Winning cookie recipe handed down through generations
Published: Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 6, 2012 at 6:25 p.m.
When Ruth Mansell used to visit her mother-in-law in Roswell, Ga., she was often greeted with a batch of freshly baked tea cake cookies.
Explore the Star-Banner/Gainesville Sun Holiday Cookie Database.
For best results, follow these tips when baking cookies, courtesy of the Good Housekeeping Test Kitchen Cookbook.
Butter vs. margarine: While butter and margarine are interchangeable in some cookie recipes, for the best flavor and texture, use butter. If you perfer margarine, make sure it contains 80 percent fat. Spreads (low-fat, whipped, liquid, or soft) have a high water content, which produces tough cookies that lack flavor.
Don't overmix: For the tenderest cookies, once the flour has been added, mix the dough just until blended.
Spooning it: Use a measuring spoon to scoop up equal portions of dough to make consistently shaped cookies that will bake in the same amount of time. For drop cookies, place spoonfuls of dough 2 inches apart, unless otherwise directed, to allow room for the cookies to spread during baking.
Rolling it: When rolling out chilled cookie dough, roll out one portion at a time; keep the remaining dough covered in the refrigerator. If chilled dough cracks when rolled, let it stand at room temperature to soften slightly, then try again. Be sure to dust the work surface lightly and evenly with flower before getting started with rolling. To keep the rolling pin from sticking, rub it well with flour or lightly dust the top of the dough.
It's a recipe that has been passed on to family for years, and Mansell said she knows it stands the test of time.
“It's a little like potato chips,” Mansell said. “Once you try one, you tend to want to have another.” And then another, she said.
Mansell's batch of Grandma's Tea Cakes was the winning entry in The Gainesville Sun's annual Cookie Contest this year. It was one of 21 cookie recipes, ranging from Sweet Potato Cookies and Orange Puffs to Mint Meringues and Date-Nut Chewies, that were submitted. The contest was open to amateur bakers of all ages.
Entries were judged based on appearance, taste and originality, using a scale of one to 10 for each category. Scores were tabulated to determine one winner and four runners-up.
Mansell, an interior decorator who has lived in Gainesville for 44 years, said the best part about her family's cookies is the simplicity of the recipe. She said she likes how crisp they are and how few ingredients it requires to bake them. A self-described occasional baker, Mansell bakes two or three times a year and said she enjoys trying out new recipes from magazines.
“It finally hit me one day that I needed the recipe, and I was surprised at how simple it was,” Mansell said. The recipe includes flour, butter, sugar, pecans and a choice of almond or vanilla flavoring.
The four runners-up, in no particular order, were Pecan Praline Cookies by Leah Pate, Cranberry Almond and Chocolate Biscotti by Sarah Smith, Cinnamon-Chipper Snickerdoodles by Michelle Weidner and Apple Cinnamon Cookies With Cinnamon Glaze by Aaliyah Harris.
Last year's winning cookie was the Coconut Caramel Cookie baked by Darrin Gillins, 16, a junior at Eastside High School's Institute of Culinary Arts. Gillins, who returned as a judge for this year's contest, said he keeps an eye out for unique flavors, shapes and designs. After sampling the 21 entries last week, Gillins was confronting the difficult task of choosing just one favorite.
“I'm trying to narrow down my last two, but I just can't,” he said, pondering the ballot sheet in his hand.
Cookies have been around for hundreds of years. The first cookies originated as an accident when cooks placed a small amount of cake batter in the oven to test the temperature before baking a full-sized cake, according to The Kitchen Project, a food-history website.
The name cookie is derived from the Dutch word “koekje,” meaning “small or little cake.” Each country has its own word for cookie. In England and Australia, cookies are called biscuits; in Spain they're “galletas.” Germans call them “keks” or “Plätzchen” for Christmas cookies; and in Italy, there are several names to identify various forms of cookies, including amaretti and biscotti.
Cookie baking is a tradition in many American households, often becoming the first cooking lesson for children. And cookie eating is popular no matter a person's age, which is why it's not hard to find people willing to serve as cookie judges.
In addition to Gillins, the contest's five other judges included Stefanie Samara Hamblen, owner of the Hogtown HomeGrown newsletter and The Illegal Jam Company; Val Leitner, president of Blue Oven Kitchens; Rob Witzel, Sun photo editor; Casey Moore, Sun calendar editor and a writer for Gainesville Magazine; and Doug Ray, The Sun's executive editor.
