Home » Breaking News: Renata Barnes wins a prize at the Ninth Annual MercerMe Cut-throat Cookie Exchange

Breaking News: Renata Barnes wins a prize at the Ninth Annual MercerMe Cut-throat Cookie Exchange

by Amie Rukenstein
Best Looking cookie – Renata Barnes

It wasn’t the big one, but in a shocking development that left everyone left speechless for a minute, Renata Barnes won the “Best Looking” cookie prize at the Hopewell Valley’s most infamous baking challenge last night. It was a night of new faces and veteran competitors and, like every year, was the best one yet.

This year, contestants were faced with a twist: each entry was required to feature at least one locally (Mercer County) -produced ingredient (but not just local eggs because that’s too easy). This did cause some consternation in the past few weeks as people contacted MercerMe to ask things like: “If I buy peanut butter ground at Whole Earth in Princeton, does that count?” No sweetie, it doesn’t unless the peanuts were grown in Mercer County.” Grumble grumble.

The challenge was inspired by Barnes’ job as Director of Programs and Community Engagement at the Outdoor Equity Alliance, a non-profit organization that makes nature more accessible to marginalized communities, focusing on agriculture and environmental stewardship.

Overall, contestants met this challenge with aplomb, gathering all kinds of things that one might not initially consider. Fairgrown Farms, with locations on Aunt Molly Road and on Watershed Institute property on Wargo Road, were early allies to the contestants as they offered potential ingredients from ginger to squash. (One of the savory dishes brought to share during the exchange was a Mac & Cheese with butternut squash grown by Fairgrown Farms).

Rene Lawless won Best Use of a Local Ingredient with her Chai Apple Butter Snicker Doodles. Her local ingredients included Fuji, Cameo, Cortland and Pink Lady apples; heavy cream from which she made homemade butter; fresh ginger; eggs; and honey. Lawless said she was inspired by the challenge. “As soon as I saw that,” she said, “I was ready to go!”

Best in Show was won for the second year in a row by Catherine Cahill, who presented an amazing Pumpkin-Pecan Pie Macaron. Reaching a verticality not often seen in a homemade cookie, Cahill’s creation featured local pumpkin, honey, and eggs as well as Sourland Mountain Spirits Bourbon. The runner up was Monica Mesa’s Golden Buckeye Potato Chip Crunch using potato chips made from Terhune potatoes.

Most Creative cookie was won by a newbie to the Cut-throats, the uber-creative Max Hayden. Hayden, who tried to downplay his entry with some story about forgetting about the competition and just “throwing something together” Saturday afternoon, presented Nutmeg Matchsticks using local cranberries.

Two Cookie Exchange veterans won Best Tasting and HVRSD Superintendent’s choice. The former was Joanne Pawelko’s Pistachio Bourbon Balls featuring Howell Farm flour as well as Sourland Mountain Spirits Bourbon. The latter was Hannah McCollum’s Figgy Almond Honey Blossoms, which contained local honey and figs grown in her own garden!

Barnes’ entry was the beautiful And to All a Good Night using local lavender. Barnes described it as “A mug of hot dark cocoa, the subtle scent of lavender, comfort and cozy as you tuck in to bed on the night before Christmas. No bribes, no extortion. Just good baking and decorating.” Ok Renata, don’t go crazy.

We are incredibly indebted to our volunteers! Barnes was all worn out from the exertion of (finally) presenting a winning entry so she called in her boss, William Wilson, Interim Executive Director of the Outdoor Equity Alliance and Public Engagement of Duke Farms to stand in as emcee for the evening. Stacy Denton, who is the Director of Upward Bound at Mercer College, a partner of the OEA, and Sheila Reynartson, long-time friend to the Cookie Exchange, donned the PPE to distribute more than 2,000 cookies into packages for everyone to take home. Lillie Rukenstein helped to set up, break down and, most importantly ran her feet off carrying entries back and forth to the judges’ room. Thank you incredible people – we couldn’t have done it without you!

Our judges and, Best in Show winner Catherine Cahill (second from left)

No one works harder at the Cookie Exchange than our judges. Veteran Judge HVRSD Superintendent Dr. Treece kept everyone on point and brought the special prize that McCollum won. For the second year, Mrs. G’s sponsored the event (thank you Mrs. G’s!) and sent three representatives Andrea Churner, Matt Poslusny, and Michael Haines. Friend to the Exchange Jaquan Levons brought his cookie-eating prowess and, representing local farmers, we were delighted to be joined by Chickadee Creek Farms‘ Jess Niederer (NJ’s 2016 Outstanding Young Farmer) and brothers Alex and James Klett, founders of Fairgrown Farm. Chef Lauren Owens of Duke Farms rounded out the judging team. Thank you so much!!!

Playing trivia games while the judges deliberated.

A shout out also goes out to Jarad Roper, aka the Jam Man, of Roper’s Way Farm who donated a lovely cheese board for contestants and judges to enjoy. Some may know him from the Hopewell Farmers Market.

Lastly, we thank all the awesome contestants who brought their best work for good-natured competition and a fun time that raised the importance of shopping local. Several hundred dollars was raised in donations, which will be donated for local farming. You guys are all awesome, looking forward to doing it again next year!!!

Some of the local ingredients used included the following (not everyone identified the vendor and we didn’t collect everyone’s list. Many people used Mercer-produced ingredients paired with local ingredients from nearby counties):

These are just a few ways to shop local this holiday season!

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MercerMe is the only hyperlocal, independent, online news outlet serving Hopewell Valley in Mercer County, New Jersey.

Contact us: [email protected] 

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About Us

MercerMe is Hopewell Valley’s own digital news source, delivering in-depth, hyperlocal coverage that informs and strengthens the community.


Contact us: [email protected]

PO Box 260

Hopewell, New Jersey 08525

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