HAGERSTOWN — Tricia Johnson's kitchen is like an art studio. It's where she expresses her creativity.
It's also where she processes her emotions.
"I bake all the time. I find it to be therapeutic. I put my daughter to bed and then I bake," said Johnson, 40 of Hagerstown. "Baking is my way of clearing my head at the end of the day."
It was Johnson's creativity in the kitchen that impressed judges in The Herald-Mail's 18th Cookie Exchange Contest. Her original recipe for Everything Christmas Cookies won her $100 and top honors in the field of 29 entries.
Johnson said she likes chocolate and peanut butter in her cookies, but she put her personal preferences on hold for the contest. Instead, she put on her thinking cap.
"I wanted to make something that reminded me of Christmas," she said. "I remembered English walnuts, old-fashioned spices and oranges with cloves stuck in them at Christmas time."
Johnson came up with a cookie dough featuring equal parts oatmeal and flour, then added the flavors of orange, white chocolate, toasted almonds and cranberry.
The eight judges liked the resulting cookie, awarding it 148 points out of a perfect score of 160.
"(It's) my favorite so far," said Meredith Poffenberger of Sharpsburg, retired caterer and former producer of the TV show "Cooking Fresh, Cooking Local."
"Great combination of flavors. Festive," said Annie Marshall of Frederick, Md., owner and chef of Veggie Annie, organic local-food caterer.
"It incorporates chocolate better than any cookie I've ever had," said Tom Moore, a dessert lover from Hagerstown. "Perfectly balanced."
The other judges in the contest were Fran Clingan, who sells baked goods as Snookie's Cookies at the City Farmers Market in Hagerstown; Charles "Chip" Stewart, a Hagerstown attorney and a culinary school-trained chef who made pastries for the former Bones and Cones in downtown Hagerstown; Wilbur Brunner of Hagerstown, former restaurant manager of Pappy's Family Pub and Jim's Always; Jennifer Lowery, a home cook from Hagerstown; and Todd Roberts, a dessert lover from Hagerstown.
Cookies were judged on taste, appearance, quality and originality of the recipe.
Judges were divided into three groups for a preliminary round of tasting. Each group advanced three or four entries to the final round, in which a winner and five runners-up were selected.
Johnson said she doesn't only bake after her daughter, Amelia Grace, 5, is asleep. She also likes to bake with her daughter. It's a way of passing on skills that are important.
"You could say I'm self-taught. My mom is not much of a baker," Johnson said. "I cook with my daughter. She likes stirring, decorating, measuring. She wants an easy-bake oven, but I'm not sure she's old enough."
Johnson said that although she bakes a lot, she doesn't eat everything she bakes. She shares her kitchen creativity with co-workers at Hagerstown Magazine.
"I bake almost every other day and I give it all away," she said. "A guy in my office, he wrote on my birthday card, 'It's your birthday. I hope you bake yourself a cake.'"
Staff writer Chris Copley can be reached at email@example.com