Each judge had his or her own strategy. Leitner said she scanned each entry first to see which cookies stood out in appearance before making a second round to taste test each cookie. Sometimes the result was unexpected.
“The flavor is good, and then it hits you with salt,” she said, as she bit into one cookie. “That's a shame. Whatever they did ruined the flavor.”
Hamblen said that while taste is a priority for her, appearance also is crucial for a holiday cookie.
“I taste tiny bites at first and then go back for seconds if they're good,” she said. “Otherwise you'll go into sugar overload.”
Hamblen said she tends to be drawn to more creative recipes.
“I'm looking for a balance of flavors,” she said as she reviewed her list of cookies. “I'm also looking to avoid an aftertaste.”
A common mistake is to use too much baking soda or salt, Hamblen said.
While other judges sought out originality, Leitner said she was impressed by some of the more basic creations to which bakers gave their own twist.
Some of the entries that took creative license included recipes for Black Walnut Oatmeal Cookies and Chocolate Chunk Cookie Brittle.
“There are quite a few [recipes] that are pretty traditional that people have done well,” Leitner said.
Winning recipe a family treasure
My mother-in-law, Lillian, used to treat us to Grandma's Tea Cakes when our family went to visit in Roswell, Ga., where my husband, Bob, was raised. All of us loved them, especially me. The recipe came from Lillian's mother-in-law, Maude. Both of these women lived into their 90s. Fortunately, I realized I needed to get the recipe for my files so the recipe would not be lost to our family. I'm so glad I did, and they are “the best” with coffee and tea. I can't believe they are so simple and you always have the ingredients.
-— Mrs. Ruth Mansell, Gainesville
Grandma's Tea Cakes
Cream 1 cup butter and 1 cup sugar
Add 1 teaspoon soda and 1 teaspoon almond flavoring or vanilla
Add 2 to 2½ cups flour, stirring in slowly until it is the consistency to roll. Start with 2 cups and add what is needed.
Roll out between waxed paper or plastic wrap to about 1/8- to ¼-inch thick. I prefer them crisp, so try to roll thin. Sprinkle chopped pecans over rolled dough, and use rolling pin to roll them into the dough before cutting.
Simple shapes of cookie cutters can be used, or just crisscross with a knife leaving you with many shapes and sizes.
Bake at 375 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes, depending on thickness. The cookies will appear lightly brown around the edges. For the first batch, watch carefully because variation in ovens and heaviness of the cookie sheet will determine length of time. Enjoy!
Paula Dean recipe tweaked
I saw this recipe on a Paula Deen Christmas cookie show several years ago, which was submitted by a viewer from Alabama whose grandmother made these cookies every Christmas.
I tweaked the recipe by adding extra pecans and cinnamon to the praline pecans, and using Madagascar vanilla extract, as it has a richer vanilla flavor.
I have made these each Christmas since then, as my son and I especially like white chocolate and praline. The cookies always get rave reviews from family and friends.
— Leah Pate, Gainesville
Pecan Praline Cookies
1/3 cup sugar
1½ cups toasted chopped pecans
2 tablespoons water
1/8 teaspoon (a pinch) of cinnamon
Toast the pecans for 10 minutes in a 300-degree oven. In a small heavy saucepan over medium-high heat, stir the water, sugar and cinnamon constantly until boiling and the syrup is a light golden brown (about 3-4 minutes).
Remove the sugar from the stove and stir in the pecans. Pour this out onto parchment paper and let cool. Break apart the praline pecans when cool to use in the cookies.
1 cup butter at room temperature
1 cup packed brown sugar
½ cup granulated white sugar
1½ teaspoons Madagascar vanilla extract
2½ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
5 ounces white chocolate, melted
Praline pecans (recipe, above)
¼ cup toasted chopped pecans
Cream together the butter and sugars till fluffy. Add eggs one at a time and beat well after each. Add vanilla. Stir in flour and baking soda, and mix well. Fold in the praline pecans.
Drop by tablespoonfuls onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake for 13 to 15 minutes at 350 degrees, or until the edges are slightly browned.
When the cookies have cooled, melt the white chocolate, and drizzle over the tops, then sprinkle with the toasted pecans. Allow the chocolate to dry before storing.
With Christmas being my favorite time of the year, we always make it memorable.
