Q&A: The Baker Behind the Star Tribune Holiday Cookie Contest

Lunds and Byerlys chef Amy Carter has led the contest’s baking operation for the past six years
Chef Amy Carter, who helps organize and bake for the Star Tribune’s Holiday Cookie Contest each year.

Courtesy Amy Carter

Cookies are chef Amy Carter’s “favorite thing.” From working in restaurants and running her own bakery to teaching at a culinary school, and now, focusing on product development initiatives at Lunds and Byerlys, Carter has years of experience in the food industry. She even invented the Lunds and Byerlys “Boosted Donut”—a pastry that doesn’t compromise on a donut’s signature yumminess, but is also high in protein, fiber and iron. It’s no wonder she’s been a leading force behind the Star Tribune’s annual Holiday Cookie Contest for six years.

Minnesota Monthly spoke with Carter about how the contest’s behind-the-scenes cookie-making operation has evolved over the years (including why it was especially challenging in 2020) and looking back at the most memorable cookies she’s baked for the contest.

How did you get involved in the Star Tribune’s Holiday Cookie Contest?

I was still teaching at the [Art Institutes International Minnesota culinary school]. [Star Tribune restaurant critic] Rick Nelson and [food editor] Lee Dean contacted the school and said, “Would you guys be interested?” And I said, “Cookies happen to be my very favorite thing, if I had to pick a favorite thing,” so I said, “yes!” The first year, I put together a team of students and former students. On Friday night, we came together and made all of the doughs. On Saturday morning, first thing, we baked them all off and put them in a presentation mode. The people from the Star Trib came over, and a relationship was born. We had a great time!

Considering we are still living in a pandemic, what did this year’s baking operation look like?

Rick [Nelson] put together a Zoom call and we came up with a plan. I had a crew of professionals who have helped me for years, so they knew the routine. I put together a list of all of the ingredients, bought them, and divided them among the five of us. Because [the Star Tribune] got so many entries this year, Rick, Lee and [other Star Tribune staff] baked some too. Saturday morning, we went over to Rick’s garage, where tables were set up—fortunately, the weather was decent. Everybody went around and gathered [the cookies] and then we had a Zoom meeting [from our homes], where we sat around and tasted.

So, everyone had to bake the cookies at home this year? How did that work out?

Yes, this year we ended up baking 27 cookie batches all together—the most that we’ve done since my first year, when I think we did 26. For me, I don’t have a great oven at home, so it’s one tray at a time. And I did [all of the baking and preparations] after work, because I work from early in the morning to about the middle of the afternoon. I had my kitchen organized and a really great, big KitchenAid mixer, enough sheet trays and parchment paper, and I had racks to cool cookies. Thursday, I organized my kitchen. Friday, I made all of the doughs (except for the “Chai Meringues,” which I made day-of). Saturday morning, I started early, because I had to bake and organize from everybody else. I’m always up by 4:30 or 5 a.m., so it was about the same on Saturday. Organizing all everything in advance because I’ve been a professional chef for way more years than I ever want to say—that helped.

Thinking back, what are the most memorable cookie recipes you’ve baked for the contest?

There have been some really interesting ingredients. Last year, one recipe called for spruce needles. I had to get one of my coworkers who lives out in the country to hunt down a spruce tree and cut down some branches. And of course, we had to make sure they weren’t sprayed [with chemicals]. We brought the needles in and had to grind them up. We did try [making the recipe] with juniper berries, too, just in case it was wonderful, and we had to give people an alternative so they didn’t go cut down the trees in the state parks or anything.

What did you think of this year’s winning cookie, the “Spumoni Squares”?

I loved the “Spumoni Squares.” The name kind of threw me, but I loved the variability of them. As a teacher, I used to tell students, “There’s certain ingredients you can always switch around.” With [this recipe] you can change the fruit and nuts on the top. It’s wonderful—it gives people choices and the license to have fun with it. Also, the “New Scenic,” an icebox cookie that has a swirl of fig jam, blue cheese and walnuts… I am a huge blue cheese fan and fortunately Lee [Dean] is also a savory-sweet cookie type person. We both liked that one. But this year, there were a lot of fun ones. The “Chocolate Salami,” which is a no-bake cookie, was great. So, I loved the winner, but I also loved the runners-up.

Do you have an all-time favorite Holiday Cookie Contest recipe?

That’s like trying to pick a favorite child!

What are your tips or tricks for baking cookies at home?

I never count on the temperature and the time that recipes say, because I do not like overbaked cookies, unless they’re supposed to be crisp. Overbaking and drying out a cookie is a sad thing to me! I never let it go the amount of time that it says—if it says “bake for 20 minutes,” I never let it go that long. I also know my oven, so I tend to change the temperature… I think 375 [degrees] can be too high. If I had my choice, a convection oven at 325 is the best. And, parchment paper! Parchment paper is the way to go.

What’s the best part about participating in this contest every year?

This is such a wonderful, Minnesotan thing. I’d never heard of this before I moved here. It makes it feel like I’m in a small town even though we live in a big city, for me. It brings people together, and tells great stories, which is what I love.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for style and clarity.