The organizers of this year's Chicago Tribune Holiday Cookie Contest were looking for pretty. That darling of a holiday cookie that can't help but gleam in the limelight, be it Audrey Hepburn-elegant or more like J.Lo layered in bling.
For the better part of two hours, 16 judges took cookie tasting to serious heights. Among the particular palates: the Tribune's longtime restaurant critic, Phil Vettel, and the first-ever kid judge, 13-year-old Charlotte Office, a girl who, every month, bakes oatmeal variations for her favorite soup kitchen and understands the power of cookies to unlock the human heart.
In the end, Cindy Beberman's hazelnut orange fingers in chocolate beat out Nancy Vaziri's glazed apricot-almond cookies. Of Beberman's beauty, the judges were won over by the "nice citrus burst" and "great complexity." The glazed apricot-almond cookies created by Vaziri are pert little baubles that spurred a judge to write, "This cookie was so good I didn't care what was in it!" Another termed it "rustic," with "layers of flavor."
Honorable mention went to Maureen Yamashiro, who launched her baking invention — a jazzy little jewel she called cranberry cheesecake chocolate tartlets — by "focusing on the poor berry long relegated to a Thanksgiving side dish."
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Hazelnut orange fingers in chocolate
1½ cups shelled whole raw hazelnuts
1 cup unsalted butter, softened but still firm to touch
½ cup superfine sugar, see note
½ teaspoon salt, rounded
2 teaspoons vanilla
Zest from 4 clementines or 1 tablespoon orange zest
2 cups flour
12 ounces dark or semisweet chocolate morsels, or chopped
½ ounce paraffin, about 1 square inch
6 ounces milk chocolate morsels, or chopped
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spread hazelnuts on baking sheet; toast until golden brown and fragrant, 13-14 minutes. Cool a few minutes; while still warm, rub briskly in clean towel to remove most of the skins. Place cooled nuts in a food processor; process until finely ground but not yet powder.
Beat butter on medium to high speed in bowl of electric mixer, 30 seconds. Add sugar, salt, vanilla and zest; beat until light and fluffy. Add nuts; beat well. Add flour; mix on slow just until well combined.
Roll a tablespoon of dough between your palms, forming dough into finger shapes about 2 inches long. Place on large parchment-lined or ungreased baking sheet, 2 inches apart. Bake until outer cookies are just turning golden on the tips, 15 minutes. Cool 1 minute on baking sheet; transfer to wire rack to finish cooling. Place in freezer to chill.
Meanwhile, melt dark chocolate and paraffin in double boiler over barely simmering water (or in heavy saucepan over low heat), stirring constantly until smooth; remove from heat. Pour into a glass measuring cup; set cup in pan of hot water so chocolate remains fluid. Dip half of cookie into chocolate; gently shake off excess. Let set up for a moment; place on wax paper-lined cookie sheets. Place in freezer until chocolate is set, about 15 minutes.
Melt milk chocolate in a small heavy saucepan over low heat (or in microwave according to package directions), stirring constantly until smooth. With a spoon, drizzle thin lines of milk chocolate in decorative manner over chilled cookies. (We also like a small squeeze bottle for this.) Return to freezer to set, about 15 minutes.
Makes 4 dozen cookies.
Glazed apricot-almond cookies
½ cup unsalted butter (at room temperature)
½ cup granulated sugar
1⁄8 teaspoon almond extract
¼ teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1¼ cups flour
1 cup dried apricots, coarsely chopped
1⁄3 cup almonds, toasted, coarsely chopped
2 cups confectioners' sugar
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons amaretto (you can substitute 1⁄8 teaspoon almond extract and ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons milk)
¼ cup each chopped apricots, sliced almonds
Beat the butter, sugar, almond extract and salt in a large bowl with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add egg; beat until combined. Add the flour; mix on low speed until combined. Stir in the apricots and almonds by hand. Transfer dough to a sheet of plastic wrap; shape into a log about 12 inches long and 1½ inches wide. Wrap dough in plastic wrap; refrigerate 2 hours. (Dough can be frozen at this point and baked later).
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Cut the dough crosswise into ½ -inch slices; place on parchment paper-lined baking sheets spaced evenly apart. Bake until the cookies are lightly brown around the edges, about 12 minutes.
To decorate, put the confectioners' sugar in a bowl; gradually stir in the amaretto until icing is of drizzling consistency. Spread about 1 tablespoon glaze on top of each cookie with an offset spatula to cover surface. Immediately sprinkle center of cookie with a few pieces of chopped apricots and almonds. Allow icing to set before serving, at least 1 hour.
Makes 24 cookies.
Note: You will need two mini muffin pans, each with 24 cups. Or make the tartlets in batches, waiting for the pan to cool completely between each.
3 ounces cream cheese at room temperature
¼ pound unsalted butter at room temperature
¼ pound stick margarine at room temperature
¼ cup confectioners' sugar
2 cups flour
1 bag (12 ounces) fresh cranberries
1 cup fresh orange juice from 3 large oranges
Grated zest of 2 oranges
¼ cup agave syrup
½ cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick
Pinch kosher salt
5 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
48 dark chocolate Hershey's Kisses
3 ounces white chocolate
For the pastry, cream the cream cheese, butter and margarine together with an electric mixer in a bowl; mix in confectioners' sugar. Mix in flour. Once fully incorporated, roll into a disk; wrap in plastic. Refrigerate at least 1 hour.
For the relish, combine cranberries, orange juice, zest, agave syrup, sugar, cinnamon stick and salt in a saucepan. Heat to a boil over medium heat; reduce to a steady simmer. Simmer until reduced to consistency of a good preserve, 30 minutes. Remove cinnamon stick.
For the filling, cream the cream cheese and sugar with an electric mixer in a bowl; add egg and vanilla. Mix until blended. Set aside.
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Roll pastry out to 1⁄8-inch thick. Cut out circles with a round 2¼- to 3-inch cookie cutter. Place dough circles into non-stick mini muffin pan cups. Gently push down the dough. Place 1 teaspoon cheesecake filling in each. Place a dark chocolate Hershey's Kiss in center of each. Top with 1 teaspoon cranberry relish.
Bake, 15-18 minutes. When cheesecake filling starts to rise and pastry slightly colors, they are done. Let cool completely, about 1 hour. Melt white chocolate in a saucepan over low heat; decoratively drizzle over the top.
Makes 48 tartlets.