Victoria Weisenberg, of Northbrook, wrote us with a tale of wooing "a very special man" with a Hanukkah gift of cinnamon-topped, vanilla-infused, raisin-punctuated cookies she invented by marrying elements of apricot bars to coffee cake.
And we love her for it. Weisenberg's essay and recipe were among 140 submitted for the 2012 Holiday Cookie Contest, an endeavor that had us whittling the entries down to a final 10 and dutifully tasting (and re-tasting) the gems in the Tribune's test kitchen.
With the help of Angel Food Bakery owner and pastry chef Stephanie Samuels, we settled on Weisenberg's H-bars as the best of the bunch. Second place went to Betty Koenig's chocolate almond shortbread, with Catherine Hall's Middle East fruit bars landing a close third.
Rounding out the group were two runners-up: lime pistachio cookies with cream cheese frosting by Glenview's Sandy Szafranski, and Grandma Hazucha's kolacky with walnut filling, submitted by Julie Hazucha Westbrook of Sleepy Hollow.
"I love the idea of holiday traditions and recipes that families hold onto and only bring out once a year," says Samuels. "It's nice to wait for something all year and then really, really enjoy it."
Even if it reminds you of the one who got away.
FIRST PLACE: VICTORIA WEISENBERG
"What Hanukkah gift can you give to a very special man, something that nobody else can?" begins Weisenberg's essay. "You invent a cookie, that's what. He likes the raisins and the warmth of cinnamon but isn't overly fond of chocolate."
A little love-struck experimenting begat the bars that won the heart of Weisenberg's beau, albeit temporarily.
"To make a long, sad story short, the romance is over," she writes. "He left me for another woman. I should have been more suspicious about someone not really liking chocolate."
The cookies, thankfully, live on. Who eats them now?
"Anybody who's hungry," laughs Weisenberg. "I've got four kids, five grandkids and a very nasty cat."
Weisenberg, who teaches biology at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, is a Southern California native who landed in Chicago when her late husband was accepted to dental school at Northwestern University.
"I had never even seen snow until I was 20 years old," she says. "Fall just blew me away, and then winter came and you saw the silhouette of the trees — I was just enthralled. I've been hooked on the seasons ever since."
Weisenberg's family will descend on her Northbrook home for a Hanukkah feast: brisket, duck, potato pancakes, wine, H-bars … and chocolate.
"I make a chocolate-apricot pecan torte with a really pretty glaze and a ring of toasty pecans," she says. "A little tartness from the apricot and a little sweetness from the chocolate — it's delicious. All my children like chocolate."
That fleeting romance never stood a chance.
SECOND PLACE: BETTY KOENIG
As a child growing up on a farm in northern Wisconsin, Betty Koenig baked fattigmann and sandbakelser and rosettes with her German mother and Scandinavian aunt.
"For us, the most important part of the holiday was the gathering of family in a spirit of love and joy-making," she writes in her essay. "The essential part of Christmas is that love."
So it follows that her winning recipe would be inspired by an impromptu gift from her own daughter Susan.
"She had given me a bag of almond meal, and I really didn't know what to do with it," she says. "I thought, 'Well, shortbread is pretty adaptable,' so I subtracted a cup of flour and added the almond meal. Then I thought, 'Well, chocolate would be nice.' So I added a cup of cocoa powder."
The results are a not-too-sweet, delightfully crunchy number whose flavors speak for themselves. They also happen to be a certain pastry chef's favorite of our holiday bunch.
"I loved the texture, and I loved that they weren't too sweet," says Samuels. "I could probably tell you all the ingredients in them just by tasting them, and I really loved the cocoa flavor."
Koenig left Wisconsin in 1959 as a young mother and settled in the Chicago area, where she taught preschool for 38 years.
"It was very hard in the beginning not being near my mother anymore or my aunts and uncles," she recalls. "I had to create my own traditions for our own children."
Her son, two daughters and six grandchildren often travel home for the holidays, prompting Koenig to prepare an annual feast of lasagna with homemade noodles, prime rib, Yorkshire pudding and "lots of good cookies and lots of good wine."
"When I was growing up, we had a tradition of singing around the piano, that nobody really does anymore," she says. "But my oldest granddaughter is a really wonderful singer and guitar player, and her dad plays mandolin and guitar. So there's still some singing, but most of us are just listening because they're so much better than we are."
THIRD PLACE: CATHERINE HALL
Catherine Hall's daughter was married Nov. 17, less than a week before Thanksgiving, shortly after Hall's parents celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary and less than a month before the start of Hanukkah.
"I can see us all gaining a few pounds through it all," laughs Hall, whose family places food at the center of celebrations, particularly at the holidays.
