The Star Tribune picks the best holiday cookie -- and you can make it

Apple Cardamom Pecan Star Cookies
Jana Freiband cooked up a winner with her Apple Cardamom Pecan Star Cookies.
Tom Wallace | Star Tribune

As the Star Tribune food critic, Rick Nelson has the oh-so-delicious job of coordinating the newspaper's annual holiday cookie contest. Each year, the Star Tribune receives about 300 submissions and must comb through them, looking for a delicious cookie with unique ingredients and a good story.

Nelson joined MPR News host Tom Weber to talk about this year's winner — the Apple Cardamom Pecan Star Cookies from Jana Freiband of Minneapolis — and all things holiday cookie-related.

The winning recipe

Apple Cardamom Pecan Star Cookies

This recipe comes from Jana Freiband of Minneapolis, the winner of the Star Tribune's 13th annual holiday cookie contest.

Makes about 18 sandwich cookies.

Note: This recipe must be prepared in advance. Commercially prepared apple butter is readily available. To toast pecans, place nuts in a dry skillet over medium heat, and cook, stirring (or shaking the pan frequently) until they just begin to release their fragrance, about 3 to 5 minutes (alternately, preheat oven to 325 degrees, spread nuts on an ungreased baking sheet and bake, stirring often, for 4 to 6 minutes). Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.

For cookies:

• 2 c. flour, plus extra for rolling dough
• 1/2 tsp. baking powder
• 2 tbsp. powdered sugar, plus more for decoration
• 1/8 tsp. salt
• 2 tsp. ground cinnamon
• 2 tsp. ground cardamom
• 3/4 c. pecans, toasted (see Note)
• 1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
• 1/4 c. granulated sugar
• 1 egg
• 1 tsp. vanilla extract
• 1/4 c. milk or water, as needed

For apple butter (see Note):

• 4 apples, peeled and sliced
• 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
• 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
• 1/4 tsp. ground cardamom
• Pinch of ground cloves
• 1/4 c. brown sugar
• 1/2 tsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice


To prepare cookies: In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, powdered sugar, salt, 2 teaspoons cinnamon and 2 teaspoons cardamom. Set aside.

In a bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade, pulse pecans until nuts are very finely ground. Whisk into flour mixture.

In a bowl of an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat butter and granulated sugar until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add egg and vanilla extract, and beat until thoroughly combined. Reduce speed to low, add flour mixture and mix just until combined and dough forms, adding enough milk or water to make dough pliable. Form dough into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, at least 2 hours.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper.

On a lightly floured surface, using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll dough to 1/8-inch thickness. Use a star-shaped cutter (about 3 to 4 inches) to cut cookies from dough, and use a smaller star-shaped cutter (about 1 to 2 inches) to cut shapes out of the center of half of the cookies. Repeat with remaining dough, gathering up scraps, rerolling and cutting until all dough is used.

Place dough 1 inch apart on prepared baking sheets. Bake until cookies begin to brown and dough is just set, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from oven, cool 2 minutes and transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.

To prepare filling: In a saucepan over low heat, combine apples, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, nutmeg, 1/4 teaspoon cardamom, cloves, brown sugar and lemon juice, and cook until apples are soft and can be easily mashed, about 30 to 45 minutes. Pass mixture through a food mill (or pulse in a food processor fitted with a metal blade) to a smooth consistency. You should have about 1/2 cup apple butter.

Add a small teaspoonful of apple butter to the center of a bottom cookie and form a sandwich with a cutout cookie. Repeat with remaining cookies. Dust with powdered sugar, if desired.