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To show off their baking skills and to celebrate the holidays, the employees of the Billings Gazette held a dessert baking competition on the day of their Christmas luncheon. For an additional incentive, once the judging was completed, the desserts were all available for purchase, by the slice or individual cookies. All the proceeds from the sales were added to the fund the employees had for their “Adopt a Family.” I had the pleasure, and difficult job, of judging the competition, which had several entries, and am sharing the top winners in each category.

Key lime cheesecake

This no-bake cheesecake, prepared by Darrell Ehrlick, took a top award in the cake category, and is a flavor delight. It is a much lighter version of cheesecake with the use of low-fat cream cheese and gelatin.

Bake off cheesecake

Key lime cheesecake is displayed for the Billings Gazette employee bake off on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017.


7 reduced-fat graham crackers, crumbled

1 1/2 tablespoons light butter, melted

3/4 cup fresh lime juice

1 teaspoon grated lime zest

1 envelope unflavored gelatin

8 ounces fat-free cream cheese, softened

8 ounces low-fat cream cheese, softened

1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk

1 cup fat-free sour cream

1 cup fat-free whipped topping

1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar


Combine the graham cracker crumbs and butter in a bowl; mix well. Spray a 9-inch spring-form pan with non-stick cooking spray. Press the crumb mixture into the bottom of the pan and bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool. Combine the lime juice and lime zest in a microwave-safe bowl. Sprinkle the gelatin over the surface; set aside for 10 minutes. Combine the cream cheeses in a mixing bowl or food processor and beat until smooth. Microwave the gelatin mixture on high for 20 seconds. Add the gelatin mixture and condensed milk to the cheese mixture and process until smooth. Pour into the prepared spring-form pan. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. Gently whisk the sour cream, confectioner’s sugar and whipped topping together in a bowl. Spread over the top of the pie. Chill for at least 2 hours before serving.

Source: Terry Conlan, Executive Chef at Lake Austin Spa and Resort.

Rustic cranberry tart

Makes 2 tarts

This cranberry tart, prepared by Mandy Schilling, placed first in the pie category. The tart is simple to prepare using the method of folding the outer edges of the pastry over the filling. This colorful dessert combines sweet orange marmalade with the pucker-power of cranberries, making for a taste sensation.

Bake off tort

Rustic cranberry tart is displayed for the Billings Gazette employee bake off on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017.


1 cup orange marmalade

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

4 cups fresh or frozen cranberries, thawed

1 package (14.1-ounce) refrigerated pie pastry

1 large egg white, lightly beaten, (can use the whole egg)

1 tablespoon coarse sugar


Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In a large bowl, mix marmalade, sugar and flour; stir in the cranberries. Unroll one pastry sheet onto a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Spoon half of the cranberry mixture over the pastry within 2-inches of the edge. Fold pastry edge over filling, pleating as you go and leaving a 5-inch opening in the center. Brush the folded edge with egg white; sprinkle with half of the coarse sugar. Repeat with remaining ingredients. Bake tarts 20-22 minutes or until crust is golden and filling is bubbly. Transfer tarts to wire rack to cool.

Source: Taste of Home, “Best Holiday Desserts.”

Chocolate-covered cherry cookies

If you like chocolate-covered maraschino cherries you will definitely agree with this first-place winner in the cookie category. Schilling also prepared these cookies that require a little extra work, but are well worth it. Bite through the chocolate cookie and you taste a burst of maraschino cherry.

bake off cookies

Chocolate-covered cherry cookies are displayed for the Billings Gazette employee bake off on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017.


1/2 cup butter

1 cup sugar

1 large egg

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup baking cocoa

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

48 maraschino cherries, blotted dry

Frosting: 1 cup semisweet chocolate pieces

1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk

1 to 3 teaspoons maraschino cherry juice


In a bowl, cream together butter and sugar until fluffy; beat in egg and vanilla. (Schilling added 1 to 2 teaspoons cherry juice to the mix also.) Combine dry ingredients; gradually add to creamed mixture (batter will be very firm). Shape into 48 balls, about 1-inch round, and place on ungreased baking sheets. Push one cherry halfway into each ball. For frosting, melt chocolate chips with sweetened condensed milk in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat; add the cherry juice and stir until smooth. Spoon 1 teaspoon frosting over each cherry (the frosting will spread over cookie during baking). Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes. Cool on wire racks.

Source: Taste of Home “Best Holiday Desserts.”

Salted caramel and chocolate Oreo bars

These no-bake, rich and indulgent bars received the top place in the bar category and also were made by Ehrlick. The bars are easy to make and don’t require a lot of ingredients. If you love chocolate and salted caramel, you will want to try them.

Bake off brownies

Salted caramel and chocolate Oreo bars are displayed for the Billings Gazette employee bake off on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017.


1 package (about 36) Oreo cookies

2 sticks butter, divided

2/3 cup packed brown sugar

3/4 cup heavy whipping cream, divided

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips (1/2 bag)

Flaked sea salt


Using a food processor, pulverize the Oreo cookies until they are crumbs. Melt one stick of butter. With the food processor running, pour the melted butter through the top opening; process until ingredients are combined. Press crumb mixture into bottom of spring-form pan, tart pan or 8-by-8-inch baking pan. Put the pan in the freezer while preparing the caramel sauce. Add the second stick of butter to a saucepan along with the brown sugar. Melt them together over medium heat, and let boil vigorously for a minute. Turn off the heat and add 1/4 cup of heavy cream; whisk together to make a caramel sauce. Pour the caramel onto the frozen crust, tilting the pan so the caramel covers the crust. In a microwave-safe bowl, add the chocolate chips and 1/2 cup of whipping cream. Microwave for 1 minute; let mixture rest undisturbed for 3 minutes, then mix until smooth. Pour chocolate over the caramel sauce and spread with a spatula. Sprinkle the top with the flaked sea salt. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.


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