By Jason DeRusha

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — After 15 years and more than 3,500 recipes, Rick Nelson and Lee Svitak Dean may be the Minnesota cookie experts.

“There’s a real cookie culture here that doesn’t exist in other parts of the country,” Nelson, the Star Tribune’s food critic said. “There’s something about cookies, holidays and family members that come together.”

In 2003, Nelson suggested to his editor, Lee Svitak Dean, that the paper have a cookie contest.

“I have to say this was entirely Rick’s idea,” laughed Dean.

In its first year, there were more than 120 recipes submitted. Year after year the contest would grow larger, with more and more Minnesotans hoping to be judged “Minnesota’s Best Cookie.”

“We would get recipes with notes that say, ‘This is my great-grandmother’s from 100 years ago that I’ve been eating my whole life,’” Nelson said.

After 15 years of winners, Nelson and Dean have gathered the winners and runners up from each year in a new cookbook, The Great Minnesota Cookie Book.

You’ll find Swedish Shortbreads, Cardamom Crescents and Sambuca Chocolate Crinkles. It’s a contest that brings out the competitive nature in Minnesota bakers.

“You want the best cookie at the potluck, want everyone to know it’s yours,” Dean said.

Devil’s Delight won in 2005: it’s a hint of spice and a dash of nice – featuring a chopped-up spicy chocolate bar, as well as cayenne and cinnamon.

The Almond Palmiers were top 5 in 2011, with puff pastry surrounding the creamy almond inside.

“There are probably a dozen cookies out of here that I bake with regularity,” said Nelson. “There are definitely some true winners,” Dean added.

Entries come from schoolkids, hard-core bakers, and one inmate in the Stillwater Prison.

“It wasn’t good enough. We appreciated the effort,” she laughed.

Each October, Nelson and Dean go through all of the submitted recipes, filtering out recipes with ingredients they don’t believe belong in cookies.

“We won’t use pudding mix, or certain types of candies in a cookie,” Nelson explained.

No snickerdoodles, no sugar cookies — they’re looking for something new.

They narrow it down to 20 recipes that sound interesting and they bake them, in search of a variety of recipes.

“Some are more crowd-pleasing, some are more savory. You can be a beginner or you can be a skilled baker,” Dean said.

And being named winner almost guarantees that Minnesotans are going to bake that cookie. In 2014, the recipe for the winning Italian Almond Cookies called for 2 1/2 cups of almond flour. Twin Cities grocery stores quickly ran out.

“I called Supervalu, the large grocery wholesaler, and they said ‘Why is everyone buying almond flour?’ It was a really good cookie, that’s another one of my favorites,” Nelson said.

The goal of the cookbook, according to the duo, is to get Minnesotans to expand their baking horizons and take some risks.

“There’s not much that goes wrong with a cookie,” Dean said. “In the worst case scenario, you eat it. If it doesn’t’ look good, you still eat it. There isn’t a downside for cookies at all,” she said, noting that cookies can be a gateway for more challenging baking, like cakes and breads.

Ultimately, though, cookies are about creating new memories and traditions, one bite at a time.

“I think cookies just make people happy,” Nelson said.

Watch Rick and Lee share their Top 5 secrets for baking the perfect cookie.

The Great Minnesota Cookie Book is available at local bookstores, online at Amazon and also at Barnes & Noble.

Meet Lee Svitak Dean and Rick Nelson at Cooks of Crocus Hill on Wednesday, Oct. 24 at 6 p.m. The cost to attend is $65, which includes cookie sampling and a copy of the book.

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