Hall, principal of the religious school at Temple B'Nai Israel in Aurora, invented her Middle East fruit bars to toast Tu b'Shevat, the New Year for Trees.
"On Tu b'Shevat, we celebrate the bounty of nature by planting trees and tasting different kinds of fruit," she writes in her essay. "We pay particular attention to the seven species listed in the Bible as being special products of the land of Israel: wheat, barley, olives, grapes, dates, figs and pomegranates."
Hall's bars are filled with figs, raisins and dates, and topped with a cream cheese-pomegranate juice mixture. Her students received the bars warmly, and they've become a holiday staple ever since.
"When I eat them, I think of figs and dates and pomegranates ripening under the sun in a land of milk and honey," writes Hall, who lives in Oak Park.
Because of the recent wedding, Hall's family will keep Hanukkah "low key" this year, she says. But her school community will do its annual going-all-out rituals.
"We light every menorah we can find and look like a bunch of pyromaniacs," she says. "A big party and lunch and games and crafts. It's an opportunity for us to all be together and include as much family as we can."
First place: Victoria Weisenberg
Prep: 30 minutes
Bake: 44 minutes
Makes: 20 bars
Weisenberg says the "H" stands for the first letter of her former beau's first name. She prefers to leave that name a mystery.
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup flour
¼ cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
½ teaspoon vanilla
2/3 cup golden raisins
½ cup flour
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ cup confectioners' sugar
1 ½ to 2 tablespoons milk
¼ teaspoon vanilla
1 Grease or coat with cooking spray a 7 1/2-by-11-inch baking pan. Heat oven to 325 degrees.
2 For the shortbread, combine butter, flour and granulated sugar in a medium bowl until crumbly. Pack into the prepared pan; bake, 15 minutes.
3 For raisin layer, stir together flour with the baking powder, cinnamon and salt in a small bowl. In another bowl, beat brown sugar, eggs and vanilla together until blended. Stir in dry ingredients and raisins. Pour over the baked shortbread layer.
4 For the topping, combine ingredients in a bowl until mixture is crumbly. Sprinkle evenly over the raisin layer. Bake, 22-25 minutes. Cool.
5 For the icing, combine confectioners' sugar, 1 1/2 tablespoons milk and vanilla in a small bowl. Add more milk, if needed, until you get a smooth, easy-to-drizzle mixture. Drizzle over the top. Cut into 20 bars.
Nutrition information per serving: 204 calories, 8 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 37 mg cholesterol, 33 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 55 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
Food processor method: You do not have to wash the bowl of the processor between steps. Combine ingredients for the bottom layer with a few pulses until crumbly. Pack in pan. Bake as above. Prepare topping in the processor in the same way. Place in a bowl and set aside. Then, place brown sugar, eggs and vanilla in processor bowl and process until blended. Add dry ingredients and pulse a few times. Stir in raisins. Continue as above.
Chocolate almond shortbread
Second place: Betty Koenig
Prep: 45 minutes
Chill: 30 minutes
Bake: 20 minutes
Makes: 4 dozen cookies
"I love that they're not too sweet, and they seem like they'd be a really good dunker," Angel Food Bakery owner and pastry chef Stephanie Samuels says of Betty Koenig's chocolate almond shortbread cookies. In testing, we found the dough rolled out better when chilled for at least 30 minutes.
4 sticks (1 pound) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups flour
1 cup Dutch process unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup almond meal or very finely ground unblanched almonds
1 Heat oven to 325 degrees. Cream butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer or in a stand mixer. Add the vanilla and salt; beat or mix to blend. On low speed, add the flour, cocoa and almond meal, mixing well.
2 Divide into 3 pieces; wrap in plastic wrap and chill, 30 minutes. Roll out dough, one piece at a time, on a lightly floured surface to about 1/4-inch thick. Cut with cookie cutters; transfer to parchment-lined cookie sheet. Repeat with remaining dough.
3 Bake, in batches if necessary, until slightly firm to the touch, about 20 minutes. Cool on racks. Store in airtight containers. Can be frozen for months.
Nutrition information per serving: 133 calories, 9 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 20 mg cholesterol, 12 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 26 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
Middle East fruit bars
Third place: Catherine Hall
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 45 minutes
Makes: 40 bars
Hall likes to use a food processor to chop the figs. You could try kitchen shears as well.
2 cups flour
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter
½ cup packed brown sugar
1 cup figs, finely chopped
1 cup raisins
1 cup dates, sliced
1 cup pomegranate juice
16 ounces cream cheese, softened
½ cup sugar
2 tablespoons pomegranate juice
1 Heat oven to 350 degrees. For the crust, combine ingredients in a food processor or with a pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Pat mixture into the bottom of a well-greased 9-by-13-inch baking pan; bake, 20 minutes.
