We have a WINNER in our Holiday Heritage Recipe Contest!

Merry Christmas! We can’t believe we’re here already, about to announce the winner of our Holiday Heritage Recipe Contest. Over the past month we have received 39 entries from 15 states and two Canadian provinces, and narrowing down our contestants to just three finalists was a difficult task.

Tony, Gio and I spent an entire weekend poring over each recipe and its heritage story to determine our top five favorites. We then made those five confections for a round of tasting by a panel of volunteer judges, who tightened up the race by determining which three entries would advance to the final round, where the public would vote online for the winner. We were relieved at this stage, as the three of us could not have reached a consensus on our own.

Giovanni was a fan of the Swedish Spritz cookies and was championing the only entry from a fellow kid in the entire contest…until he tried the chocolate-coated Joy to the World Balls, a recipe submitted by Donna Kelly of Provo, Utah. Donna’s heritage story pulled our heartstrings with images of faraway family members being comforted at the holidays by the familiarity of tradition. After savoring this sweet, coconut confection, Gio followed his taste buds and declared this decadent treat the (symbolic) victor.

My favorite entry was the Belgian Lukken Cookies, a family recipe submitted by Suzanne LaPalm of Oakdale, MN. I enjoyed reading her heritage story nearly as much as the wonderful photos she included. And then there are the cookies themselves, made with a special lukken or pizzelle press which we ended up buying so that we could make Suzanne’s cookies for the semifinals. It was worth every penny because these cookies are to-die-for. To me, Suzanne’s entry embodies the very essence of this contest, and her story and photos are evidence that this sweet treat will remain a holiday tradition for generations to come.

But, in the end, after four hundred and two votes were cast over two days of online voting, only one finalist could emerge the winner, and that honor goes to twelve-year-old Astrid Axtman of Fargo, ND, with her Great-Grandma Elsa’s recipe for Swedish Spritz cookies.

Of course, Tony claims bragging rights, too, as the voters  agreed with his top pick, but who can blame him? Astrid was the only youth to enter our contest, and she was competing against some seasoned competitors, as well as two food bloggers in the finals.

Before tasting the cookies, Tony was rooting for Astrid because he is a tender-hearted dad who loves to cook with his son. Spritz are an old-world favorite for many of us with Scandinavian heritage, but they were new to Tony, who kept poking fun at their name. But after Gio and I made our first batch with our brand-new cookie press, Tony knew he’d picked the winner. He loves a sweet treat that isn’t too sweet, and these Spritz cookies are right up his alley. Besides, who can resist a story with names like Elsa, Elvie and Astrid? Not many, especially in our region.

You can find all of the contest recipes on our blog right HERE. We wish to thank everyone who participated, either by sharing your heritage recipe with us, or by voting. Congratulations, Astrid, and Merry Christmas! We wish you a happy new year filled with wonderful goodies made in your new Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer.

Astrid Axtman’s (Great-Grandmother’s) Swedish Spritz Cookies

HERITAGE STORY
My Great-Grandma Elsa immigrated to the United States (from Sweden) in 1920. She taught herself English by reading the back of sugar sacks and comic books.  I’m fortunate that one ten-pound sack of sugar has made an impact on the following generations. With that sack of sugar, my Great Grandma Elsa started a tradition of making spritz cookies, dying wreathed shaped cookies green, and garnishing them with red icing, or sometimes even sugar dyed red!

My Grandma Elvie remembers how these cookies were a staple around the holidays. As my grandmother shares, this was passed down and by the time she started making them, sprinkles had become popular thus the icing was replaced. My mother says they go back as far as she can remember; sometimes her mother would even shape them as trees.

Grandma continues to make them for us grandchildren, and that’s where I come into the picture. Even though I’m only 12, I have enjoyed learning family baking from my Grandmother. I would really enjoy making many batches of cookies with the KitchenAid mixer and passing on this tradition!

