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Q&A: Mary Louise Lever, Better Homes and Gardens Annual Challenge Recipe Winner

To create her winning holiday cookie -- Rosemary-Kissed Orange Thumbprint Cookies Tuscano -- this Rome, Georgia, reader drew inspiration from her favorite Italian destination.

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Why did you decide to use herbs in your winning cookie recipe?

I love rosemary and think it can go with sweet and savory dishes. I grow all my own herbs in flowerpots and am always trying to think outside the ordinary way of using flavors.

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Who gives you feedback on your recipes and cooking?

My dad was my original taste tester. Before he passed away, he was always the one who gave me feedback. These days, my friends, neighbors, and people at Georgia Highlands College [where Lever is a volunteer] are the ones letting me know what they think. If they like a recipe, I know others will, too.

Who taught you how to cook?

I had a mother who was an adventurous cook. When we were growing up, I didn't realize it, but when I visited at someone's home the cooking wasn't the same. Later in life I realized why everyone loved to come to my house!

What's one bit of cooking advice from your mother that you'll never forget?

I remember that when my mother would make a pound cake or do any baking, she always went by the recipe. You can play around with a lot of foods, but when you're baking, you may not get the product you want if you don't use the right proportions. Baking is a science.

What's one thing that you love to make from scratch?

I make my own peanut butter. I have a cousin who has great access to peanuts every year. She sends me fresh peanuts, which I use to make my peanut butter. It's so easy and a great gift to give people.

What cookbooks do you enjoy?

The Joy of Cooking is great and so basic. I love some of the other basic cookbooks, like Cookwise by Shirley O. Corriher. I use her book because it gives you an understanding of how things work in the kitchen.

Do you have any last bits of kitchen wisdom to share?

I've been entering recipe contests off and on for 20 years. One thing I've learned is that if you feed them, they will come.

See Mary Louise Lever's Rosemary-Kissed Orange Thumbprint Cookies Tuscano recipe.

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