“I grew up watching the Food Network. This year, I competed in their Christmas Cookie Challenge—and won”

“I grew up watching the Food Network. This year, I competed in their Christmas Cookie Challenge—and won”

Stephanie Urlando, the owner of Little Rose Baking Co., took home the grand prize of $10,000 for her Elf-themed cookie creations

Stephanie decorating two cookies, wearing a Christmas coloured apron. She's on the set of the Food Network

Baking was always a love language in my family. From as early as I can remember, I’d help my nonna with the special Christmas cookies she made every year. My favourites were her classic amaretti, which are like bittersweet macarons. Often, my mom and my aunts would crowd into the kitchen with us. As I got older, I started watching the Food Network with one of our close family friends, who was a neighbor of ours in Mississauga. Ree Drummond and Anne Olsen were my favourites. We’d watch a few shows, then pick a recipe we liked and try it out in her kitchen. I remember being 12 years old and making lemon spritz cookies together. That experience lit a spark in me, but I never thought of baking as a possible job.

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In my early 20s, I had a career as a personal trainer and did some bartending on the side, but neither seemed like long-term pursuits. I was always baking sugar cookies in my free time, though. I’d decorate them at home for fun, and when I was pregnant with each of my two daughters, I made them for my baby showers. I started posting pictures of the cookies on social media, and my friends and family would respond saying how beautiful they were. The cookies were really simple at that point—solid colours, maybe a little bit of embellishment. But people started asking if they could order some for themselves. I figured I’d give it a try, but then they also posted them on social media. One or two orders quickly became five, then ten. So, in 2017, I decided to make baking my full-time gig. I started my own company, Little Rose Cookie Co., out of my home. I had only a standard kitchen oven. It was a bit hectic.

As a single mom, I was excited to be doing what I love while providing for my family. But soon the cookies began taking over the house—me and the girls would do our dinners as picnics on the floor because the kitchen table was completely covered. At that point, it was clear that I needed to move things into a storefront.

In 2020, I opened up our bricks-and-mortar spot on Main Street in Mississauga just 10 days before Covid hit. Just when all my dreams seemed to be coming true, everything shut down. I was able to keep the storefront going with curbside pickup and delivery. We lowered our minimum order to encourage people to keep buying, and we did a lot of promotional offers. At that point, every sale counted. These days, the road is much less bumpy. We’ve become a community staple, known for our sugar cookies and epic stuffed cookies, which we fill with everything from Nutella to birthday cake.

In May of this year, I got an Instagram message that made my heart skip a beat. It was a producer from the Food Network inviting me to apply to their Christmas Cookie Challenge show. I didn’t hesitate for a second—I jumped right into the process. After a few video calls with the team, they told me that I’d been selected to be a contestant. I was thrilled, but I only had a few weeks to prepare. Filming was in Los Angeles in June. I quickly started watching all the old episodes. I noticed that a lot of the challenges involved making larger structures out of multiple cookies, so I did research on how to make cookie structures, how to keep them stable and how to do it all quickly.

A Food Network cookie, a Christmas Cookie Challenge cookie and a Little Rose Bakery Co. cookie

Walking into the Food Network studio for the first time was magical—I almost cried. It may have been a Californian summer outside, but inside it was decorated to look like a charming old house covered in wreaths and string lights. The cooking areas were full to the brim with every ingredient and gadget you could possibly imagine. And it was all so well-coordinated. It felt like being inside Santa’s workshop. It was incredible to meet Eddie Jackson and Ree Drummond, my long-time favourite, who were the judges.

There were two challenges, and they were both Elf themed since it was the 20th anniversary of that movie. I love Elf, which may have been why they picked me for this episode. For the first challenge, we had to come up with two fantastical places Buddy the Elf could have travelled on his way from Santa’s Workshop to New York, then turn those places into cookies. I knew I wanted mine to be whimsical, and I wanted to incorporate Buddy’s love of sugar. I decided to make two sugar cookies, one of a cotton-candy castle and one of a peppermint pixie patch.

We had 90 minutes to complete the cookies, which meant we had to move quickly. I wanted to show off different techniques, so I used grated cookies as a topping on the peppermint cookie and airbrushed decorations on the cotton-candy one, to make it look fluffier. When you’re baking on TV, you have to narrate everything you do out loud—you want the audience to be able to understand your decision making. Obviously, that’s not how I usually bake, but I ended up having a lot of fun with it.

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I took a big risk by deciding to use royal icing transfers, which is when you make small candies to put on top of the cookies. They’re tricky because, if you don’t have time for them to dry fully, they can break when you’re moving them from the tray to the cookie. That’s exactly what happened to me, and in the worst possible way—one of my Buddies, which I needed to make each cookie Elf themed, shattered. So I had to use regular icing to draw him on at the last second.

Urlando's cookie designs from the first round. One is a pink and blue cotton candy castle and one is a red and green peppermint forrest

I thought that stumbling block would definitely get me sent home, but to my surprise, Ree and Eddie announced that I’d won the first round. Other than the last-minute change, my decorations and flavours were solid. That meant I’d get an advantage going into round two—this time with my own “personal shopper.” They were dressed as an elf, of course, and would grab all my ingredients, which would save me a lot of time running around.

The second challenge was to make a pop-up book out of cookies, based on our favourite scene from Elf. I chose Buddy and Jovie’s date, because Buddy is so full of childlike wonder as he takes her around to his favourite coffee shop and Christmas tree. My idea was to have cookies representing different parts of that scene standing straight up out of the main cookie that was the pop-up book. It was an ambitious design because every single cookie is free-standing and you have to make sure nothing falls over. I had two and a half hours to make it work.

I made two different flavours of sugar cookie for this one. The first was a classic recipe. People think that’s an easy one, but over the years I’ve made my own adjustments so that the flavours are just right. For the second one, I had to incorporate one flavour that was used in the movie: candy-coated chocolates. I had no idea what to do with them. Then I realized that they would go great with peanut butter. I decided to make a candy-coated chocolate and peanut butter flavoured sugar cookie. I’d never used peanut butter in a cookie like this, so it was risky, but I had to trust my baking intuition. Then I used very thick royal icing and isomalt, which is similar in consistency to hard candy, to keep everything standing upright.

Afterward, I and the other two competitors stood at podiums as the judges came around to inspect and taste our creations. When they got to my station, they took a long time. I was so nervous. Eddie finally spoke after trying the peanut butter cookie. “Son of a nutcracker,” he said, “that’s good!” He and Ree agreed that it was one of the best cookies they’d ever had on the show, and my jaw dropped. Eddie even broke off a piece to take home.

After going around to all three stands, they announced that I’d won the competition. I was ecstatic. I literally started shaking, and I knew right away that it would be a game changer for my business. I had to keep it a secret for six months, until the show aired on November 23, which was tough. But, when the time came, I was able to host a big watch party with my family, friends and customers. I’d recently gotten married, and there were more people at the viewing party than there had been at my wedding! It was so fun to watch everyone react and to finally share my excitement.

Urlando holging a large gold ornament that says "Christmas Cookie Champion"

Since then, people who saw the show have been stopping by the store to say congratulations and try my cookies. I feel so grateful for the boost it’s given my business. As for the $10,000 in prize money, I’m going to use some of it to send my parents on a little getaway, put some into savings for my kids and invest the rest in Little Rose Cookie Co. We’re deep into our busy holiday season, so it’s an exciting time. Our bestsellers are our decorated sugar cookies, and we also made a batch of the candy-covered chocolate and peanut butter cookies from the competition. They sold out right away, but don’t worry—we’re working on a second round.