Astrid Axtman’s (Grandma’s) Spritz Cookie Recipe

Ingredients:
1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ½ cups sifted flour (all-purpose)
green food coloring
red sprinkles

Directions:
In a stand mixer or large bowl; cream butter. Gradually add sugar; cream well. Add egg, salt, almond extract, and vanilla. Beat. Gradually add food coloring until it turns a nice green color. Blend in flour. Once it forms a dough, put the dough through a cookie press.

Bake to a delicate brown at 400 degrees for 6 to 8 minutes. Makes 6 to 7 dozen.

Peppermint Bark: An Easy, Last-Minute Holiday Treat

This week on North Dakota Today, Tony and our nine-year-old son Giovanni demonstrate how to make one of our favorite holiday treats, Peppermint Bark.

Peppermint Bark is the very first treat we make to kick off the holiday baking season, and Gio and I have been making it together since he was two years old, just like my mom did when I was growing up. This is a great recipe to try with kids as it’s easy, affordable, and basically foolproof.

There are only three ingredients: a dozen candy canes, vanilla almond bark, and peppermint extract. There have been many occasions where Gio and I have forgotten to add the peppermint extract, but the result is still minty and delicious. See? You really can’t mess this one up.

We make several batches of Peppermint Bark to give away as gifts to friends, family, teachers, and others who touch our lives throughout the holiday season. We love that this recipe can be made well in advance of serving (up to at least a month), and we use cookie tins lined with wax paper to keep it fresh.

Small tins or cellophane gift bags work well for Peppermint Bark gifts, and we like to attach a customized label to make the gift extra special. I am always surprised by how much good will this simple treat creates – people are so pleased to receive this gift. If you’re still looking for a Christmas gift idea, why not make a batch or two yourself f before the holiday?

From our family to yours, we wish you a very Merry Christmas!

Peppermint Bark

Serves:  Many

Ingredients:
1 pkg vanilla almond bark
12 candy canes, regular size (not the small canes)
¼ teaspoon peppermint extract

Instructions:
Blend the candy canes in a food processor until desired texture is achieved. We prefer to blend them until all large pieces are crushed, and the mixture is just a little grainier than sugar. ***This step is the “special something” that makes this peppermint bark soooo delicious.

Melt the almond bark in the microwave according to the instructions on the package, or in a sauce pan over medium-low heat, until all lumps are gone. Remove from heat and stir in the peppermint extract first, then the crushed candy canes until thoroughly mixed.

Line a baking sheet with waxed paper and pour the bark mixture onto the sheet, smoothing out to reach all edges. Once all the bark has been transferred, lift the sheet up with both hands and gently bang it down on the counter a few times to smooth out the mixture. Place in a refrigerator or cold place and allow to set until completely hard, at least one hour.

When bark is hardened, peel from waxed paper and break into pieces (like toffee or peanut brittle). Store in an airtight container until gone.

VOTE TODAY & Help Us Pick A Winner!

***VOTING IS NOW CLOSED***
THE WINNER WILL BE ANNOUNCED ON CHRISTMAS DAY!

Welcome to the Final Round in our Holiday Heritage Recipe Contest, and CONGRATULATIONS to our Top Three Finalists:

We can’t believe we’re here already, with Christmas just one week away and our contest coming to a close. We love all three of these entries (and so many more), and if it was up to Tony, Gio and me there would probably be a 3-way tie.

All three recipes are unique and special in their own way, but they do share some common threads.

  1. To our delight, all three of these recipes are ideal for making with kids, which means that they stand a pretty good chance of remaining a tradition in our contestants’ families for generations to come.
  2. All three of them have wonderfully touching heritage stories, and knowing the story behind each sweet treat somehow makes them taste even better.
  3. We have made each of these recipes at least twice now, and they are solid – we have had consistently good results each time.
  4. Gio and I love to prepare bags, baskets and boxes full of holiday goodies to give as gifts to friends and family, and all three of these recipes will be included in our repertoire from this year forward.
  5. All three of these cookies can be made early in the season: the spritz will keep well in the freezer, the chocolate balls can stay in the fridge for up to one month, and the lukken cookies can be stored in an a cool, dry place for several weeks. Love, love, love this fact!

