As the spirit of the holidays was shifting into 3rd, the bakers in the 2nd Annual MercerMe Cut Throat Cookie Exchange were preheating, rolling, filling, piping and baking their way to patisserie glory. 

Twenty-three would-be Cut Throat champions gathered at the home of Ron and Amie Rukenstein, presenting their best freshly baked offerings.  Chocolate, lemon, peppermint, matcha and chai were some of the featured flavors, along with curry and black pepper which made an appearance in this epic cookie battle where one might not expect to find them. There were all shapes and sizes of cookies, each vying for the attention and praise of our five “celebrity” judges — an interesting collection of three local residents, a business owner and a school principal.

Not only was the competition stiff but the judges were not timid in stating their expectations of the participants.  “Baking is not my thing” stated Dr. Rosetta Treece, Principal of Timberlane Middle School in Hopewell Valley. “But I know a good cookie when I taste one and I know a bad one when I taste one as well and I am not afraid to let someone know.”  Clearly the judging table came with taste buds primed for excellence and would not accept anything less.

Amid the festive atmosphere, one could see the contestants eyeing the trays, plates and tins of their respective rivals.  Last year’s winners were all there, carefully surveying the table.  Lisa Wolff, last year’s most original cookie winner, was spotted sizing up potential threats.  And best tasting winner from 2015, newly minted Pennington Borough councilwoman Beverly Mills, seemed quite confident with her cookie. With the fireplace warming the room, hors d’oeuvres, cheese and fruit trays, mini sandwiches, baked brie and the free flowing libations slowly gave way to the reason we all gathered. Let the games begin!

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Mary Galioto, MercerMe’s publisher and editor-in-chief, served as hostess and ferried each cookie to the judges, one of which was her husband and fellow MercerMe contributing writer, Ryan Kennedy. With so many delectables to taste and four categories in which to judge, the evening’s events quickly got underway.

“We scored each cookie in the four designated areas,” said Donald Ade, an IT professional at Princeton University and eager judge of the competition. “Best tasting, best looking, most original and best in show.” With the judges sequestered in a room to taste and deliberate, Mary asked fun trivia questions of the bakers and handed out a few prizes of kitchen utensils and baking tools to those who answered correctly.

We were fortunate to have two sponsors for this year’s cookie exchange.  The Gingered Peach located in Lawrence Township, served as our main sponsor provided the grand prize for the “Best In Show” winner. And The Gingered Peach owner, Joanne Canady-Brown, served as a celebrity judge.  Joanne also generously provided Gingered Peach gift cards to all those who participated and a few t-shirts to those who won in other categories.

Pennington’s own Cugino’s Italian Market, also generously sponsored and provided gift baskets to the winner in the three categories and a $35 gift card. Cugino’s owner and manager, Joe Egitto,  and manager was scheduled planning to judge but unfortunately was was unable to at the last minute but we are hoping to get Joe on board for next year.

As the judging drew to an end, it was great to see people sharing with one another and seeing 23twenty-three bakers from Trenton, Ewing and Hopewell Valley laughing and chatting.  In reality, beneath the online “smack talk,”, behind the search for the perfect recipe, beyond the flour, the butter, the sugar and all the secret ingredients, the Cut Throat Cookie Exchange is really just a glorious holiday party created so we could get folks together…and eat cookies.

Finally, Mary come out and announced that the judges were ready with their decisions. As the judges entered the room, faces were full ofyou could see hopeful anticipation in many faces.  It really was a spectacular array of well- made, good- looking cookies so I don’t think that no one trulyany of us envied the judges in their task.

The first category judged was the “Best Tasting,”, which went to first time participant, Joanne Palowean for her “Crunchy Coco Coffee Cream” cookie.  The judges thought the flavor was balanced and different.  Palowean was pleased with her win and gift basket saying, “Wow. I’m in shock!.”

“Best Looking” cookie went to Milan Medikeri-Naphade for her “Lemon Raspberry Thumbprint” cookie.  And thatI can honestly say that her cookie got a lot of attention.  It was beautiful and judge, Ron Rukenstein commented that it “lLooked like a work of art.”  It was right up there with last year’s best looking winners, Kurt and Sheila Reynertson’s cookie.

“Most Original” cookie went to probably one of the most timid bakers of the bunch, Aime Weiss for her “Chai Clementine” cookie.  Aime, who had expressed to doubts about her ability at successful baking and her numerous failures, had clearly done some serious work to have walked away with a prize and leave us with such an ingenious and tasty treat.

Finally, the big moment was upon us.  Who could it be?  In a perfect world, it should have been me but given the events that shocked us all just a few weeks prior, I knew that all bets were off.  It was funny watching people look around the room, trying to guess who it was.  I was looking in the mirror.  As Mary read off the name of the “Best In Show” winner, an utterly gob-smacked Justine Hernandez Levine let out a brief gasp of disbelief.  Her face was priceless as she looked around expecting someone else to step forward. Her cookie, “The Three Wisemen’s Treasure,”, a fantastic cookie representation of the gifts of the magi, including curry, had fascinated the judges cerebrally and gastronomically.  Applause broke out as last year’s winner Theresa Miller, placed the crown on Justine’sher head.  JustineHernandez Levine was then presented with a Gingered Peach t-shirt and the grand prize, a 6-quart professional KitchenAid Stand Mixer in a light blue color provided by Joanne Canady-Brown, Gingered Peach owner.

Hugs, congratulations and more libations punctuated the end of our gathering but not before the real reason everyone come to this event.  We took cake boxes, again provided to us by the Gingered Peach and, in a single file line, went around the presentation table, each constant and judge taking one of every cookie until they were all gone. Needless to say, Eeveryone went home with a MercerMme mug and over 50 tasty cookies to share…… or not share.

And that’s the way it all went down at this year’s 2nd Annual MercerMme Cut Throat Cookie Exchange.  A fantastic evening with some talented and creative bakers, in a warm and inviting venue with fantastic hosts, supported by local businesses and community members.

Please join us next year, if you think you can rise to the challenge!  Notices will start appearing in October and the competition is usually the first Ssaturday in December.  While we all walked away with great cookies, we also left with a renewed sense of community and many budding friendships.  Now that’s what the holiday season and MercerMme is all about.  Happy Holidays!!

Special Thanks to Joanne Canandy-Brown and the gang at The Gingered Peach for their generous sponsorship of this community event. They are located at 2 Gordon Avenue in Lawrence Township NJ.

Special Thanks also to Joe Egitto and the folks at Cugino’s Italian Market for generously sponsoring this event as well.  They are located at 147 West Delaware Avenue Pennington NJ.

Please consider patronizing our sponsors at your next family or business gathering or everyday needs.  Yum it up!!

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