Rabiha Sami didn’t always appear destined for baking fame.
As a child in Pakistan, Sami developed a track record of kitchen mishaps so severe that “my mom banned me from baking,” Sami recalled in an interview.
For example – “Have you shattered a pyrex dish in the oven, ever, making brownies?” As a child, Sami did: “I was that bad.”
But now, the Lexington resident and mother of two may have finally earned her own mother’s baking respect after being scouted to compete with four other bakers on the Food Network’s Christmas Cookie Challenge. Sami appeared in the “Crafty Christmas” episode of the holiday staple, which premiered last month.
Sami has come a long way since her chaotic childhood baking days. After working as a computer engineer and a professor, she first dipped her toes back into baking while staying home to take care of her young child who was ill. “Baking became respite,” she said. “It was an outlet.”
For years, cakes were Sami’s creative specialty. But when the pandemic transformed daily life in 2020 – just six months after Sami moved to Lexington – with some encouragement from her new neighbors, Sami branched out to create a full-fledged baking business out of her home kitchen.
During the early pandemic days, Sami found that cakes were less in demand because “no one wanted to have a big party.” But cookies were ideal for more intimate celebrations – and Sami especially treasured requests for cookies to celebrate occasions like graduations and acceptances to college.
“Those are the fun ones, where you’re a part of someone’s joy,” she said.
For Sami, appearing on a Food Network show was a full-circle experience. A fan since her childhood, she continues to watch the Food Network with her family.
Fittingly, the week before Sami left for the contest, her two sons got to choose the flavor she would bake. From a tray of 18 unlabelled cookie flavors, they insisted on the pink tea cookie – a treat whose flavors include cinnamon, cardamom, pistachio and green tea – overruling the spiced apple with orange and cranberry cookie that Sami and her husband preferred.
“They always win,” Sami said.
In the first of two competition rounds, Sami and the other four contestants had to bake and decorate cookies modeled on Christmas string art with a wood-like backboard within two hours.
Though baking and decorating usually relaxes Sami, the show was a nerve-wracking experience for her. “I never realized I was a stress sweater,” she said.
To execute the challenge, details mattered. For instance, Sami knew it was critical not to overdo the rose extract in her cookie icing. With the right amount, the cookie was tinged with a pleasantly subtle floral note – but “if you go crazy, you’re pretty much stuck with shampoo,” she said during the show.
Both judges praised the complex flavors of Sami’s creation.
“That cardamom just jumped out at me,” host and judge Ree Drummond said while sampling Sami’s cookie, “and then it turned into this incredible buttery shortbread.”
Fellow host and judge Eddie Jackson commended her specifically for nailing the rose extract restraint. “This cookie is so floral in a good way,” he said. “You’ve got to be very faint with [rose extract] because it can overpower — you did it correctly.”
As for the decoration – the aspect of baking that brings Sami the most joy – she designed an elegant string-art reindeer crafted with precisely interlaced strands of white icing that accentuated majestic antlers. For a pop of color, she added a red poinsettia that host Jackson called “flawless.”
“I think there’s nothing more Christmas than a reindeer and some poinsettias,” Sami said during the show, “so that’s what I have for you on a cookie.”
“You can see how intricately you piped each and every strand,” Drummond said, “and I…love how you really brought it with the antlers.”
Despite receiving praise in both the flavor and decor arenas, Sami did not advance to the second round of the episode, where three finalists had to create three-dimensional cookie carnival carousels. The judges said her silvery icing background did not quite achieve the wooden background the contest parameters specified, creating an effect more like slate.
Sami had sought to create a “distressed gray wood” look, even sprinkling her cookie with black edible dust to mimic a woodgrain texture. She was well aware straying from a typical brown was a risk. But to her, the silvery effect made the cookie more Christmasy: “Gray adds to that image of the reindeer walking in the forest at night, when it’s drenched in moonlight,” she said during the show.
Though she didn’t leave with the $10,000 and “golden ornament” awarded to the Christmas Cookie Champion, Sami did befriend her rival bakers from the episode. She was even inspired by one of the other bakers to add DIY cookie-decorating kits to her Lexington offerings, equipping others with the tools to create their own edible art.
“The only thing we [contestants] have in common is cookies,” Sami said. Now, “we chat, like, 10 times a day…We share this really strange bond.”