So: Who is going to take home this brand-new Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer? And who are we rooting for? While we love all three recipes, we each have our favorite…it’s a good thing we’re not choosing the winner, or this Christmas could get ugly in our house.

TONY’S PICK:
Will it be the young baker Astrid Axtman of Fargo, ND, with her Swedish Great-Grandmother’s recipe for Spritz cookies? We loved her heritage story of Elsa’s American journey, especially her creative methods for learning the English language. This is a great recipe to make with kids – we’ve made them twice with Giovanni already and have loved working with a cookie press. Gio has added a light glaze and LOTS of sprinkles to them, but Tony loves to eat them plain. These cookies were Gio’s hands-down favorite – until he tried the Joy to the World Christmas Balls.But that’s okay, because they definitely have Tony’s vote

SARAH’S PICK:
Will it be Suzanne LaPalm of Oakdale, MN and her family’s special recipe for Belgian Lukken cookies? Suzanne’s story and photos capture the heart and soul of this contest, with a multi-generational recipe passed down through the ages, and her photos of three generations still making these cookies together. And let’s be honest: who can resist a cookie with a little whiskey in it? We had to buy our own pizzelle maker to create these old-world favorites, but these cookies are worth it – now we can experiment with other goodies like pizzelle and waffle cones/bowls. Take it from us: Suzanne’s family cookies are amazing, and they are Sarah’s favorite to win.

GIOVANNI’S PICK:
What about Donna Kelly of Provo, UT, and her special recipe for Joy to the World Balls, a divine chocolate-coconut Christmas candy that is like an Almond Joy candy bar, but SOOO much better. We loved Donna’s story, too, especially the way these candies have been able to connect her loved ones with special family memories, even from a distance. Her story makes us want to start a new Christmas tradition and ship boxes of these goodies to our loved ones far away. Giovanni took one heavenly bite and fell absolutely in love with these goodies, and who can blame him? With chocolate, coconut (and even healthy coconut oil!), and almonds, these candies are a strong contender, and they have already won Gio’s vote.

Thank goodness this matter is now out of our hands, and IT’S UP TO YOU to decide who will reign supreme and be the proud (and hopefully happy) owner of our grand prize, a brand-new Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer. VOTING WILL REMAIN OPEN UNTIL 10 PM TONIGHT, Thursday, December 19, 2013.

To vote, we ask you to read each finalist’s recipe and story (posted below) and then cast your vote in the poll, which is located at the end of this post and also along the right side of the page.→→→

Which sweet confection is so enticing that want to run right home and make it? Which heritage story pulls at your heartstrings and/or fills you with the holiday spirit? Which photo leaves you longing to find that sweet treat on your holiday table?

We will tally up the votes and announce our winner on Christmas Day online here at the blog and at www.inforum.com, as well as in the print edition of The Forum newspaper. If you haven’t already subscribed to receive updates whenever something exciting happens here at Home with The Lost Italian, make sure you get signed up today. (Just enter your email address in the box to the right that says “SUBSCRIBE.”)

We’ll also announce the winner through social media on Facebook and Twitter (@sarahnasello or @thelostitalian), so feel free to follow us on those sites, too. :)

Please, read on and VOTE FOR YOUR FAVORITE!

FINALIST #1:
Swedish Spritz Cookies
submitted by Astrid Axtman of Fargo, ND

My Great-Grandma Elsa immigrated to the United States (from Sweden) in 1920.   She taught herself English by reading the back of sugar sacks and comic books.  I’m fortunate that one ten pound sack of sugar has made an impact on the following generations. With that sack of sugar, my Great Grandma Elsa started a tradition of making spritz cookies, dying wreathed shaped cookies green, and garnishing them with red icing, or sometimes even sugar dyed red!

