Tensions were high Thursday, (Dec. 7), at the Taos Herb Company as elders put their taste buds to the test in the eighth annual biscochito contest, in which Sandy Martínez took home the glory for the second time.
A total of 46 different versions of biscochitos - New Mexico's state cookie - hit the plates of the 10 judges from Ancianos Senior Center who sat and judged the best cookie of the bunch in the ceremonial event of the week. Contestants had around a week to prep their recipes for the judges who categorized the best biscochito by taste, texture, appearance and other factors making up this historical New Mexico desert. With musical accompaniment from Taos' Pot Creek String Band, the event lasted from 1 to 3 p.m. with free coffee and cider for those viewing the judging. Winners were chosen shortly after the judging ended, with a $100 gift card to Taos Herb Company going to the winner.
"They tell me about the sign-ups, and I just say 'I'm ready,'" said veteran judge Pauline Tafoya, who has been a judge every year since the contest began. "I enjoy to come and taste and eat (biscochitos) and be with my friends. Every year I'm here."
Tafoya said she has her own way of making the cookies and insisted she has no recipe or instructions written down, that she just feels the measurements. Along with some of the other judges, Tafoya has been making the traditional cookies for many years and guards her methods to retain the family secrets. Those who hold their cookie recipe often pass it down only through family members.
Judging the official state cookie of New Mexico is no light matter and all 10 of the judges took their jobs seriously for the duration of the judging. When asked what makes a perfect biscohito, Tafoya's entire table said, in unison, "lard, anise, sugar and in the right amounts."
Third place in the contest went to Lupé Anaya and second was picked up by Diana Ríos. While taking the first place prize for 2017, Martínez did not get a chance to enter her cookies in the 2016 contest, however she did enter in 2015 and took home first prize that year as well. Something about her recipe, which is known only to herself, grandchildren and children, caught the tastes of the judges.
"I didn't think that I had a chance because there were so many entries this year," said Martínez, a longtime baker. "I know there's a lot of wonderful bakers out there. I just feel honored that (my cookies) would win."
Martínez stays in practice, making cookies throughout the year for bake sales, benefits and other reasons. She often recruits the help of her grandchildren to bake the cookies, but said it was all her hands that came out with this year's contest batch of biscochitos.
As a child, Martínez said she began making the cookies with her family and has done so ever since. She has experimented with the family recipe over the years and made it her own. She recognizes that there is a cultural significance around the cookie during the holidays and said Christmas time just doesn't feel right without the dessert. Because of this, Martínez has been baking for several occasions during the holiday season.
"(Winning) just surprised me this year," Martínez said. "It really did."
Of the 46 entries, judges said that many were worthy of the winner's spot and even some experimental variations of the cookies topped the judges' lists. Cookies needed to be the right texture to the judges and had to crumble in their mouths. Too brittle or too hard did not make the top cut for the grand prize. Despite the intense competition, judges and contestants had fun and will now begin perfecting recipes for next year's contest.
"For my first year, I think it was fun," said judge Cecilia Gallegos. "A lot of them are hard, a lot of them are soft, but my favorite's texture was perfect. You barely bite it and it breaks."