate Chunk Brownie Mix with one egg and one softened stick of butter (leave out water and oil; this would make the brownies too runny). Cover and place in fridge for 1 hour. 

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. 

Once cookie and brownie mixes are cooled, remove from fridge, spray baking pan with nonstick spray. 

Form brownie dough into 1½-inch balls and slightly smoosh onto the pan 4 inches apart, making a thick circular shape. Make a slight finger indent in the middle of each brownie dough circle for caramel sauce to go. Portion caramel sauce into the center of each indent. 

Roll the cookie dough into 1½-inch balls and flatten enough to cover the top of the brownie dough and seal off so caramel doesn’t drip out. Bake for 10-18 minutes or until the brookies are golden brown on top and fully cooked in the middle. Let cool and enjoy! 

Makes 1-2 dozen, depending how large you make them!

Associate Editor

Alissa Smith is the associate editor of the Colorado Springs Indy, and has lived in Colorado Springs since 1996. She has coordinated listings, curated featured events, herded cats, and both edited and contributed to Queer & There.