A Cut Throat New Year: A Recap of MercerMe’s Seriously Competitive Cookie Competition

Happy New Year! Yes, we have reached the end of our first week of the new year complete with two ownow days for those of us with school-aged children.  Some of us couldn’t wait to see the tail end of 2017 and are filled, once again, with a renewed hope that this year will be better. So, with the decaying carcases of Christmas trees dotting the landscape of housing sub-developments across the Valley, may the resolutions commence. We’ll finally lose that pesky 25 pounds we’ve been wanting to lose. We’ll go to the gym and get in shape. We’ll spend more time with family and friends or maybe we’ll run a half marathon, the one with the colors. We’ll get our finances in order or we’ll finally win that blasted MercerMe Cut-Throat Cookie Exchange that we should have won three years ago. Yea, about that last one.

The third annual MercerMe CutThroat Cookie Exchange was wonderful again this year and (again) this year I, eh-hem, “allowed” another worthy baker to prevail and thus, take home the coveted crown. Plainly, yours-truly did not bring home the crown.

On a warm December evening, 24 bakers and five judges, met at the home of Ron and Amie Rukenstein for some delicious cookies. Smack talk and posturing subsided as each baker brought forth their creation, hoping to best the others in one of the four categories: best looking; best tasting; most original;  a new addition called sponsor choice; and best in show. There were some very creative cookies and flavor combinations, as well as some old favorites that always remind us of the holiday celebrations.

2017 judges (left to right): Joanne Canady-Brown, Donald Ade, M. Hermann, Ryan Kennedy, and Ron Rukenstein

This year our judging panel consisted of: Ryan Kennedy, our newly minted Hopewell Borough councilman; Ron Rukenstein, our gracious host; Donald Ade, possessor of taste buds extraordinaire; freshman judge and all around supporter of all things Hopewell Valley, M. Hermann; and finally, Joanne Canady-Brown, owner and head baker of The Gingered Peach whose treats rest solidly on the hips of many residents here in the Valley.

We also had some wonderful sponsors this year whose contribution helped to make the evening even more enjoyable. Cugino’s Italian Market in Pennington, once again, provided three stellar gift baskets brimming with specialty items to add a little bit of Italy to any celebration. David Bradley Chocolatier provided a few tasty treats for every participant to take home, as well as gift certificates for three of the categories, and an honorable mention prize.

Seeds to Sew International’s CEO, Ellyn Ito, generously gave each baker an Ekiteng bag created by women in Kenya, as well as a bracelet made with Enkisoma beads. Joanne Canady-Brown and The Gingered Peach surprised us all by supplying another grand prize this year, giving us two best in show prizes to be won. We were also fortunate this year to have two private sponsors whose generosity made it possible to provide prizes for both the competition and the trivia game.

With the judging having begun, bakers mingled, ate delicious food, laughed and sipped libations. No doubt, there was quite a bit of side-eye sizing up of offerings based on the number of casual stroll-bys of the presentation table that I saw.  What a table it was with everyone commenting on which ones they wanted to try first.   Some of the flavors that were popular this year were lemon and ginger, with more than one cookie sporting some variation of that combination. Alcohol also made its presence known in a few cookies this year, as did white chocolate.

2017 Best Looking Cookie

As the evening progressed, the bakers participated in a trivia game hosted by MercerMe’s editor and publisher Mary Galioto, where the correct answer got you a little something to help you on your next baking adventures. Prizes like measuring spoons, whisks, bench scrapers, microplanes, extracts, oven mitts and such graced many take home bags that evening.

Finally, just as the game was drawing to a close, we were told that the judges had completed their task and were ready to award the prizes.

The best tasting cookie went to Maura Caroselli, a first timer, for her “Grammy’s Spiced Cookies.” She was stunned when her name was mentioned but that quickly changed to joy.

Best looking cookie went to Sarah Ohls for her “Cider Pecan Cookies.”  Sarah has been a participant since the very first cookie exchange and clearly came ready to win. Something. Another first time participant won for most original cookie, a vanilla shortbread with strawberry chipotle jam and chipotle infused vanilla icing was Shaun Palms, representing the capital city of Trenton. Gina Mastrosimone, won an honorable mention for her “White Chocolate Dipped Ginger Biscotti.”

Ultimately, first-timer Jackie Cooper Conrad, who had only signed up at twelve o’clock that afternoon, came away with best in show for her “Dark Chocolate Peppermint Cookie.” We were all blown away that she had only signed up that day and walked away with the grand prize. It was amazing. Along with a bevy of items such as a silpat, holiday cloth napkins, measuring cups, vanilla bean paste, prep bowls and a few other items, she also received a Fagor Multi-cooker. Not a bad haul for a first timer.

A thrilled Joanne Pawelko won the second best in show prize for her “Coffee Caramel Cookie.”

Thanks to the gang at The Gingered Peach who teamed up with the folks at Williams-Sonoma in the Princeton Market Fair and presented her with Joanne Canady Brown’s personal wish list of items, which included a french rolling pin, cookbook, and various utensils to make the perfect loaf of bread.

Our sponsor choice prize, selected by Ellyn Ito, went to Caitlin Koether and her “Raspberry Chocolate Chip Snowflake.” Caitlin was presented with a handmade basket of items from Seeds to Sew International, an organization that helps empower women by teaching them basic sewing and business skills and provides girls with opportunity to bead bracelets and make other products as a way to pay for school-fees and school-related expenses.

Elyn Ito, Seeds to Sew

With holiday spirits high, all the bakers… Ya know what?  You know how it goes.  Everyone left with a huge box of cookies — three of each kind to share and they lived happily ever after.

Look, the whole point of this article is that I did not win.  Again. I’m starting to suspect some Russian interference with the judging here.  Anyway, I am preparing now for next year’s cookie exchange and I know that this will be my year. That is my resolution: victory!  So, until then, please visit the wonderful sponsors of this year’s cookie exchange, get out and taste life, try some new foods and read The Taste Chase!

If you have any ideas about what you want me to write about or places you think I should visit, just drop us a line in the comments section at the bottom of the article. Yum it up. Tell all your friends.

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Renata Barnes
Renata is the author of "The Taste Chase," MercerMe's own food review column. She's a lover of all things poetic, colorful, funny and inspiring. A native New Yorker, who grew up in Hopewell Valley and spent the better part of her adulthood back in NYC, currently finds herself in a growing love relationship with “the Valley”. Latin food, Indian saris and mehndi, French perfume, African music, Middle Eastern spices, South American jewels, Asian fabrics and anything from just about any island (maybe not Riker’s Island) are things that remind her to go out and taste the world, live passionately and always wear deodorant. The mother of one rambunctious boy and the wife of a mellow fellow, Renata tries to put her too many years of university and her film and writing talents to good use here in NJ. “I’ve spent too much time trying to fit in some where when I probably belong everywhere. That slow revelation has been freeing.”

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