Tough Cookie

Tough Cookie

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Gardnerville home baker wins fierce Food Network competition.

Competition was fierce. Five bakers from around the country were pitted against each other on a Food Network stage in Tennessee. Tensions ran high. Flour flew everywhere.

At the end, gasps of joy erupted from Gardnerville resident Roberta Cota-Montgomery as she was announced the winner of Food Network’s 2021 Christmas Cookie Challenge.

This came as quite a surprise to the owner of Carson Valley’s The Sugared Squirrel. On the shuttle ride to the filming of the competition, Cota-Montgomery exchanged Instagram handles with her competitors. Once she began looking at their posted photos, she thought, “I am not going to win.”

Yet she did.

 

Cookie-Off

Months previously, a Food Network scout happened upon her Instagram page, @Thesugaredsquirrel, filled with photos of exquisitely designed cookies. The network contacted her for an interview to be on the popular seasonal cookie challenge show. Her husband, Jimmy, pushed her to try. After multiple interviews with Food Network representatives, she was selected to be on the next season’s episodes, and filming began in April 2021.

But she wasn’t allowed to reveal her participation in or winning of the competition until it aired. The secrecy of all she had accomplished was excruciating.

In the studio, the atmosphere was infused with urgency. The panel of judges included culinary celebrities Ree Drummond of The Pioneer Woman fame and former NFL star-cum-chef Eddie Jackson.

Cota-Montgomery wowed them all with her winning cookies and design.

The filming experience was intense. She explains she felt like a deer in headlights through it all. Cota-Montgomery made it to the first challenge with cookies-and-cream-flavored “faultline” cookies that had to appear cracked, with a scene peeking through. Moments of humor emerged under duress for the Gardnerville-based baker, who lightened the mood, if only briefly.

When asked by judge Jackson to spontaneously name her first batch of cookies, she called them Santa’s Sack. Jackson took hold of that amusing moniker, even after she corrected herself by saying, “I mean Santa’s TOY BAG,” then chuckling as he took a bite. Another laughing judge interjected, “Hey, this is a family show!”

But she’d made it to the final challenge.

 

Winning Display

For the last segment, remaining contestants raced for surprise ingredients presented at the last minute. Cota-Montgomery received an apple cider packet, which she infused into her orange-clove sugar cookie recipe to create her winning Spiced Apple Cider cookies. She then made Mexican Hot Chocolate cookies as her required second flavor.

Contestants had to craft a holiday-themed, free-hanging, 18-inch chandelier crafted out of the cookies. In her delicious and triumphant final display, she celebrated her Mexican heritage by decorating the cookies with the words Feliz Navidad, poinsettias to mimic Mexican embroidery, and snowflakes and pine trees to represent her home state.

Cota-Montgomery’s winning creation was a Mexican-themed chandelier made of cookies

“I thought it was really cool that I was able to do the Mexican Hot Chocolate cookies for the show and do something that paid respect to my culture,” Cota-Montgomery says.

After the show aired on Dec. 2, 2021, she returned home to acclaim, and her cookie pop-up stand at a local gift shop quickly sold out. Customers love her innovative flavors, including those that won her the competition, and that her cookies are delectable for both the taste buds and eyes. She continues baking feverishly for her local business, accepting custom orders on her website, Thesugaredsquirrel.com, while also offering special selections for the holidays.

The mother of four has always been artistic, in a multitude of ways. She even paints most of her cookie designs freehand.

“Winning for me meant that I could be validated in my art,” she says, “but, more importantly, show my children and grandchildren that we are capable of doing big things if we focus and try our best in everything we do.”

 

Natasha Bourlin aspired to be Cookie Monster as a career, but since the position was taken and her waist protested, she opted for freelance writing and telling stories of fabulous bakers such as Cota-Montgomery.

Natasha Bourlin, founder of Passport & Plume, loves nothing more than to convey inspirational stories and travel the globe. Reach out to her, and reach your readers. Dog lover.

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