2 For the filling, combine ingredients in a saucepan; cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid is absorbed. Let cool slightly.
3 For the topping, whip ingredients together with an electric mixer or in a stand mixer until smooth and light. Spread fruit filling evenly over the hot crust. Pour topping over the filling. Bake, 25 minutes. Cool. Cut into bars; store in refrigerator.
Nutrition information per serving: 164 calories, 9 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 34 mg cholesterol, 20 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 43 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
Lime pistachio cookies with cream cheese frosting
Honorable mention: Sandy Szafranski
Prep: 1 hour
Chill: 1 hour
Bake: 15 minutes per batch
Makes: 25 large cookies
Szafranski calls for the zest and juice of 4 limes for the cookie dough, but the yield of those ingredients can vary depending on the limes. We had good results with 4 teaspoons zest and 1/4 cup juice. If you cannot find raw pistachios, roasted and salted ones can sub. (You may want to reduce the added salt by 1/4 teaspoon.)
1 1/2 cups shelled, raw pistachios
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
4 limes, zested, juiced, or to taste
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
Green food coloring
2 1/4 cups flour
Cream cheese frosting
4 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1 tablespoon lime juice (about 1 whole lime)
1 teaspoon vanilla
Green food coloring
1 Heat oven to 350 degrees. Place pistachios on a baking sheet; toast in the oven, about 10 minutes. When you start to smell them, they are ready. Cool completely; process in a food processor until just ground. Put aside.
2 Beat butter and sugar together in a bowl with an electric mixer or in a stand mixer until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add lime zest and juice, vanilla and salt; mix slowly until well combined. Add 2-4 drops food coloring. Mix until uniform in color.
3 Add flour, mix well; add 1 cup ground pistachios. Wrap dough in plastic wrap; form a disk. Refrigerate , about 1 hour.
4 Meanwhile, for the frosting, mix cream cheese and confectioners' sugar in a bowl until well combined. Add lime juice, vanilla and a few drops of food coloring (tint to your desired green). Mix to blend.
5 Heat oven to 350 degrees again. Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface to about ¼-inch thick. Cut into trees with tree cookie cutters. Bake on ungreased cookie sheet, 12-14 minutes. Cool completely on racks.
6 Place cream cheese frosting in a plastic bag with a corner snipped off or use a piping bag with fine tip. Pipe frosting like garlands; sprinkle with remaining pistachios, colored sugar or decorations (or all three).
Nutrition information per serving: 176 calories, 11 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 21 mg cholesterol, 17 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein, 53 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
Grandma Hazucha's kolacky with walnut filling
Honorable mention: Julie Westbrook
Prep: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Bake: 14 minutes per batch
Makes: 100 cookies
Both parts of this recipe can be halved, says Westbrook.
4 sticks (1 pound) unsalted butter, softened
2 packages (8 ounces each) cream cheese or neufchatel, softened
4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 egg yolks
Walnut filling, see recipe
1 Place butter and cream cheese in a large mixing bowl. Cut butter into pieces; break up cream cheese. Add dry ingredients; work mixture with hands until dough is the size of peas. Add egg yolks; knead with hands again until well-blended. Divide dough into 5 pieces, wrap in waxed paper and refrigerate overnight.
2 Heat oven to 350 degrees. To roll out dough, remove 2 portions from the refrigerator. Let soften, about 15 minutes. Open 1 package on a floured board; roll out with floured rolling pin very thin, about 1/8 inch. With pastry wheel, cut 2-inch rows across the dough; then cut diagonally across the rows to make slight diamond shapes, about 2-inches wide. Put pastry diamonds on ungreased cookie sheets.
3 Put rounded 1/2 teaspoon walnut filling on each diamond. Fold over 2 opposite corners; to seal, wet inside of corners with a fingertip dipped in cold water; pinch corners together firmly so they do not open during baking. Bake until lightly browned, 12-15 minutes. Remove from cookie sheet; cool on a rack. Sprinkle with confectioner's sugar.
4 As the first bundle of dough is finished, take out another bundle to soften while the second bundle is being rolled out. Repeat until all bundles are used.
Mom's walnut filling for kolacky
1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2/3 cup sugar
1 pound walnuts, finely chopped
1 tablespoon vanilla
Slowly warm milk and butter in a medium saucepan over low heat, stirring frequently, until butter melts. Stir in sugar. Remove from heat; stir in walnuts and vanilla.
Nutrition information per serving: 106 calories, 9 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 19 mg cholesterol, 6 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 32 mg sodium, 0 g fiber