Every holiday season, I remember being in the kitchen with my dad making fresh biscotti. Everyone in my family would join together munching on these crispy cookies. The smell of cookies baking brings holiday cheer to the household. I would always get the ends that were cut off fresh out of the oven.
Dipping the cookies in chocolate has always my favorite part, even though it is the messiest. Then we would enjoy them with fresh, homemade hot chocolate (and coffee for my mom!).
— Sarah Smith, Gainesville
Cranberry Almond and Chocolate Biscotti
1 stick butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, plus 1 egg white
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Zest of 1 lemon
½ cup whole blanched almonds, toasted
¾ cup dried cranberries
2 tablespoons turbinado sugar, for the tops
2 cups dark chocolate, for dipping
Preheat your oven to 300 degrees.
In a mixing bowl, combine the butter and sugar, then beat together until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl every once in awhile.
Beat in the eggs 1 at a time. Add the vanilla.
Gently mix in the flour, baking powder, salt and lemon zest. Once the dry ingredients are incorporated, fold in the almonds and dried cranberries.
Divide the dough in half and roll each half into a log. If the dough is sticky, dust with a little flour. Roll the logs to the length of a sheet pan.
Beat the egg white with a splash of water. Brush the logs with the egg white, and sprinkle with the turbinado sugar. Transfer to a sheet pan and place at least 3 inches apart. Bake for 30 minutes.
Remove from the oven, and let cool for 10 minutes. Remove logs to a cutting board, and slice on the bias about ¾-inch thick. Lay the biscotti back on the sheet pan, and return to the oven for another 10 minutes. This will harden the biscotti. Cool completely on a rack.
Melt chocolate in a double boiler till smooth. Dip cooled cookies in chocolate to coat.
Enjoy with a cup of coffee or just by themselves!
A holiday favorite
I got this recipe out of Better Homes & Garden Christmas Cookie Magazine 2011. The first time I made these cookies, I fell in love. They will be added to the list of cookies I make every year from now on. Definitely not your ordinary snickerdoodle — much, much better. Hope you enjoy them as much as my family and friends do.
— Michelle Weidner, Micanopy
2½ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 cup butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup cinnamon-flavored baking pieces
1 cup white baking pieces
½ cup coarsely crushed graham crackers (5 squares) or chopped hazelnuts (filberts)
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In medium bowl combine flour, 2 teaspoons cinnamon, baking soda, salt and baking powder.
In a large bowl, beat butter with electric mixer on medium to high speed for 30 seconds. Add the 1 cup granulated sugar and the brown sugar. Beat until combined, scraping bowl occasionally. Beat in eggs and vanilla until combined. Beat in as much of the flour mixure as you can with the mixer. Stir in any remaining flour mixure, the cinnamon pieces, white baking pieces and graham crackers.
In a small bowl combine the ¼ cup sugar and the 1 teaspoon cinnamon.
Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Roll balls into sugar mixture to coat. Place balls 2 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheets.
Bake in the preheated oven for 9 to 11 minutes, or until bottoms are light brown. Transfer cookies to wire rack; cool completely.
Makes about 60 cookies.
Combining two favorites
Growing up, we all have a sweet tooth that we can't get rid of. In my family, every year around the holiday season, we get to together and make delectables such as pies, cakes and cookies.
This year, when I heard about the cookie competition, I knew that I wanted to not only compete, but win. My grandma always told me if I found two things I loved to put them together, which is why for the competition, I entered Apple Cinnamon Cookies With Cinnamon Glaze. This cookie came from Washington, D.C., and with elections ending, I believe this seasonal cookie is a great way to start the holidays off right.
— Aaliyah Harris, Gainesville
Apple Cinnamon Cookies with Cinnamon Glaze
For the cookies:
½ cups butter, softened
1 cup brown sugar, packed
2 tablespoons sour cream
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon baking soda
2-3 apples, chopped
Finely chopped pecans, optional
For the glaze:
1 tablespoon melted butter
1 cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1-2 tablespoons water
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Cream together the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl until light in color. Add egg and sour cream; stir to combine. Add remaining ingredients, except apple, and stir until combined. Gently fold in the apples.
Drop the cookie mixture by the tablespoonful onto the prepared baking sheet.
Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until the tops are dry.
Make the glaze: Whisk together all of the ingredients in a small bowl. Add water until the glaze reaches the desired consistency.
Remove the cookies from the oven, and allow to cool on a wire rack. Drizzle the glaze over the cookies.
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