Colorful Cookies On A Baking Sheet

Christmas in July

Our Test Kitchens’ trendy take on holiday recipe development

There’s flour on the counter and a rolling pin next to a hefty pile of sugary dough. The scent of cinnamon sugar wafts through the air as I see a candy cane cookie cooling on the rack. Feeling nostalgic, I’m brought back to the cold winter days spent in my grandma’s kitchen as the heat of the oven warms the room.

But, it’s not winter (thankfully!) and I’m not in my grandma’s kitchen. In fact, I’m nowhere near. It’s the middle of July and I’m at work. Today, in the Land O’Lakes Test Kitchen…feeling right at home. And that “at home feeling” is exactly what the Test Kitchen team is going for.

The Test Kitchen is exactly what it sounds like. Located at Land O’Lakes, Inc. headquarters in Arden Hills, Minnesota, it’s where our dairy foods team develops and tests recipes. Ask the team members who spend their days there if is this is accurate, they’ll say, ‘Sure, we do that…’ and so much more.

“We represent the consumer,” says Becky Wahlund, director of the Test Kitchens and Consumer Affairs team. “We provide the strategic food-oriented support for everything related to LAND O LAKES® products. That includes new product testing, recipe development and providing insights on how the consumer uses our products at home.

A team of six stays busy in the kitchen year round. Certain months during the year, it gets a little busier. Since many seasonal recipes call for butter and cheese, this team’s always trend watching, recipe planning and product testing. They’ve got special plans for football’s biggest Game Day, Easter, summer, June Dairy Month, Fourth of July and even back to school.  But the biggest season for this team? You guessed it. The holidays—Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and Christmas—take the cake.

Staying trendy

If you’ve ever thought it takes a village to make the holiday cookies you and your family enjoy, think about the village it takes to create the recipes. Every year for the past 26, in early July, the Test Kitchen team gathers to brainstorm what’ll be interesting to consumers that season.

“We’re so entrenched in food throughout the year that we already have a pulse on the food trends that we should base the holiday campaign around,” says Ann Stuart, manager, Test Kitchens. “At this year’s ideation, we gathered a list of trends that we’ll share with our product teams to get the party started.”

Defining trends helps the team narrow in on what will work for the LAND O LAKES® brand while also guiding recipe development. Through menu mining, social listening and scouring their extensive collection of magazines and cookbooks, they’ve narrowed it down to the top five trends for 2016.

So what are they?

Expect nostalgia—think grandma’s kitchen classics. Expect global accents—think Nordic, Italian, French, Mexican, Asian and other global flavors added into baked goods. Expect sugar and spice—think desserts with new taste sensations. Expect hyper and hypo-stylized desserts—think roses, food as art and the reverse, natural styling. And finally, expect chocolate—think both flavors and form.

“We will be focusing on the cookies that bring you that warm and fuzzy feeling, ones with heritage and tradition,” Ann says. “And with decadent chocolate desserts, we’re seeing lots of fanciful forms. Chocolate comes and goes…but it’s back this year.”

Practice makes perfect

Between now and Thanksgiving, the team will begin to develop recipes based on these trends. Once the recipes are developed, the team does something that they think sets LAND O LAKES® recipes apart from other websites and cookbooks: tolerance testing. 

“We look at all of our recipes and make sure they’ll have the highest level of success with the most people,” says Becky. “We determine the variables (baking time, temperature, amount of ingredients). In the case of holiday cookies, we focus on how butter is incorporated to make recipes as easy and effective as possible.”

The kitchen is designed to replicate the many ways a consumer would use LAND O LAKES® products. Four cooking stations each represent varying consumer kitchens. Gas or electric stovetop? Shiny or dull pans? Alternative ingredients or a little more or less sugar, flour or baking soda? This team thinks of it all, even shopping for groceries at their local grocery store. 

Recipes come to life

Once the recipes are perfected, they move to an important part of the process—recipe writing. It’s what Becky considers part of everyone’s job. These recipes then wait to be loaded onto where the holiday campaign—and the more than 4,000 other butter and cheese recipes—lives in these digital days.

“We used to have a printed holiday brochure. But we’ve since moved to online and to social. Believe it or not we start getting consumers calling about the brochure in October,” Becky laughs. “Rest assured, as long as Land O’Lakes makes butter, we’ll always have holiday recipes!”

Beginning in the middle of November, be on the lookout for these holiday recipes coming to life online, in stores and as part of the new Add a Little Good campaign. But, if you’re like me and craving some Christmas cookies this July, check out Becky’s and Ann’s favorites: Best Ever Butter Cookies, Raspberry Almond Shortbread Thumbprints and Peanut Blossom Cookies.