My Grandma Elvie remembers how these cookies were a staple around the holidays. As my grandmother shares, this was passed down and by the time she started making them, sprinkles had become popular thus the icing was replaced. My mother says they go back as far as she can remember; sometimes her mother would even shape them as trees.

Grandma continues to make them for us grandchildren, and that’s where I come into the picture. Even though I’m only 12, I have enjoyed learning family baking from my Grandmother. I would really enjoy making many batches of cookies with the KitchenAid® mixer and passing on this tradition!

Astrid Axtman’s (Grandma’s) Spritz Cookie Recipe

Ingredients:
1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ½ cups sifted flour (all-purpose)
green food coloring
red sprinkles

Directions:
In a stand mixer or large bowl; cream butter. Gradually add sugar; cream well. Add egg, salt, almond extract, and vanilla. Beat. Gradually add food coloring until it turns a nice green color. Blend in flour. Once it forms a dough put the dough through a cookie press.

Bake to a delicate brown at 400 degrees for 6 to 8 minutes. Makes 6 to 7 dozen.

FINALIST #2:
Joy to the World Christmas Balls
Submitted by Donna Kelly – Provo, UT

There are foods that bring a remembrance of Christmases past. Our “Joy to the World” Christmas candies do that for us.

My mom’s family created this recipe and now my children make these candies, a four generation tradition. If a child of mine is not with us for Christmas, I package them up and send them off and I picture my child opening the box, inhaling the sweet coconutty smell and then biting into a candy, flooding their taste buds with memories of their childhood. Kelly Family Christmas in a bite.

I added my own twist and changed the diced pecans to diced toasted, lightly salted almonds. We loved the change, and my son Jake renamed the candies “Joy to the World” balls, since they now have a little of the flavor of Almond Joy candy bars!

And another tweak added by my generation: I switched up the butter to coconut oil, so now these are *** Healthified*** Christmas Candy. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. Christmas candy with healthy fat.

JOY TO THE WORLD BALLS

Ingredients:
12 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 tablespoon shortening
8 ounces sweetened coconut
2 pounds powdered sugar
1/2 cup coconut oil
1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
2 cups diced toasted, lightly salted almonds
1 tablespoon vanilla

Directions:
In a large bowl with a large sturdy spoon, stir together coconut, powdered sugar, coconut oil, condensed milk, almonds and vanilla. The mixture will be very thick! Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours (I once left this in my fridge for a week and it was just fine).

Remove coconut mixture from fridge and roll into balls about the size of a walnut.
In a double boiler, melt shortening over simmering water. Slowly stir in chocolate chips and keep over very low heat.

Using a sturdy toothpick, dip coconut balls into melted chocolate and set on a sheet of wax paper to cool. Dip tops of candies in chocolate to cover the toothpick hole. Refrigerate candies until ready to use – will keep up to one month.

FINALIST #3:
Belgian Lukken Cookies
Submitted by Suzanne LaPalm – Oakdale, MN 

The Story:
Shared over five generations, the Belgian cookie lukken is our sweet holiday tradition. When my great-grandmother emigrated from Belgium, she brought the recipe with her and it’s changed little over the years.

Once made on an ijzer (iron) placed over the fire, we now cook them on pizzelle makers or a modern lukken iron. The recipe we currently use was clipped from a US-based, Belgian newspaper in the 1950s and has been adapted for that new-fangled electric pizzelle “iron.”

Growing up, there was always lukken at Grandma’s and Great-Grandma’s during the holidays, but it wasn’t until after they were both gone that I got in on the making of it. For years now the tradition is the day after Thanksgiving, we gather at my brother’s big house for what I call the lukken-making EXTRAVAGANZA!

