Many newlyweds give their spouse a “first Christmas together” ornament.
Instead, Ashlee Shirer (formerly Ashlee Christman) gave her new husband a gold ornament reading “Best of the Best” and a check for 10 grand.
A Centralia baker, Shirer last year won $10,000 on Food Network’s “Christmas Cookie Challenge” for her expertly decorated, deliciously baked sugar cookies.
The taste of her cookies and her bubbly charm must have been irresistible to Food Network, because on an episode that aired Thursday night, she was back on the show with four other returning champions.
And won again.
The episode was filmed in April and Shirer was set to get married in July, making the $10,000 prize a strong motivator. She also used her upcoming wedding as an inspiration for her cookie decorations on the show.
But she knew she’d have to bust her butter to make the best cookies in the room against the other bakers.
“The competition that I was up against, they were all so dang talented. If you were to look at their Instagrams, you would just be blown away,” Shirer told The Chronicle.
Since her appearance last year, Shirer has been working full time under her brand Sweet Dough Cookie Co. selling her sugar cookies by the dozen. When she came to film the returning champs episode, it helped to imagine it as just another day in the office.
The 42-minute episode contained two rounds of baking challenges, with two bakers eliminated after the first and one winner chosen after the second.
In the starting round, contestants were tasked with creating a cookie puzzle that formed a Christmas village scene. Shirer called her village “Wedding Wonderland,” with a chapel, ring shop and bridal dress store of lemon cardamom sugar cookies, earning her high praise from two cutthroat judges, Food Network personalities Ree Drummond and Eddie Jackson.
As Shirer hoped, she was prepared for that round. But what came next was a challenge unlike anything she had ever done.
The bakers were given four hours to create a Christmas-themed fireplace mantle sculpture of cookies that needed to stand at least 14 inches high.
“In previous seasons, they have never done a four-hour challenge just because the mantle that I made was so tall,” Shirer said. “It took a long time. We couldn't go to the bathroom. We couldn't take a break or sit down, and it was a start-to-finish four hours. It was the hardest thing to do and I was sweating so much. But it was just so rewarding looking at a finished product.”
While looking at her opponents’ work, Shirer said she had no idea who would win. Even with years of cake and cookie decorating under her belt, she’d never created a three-dimensional sculpture. Watching the show, you’d never know it. Her cookies again delivered in taste and beauty, earning her the ornament and money.
Next, came the hard part: keeping the secret from all her friends and family for a whole six months.
On Thursday night, she finally got to watch the episode with her loved ones.
“No one knew, except my husband. I had to keep it a secret, and I think that was the most rewarding part to see all (my family’s) reactions after they announced my name. … My mom and my grandma and my aunt started crying,” Shirer said. “It was emotional. But, I think they were just so proud of me. They were happy tears.”
Shirer intends to open a storefront in Centralia on Main Street around the middle of December.
In the meantime, her cookies can be found and bought online at sweetdoughcookieco.com or find her on Instagram @sweetdough.cookieco.