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The sweet results of this year's Los Angeles Times Holiday Cookie Bake-Off

For those of us who love to bake, the holidays can be an especially sweet time of year. This is the season we stock up on festive cookies and family favorites to set out at parties and share with those closest to us. But beyond the colorful icing and sugar rush, these homemade creations are about so much more, speaking to memories, traditions and what it means to come together. This is true when you're gathered in the kitchen baking, and it's true when you're lucky enough to receive a plate of homemade favorites. It's also true when you're running a cookie bake-off.

This fall, we asked Los Angeles Times readers to share their special recipes and stories with us for our sixth Holiday Cookie Bake-Off, and then to vote for their favorites. We received 130 submissions, and close to 20,000 votes were cast.

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We took the top 20 recipes and judged them to come up with our five favorites. It wasn't easy. There were so many wonderful entries, some traditional, some novel, some homey and some ornate, each inspired by family history and memories. Monday, we invited the finalists to The Times' Test Kitchen to celebrate their recipes and stories.

Deborah Pappalau's Mexican chocolate Christmas cookies are inspired by the cinnamon-sugar dusted churros and rich Mexican hot chocolate that signify the holidays for her family. "My husband and kids think these cookies taste like Christmas," Pappalau said.

Four of the top five contestants from the 6th Los Angeles Times Holiday Cookie Bake-Off. Lt to Rt: Deborah Pappalau, Fiona Marshall, Beth Corman Lee and Jessica Levy holding their cookies.
Four of the top five contestants from the 6th Los Angeles Times Holiday Cookie Bake-Off. Lt to Rt: Deborah Pappalau, Fiona Marshall, Beth Corman Lee and Jessica Levy holding their cookies. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

For Suki Wada and Fiona Marshall, the cookies are all about fun. Wada uses gingerbread people cookie-cutters, elaborately decorating each cookie. "They're fun to make and decorating the cookies is even more fun," she said. Marshall, who at 15  is our youngest finalist, paired her great-grandmother's snickerdoodle recipe with her father's love of salted caramel ice cream. An avid baker, she created her salted caramel snickerdoodle cookies as a special Christmas surprise for him, forming each cookie around a caramel square.

Jessica Levy's Linzer cookies take their inspiration from the nut-based Austrian Linzertorte, a spiced, almond-based buttery crust filled with preserves and covered with a lattice top. Her almond- and hazelnut-based cookies feature cutouts revealing a layer of raspberry preserves. But instead of butter, Levy uses coconut oil for a vegan option. She also flavors the cookies with pumpkin spice, and as they bake away in the oven, the aroma for her is the smell of the holidays.

Beth Corman Lee's rose, cardamom and pistachio snowballs represent tradition, her family's various cultural backgrounds, and a bit of a mystery. The snowballs were a cookie her mother-in-law used to make, but when she died, she left no recipe. Lee experimented with various recipes to come up with the cookie her husband remembered from his childhood, then added spices and nuts inspired by the Middle Eastern cookies called ghraybeh. "These cookies represent our family's past, our present," said Lee, "and hopefully a long future appreciating the diversity of our heritage and the new flavor memories we will make for generations to come."

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Twitter: @noellecarter

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