Three generations, from ages 8 to 80, come together to transform the dough into hundreds of perfectly formed balls. You then place the balls on the pizzelle maker, close it up, say one Hail Mary, open it up and you have perfectly golden lukken. They are then transferred by spatula to the cooling area for stacking and wrapping into packages of one dozen to enjoy ourselves or give as gifts.

Even with some lukken sneakily snarfed up during the extravaganza, with three batches, we usually end up with about 40 dozen.

The Recipe:
From time to time I’ve come across cookies that look similar, although with different names, some even Belgian, but nothing has ever matched the buttery, whiskey-mellowed sweet treat that is lukken!

Ingredients:
1 pound unsalted butter
6 eggs
3 oz. whiskey (yee haw!)
1 pound brown sugar
1 pound white sugar
2 pounds flour
Dash of salt

Directions:
Melt butter and cool. Add slightly beaten eggs and beat lightly. Add sugars—first the brown and beat lightly, then add white sugar, whiskey, and salt. Sift flour, add, and blend well. Store batter in the refrigerator overnight.

Shape into small balls and place, two at a time, on pre-heated lukken ijzer or pizzelle maker. Close and wait approximately 30 seconds. Open, and if cookies are golden, remove to cooling rack. Repeat until all balls have been cooked.

No need to freeze these cookies; just store in a cool, dry place. We make them right after Thanksgiving and the whiskey helps the flavors to develop more over the next few weeks, when they’ll be at their peak! My mom says that when she was a kid, the adults would enjoy their lukken with a shot of whiskey. Enjoy! Makes 12-14 dozen.

TO VOTE, PLEASE SELECT ONE CONTESTANT’S RECIPE IN THE POLL BELOW (you may need to refresh your browser for it to appear) OR ON THE SIDEBAR TO THE RIGHT. You may also record your vote for one of out three finalists by writing it in the Comments section below.

***VOTING IS NOW CLOSED***

Our Holiday Heritage Contest Semi-Finalists Are…

Between the frenzy of holiday activity and a recent bout of the flu at our house, the past week was kind of a blur for the Nasellos. Luckily, Sunday and Monday were a bit more benevolent to us.

Tony, Gio and I spent all day Sunday poring over the recipe/story entries in our Holiday Heritage Recipe Contest in an effort to declare which contestants would be moving on to our semifinal round for further adjudication. We send forth a collective “thank you” to all of you who have entrusted us with your special holiday recipes and stories – what a gift this experience has been to our family. You have filled us to the brim with the holiday spirit.

We read each recipe and story together, each of us rating and ranking them by story, photograph and recipe. Some stories were read twice, or even three times, and we all found our favorites.

Photographs were highly encouraged, though not required, for entry, and we found this tool most helpful in narrowing down our top contenders. Christmastime is a visual feast in so many ways, and many of you were clever enough to include a photo with your entry.

Holy cow, was this ever a difficult task for us! We each found ourselves personally identifying with certain stories, licking our lips at particular photos of sweet confections, and silently, or in many cases NOT so silently, rooting for our favorites.

We whittled down the list to about a dozen recipes, and spent Sunday evening and all day Monday testing them so that we could make an informed decision when determining which recipes would advance to the semifinal private tasting round tonight. I don’t think my kitchen has ever smelled so heavenly.

After hours of rating, ranking, debating and defending our favorite choices, we finally reached a consensus. Without further fanfare, we are pleased to present our Semifinalists, in no particular order:

Once the tasting has concluded this evening, we will announce which contestants will be moving into the Final Round for the public to vote online and decide who will be the lucky winner of this brand-new, gorgeous Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer.

Final Round Voting will be open to the public here on the blog only starting on Wednesday, Dec. 18 and will remain open until 10:00 PM on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013. The winner will be announced online both on the blog and at www.inforum.com, and in the printed edition of The Forum on Christmas Day, Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013.

Thank you to everyone who has shared their special heritage recipe and story with us, and good luck to all of our semifinalists!