The magic of any holiday cookie, it seems, comes well before the bite.

It's the whirl of memory and story that fills the kitchen, fills your heart, as soon as the creaky lid of the old, banged-up recipe box is lifted. As soon as you scribble your grocery list, with all those once-a-year ingredients. As soon as the first cloud of cookie-baking heaven comes rising from the oven.

And so it was that the stories of more than 100 holiday cookies, all entries in the Chicago Tribune 2009 Holiday Cookie Contest, enticed us well before we got near the kitchen. We whittled down that often heart-grabbing lot to a mere 12 finalists, not even a baker's dozen.

And on a crisp November day, the dozens of cookies poured into the Tribune's test kitchen. We nibbled. We chewed. We pondered. We picked.

Oh, it's tough toil plucking cookies off of platters.

"I judged in terms of what you'd want to keep going back to," said pastry chef Tyler MacAvoy, who works in the kitchen of Rick Bayless and his triumvirate of Chicago restaurants, and who was invited as an expert judge to put her educated palate to the task.

"Some were very good. I'd take one for Christmas and go back, and back."

In the end, the cookie we would go back to, time and again, was Grandma's walnut horns, baked by Beth Grabowski of Arlington Heights. Her secret weapon, she said with a laugh when we called to pop the news, is her great-grandma's rolling pin, carried over to America from Russia.

Grabowski, a retired lawyer who had never entered a baking contest, said, "I have all these women standing behind me; I guess that's my real secret."

In her prize-winning essay, she wrote: "Whenever I bake, I reminisce about my grandmas. Their patience when teaching me ... and the faith they had in me."

Ivy Risch of Aurora scored the No. 2 spot for Mutti's speculatius cookies, a recipe that traces back to Risch's missionary grandparents' years in China, and her grandmother Mutti's friendship with Madame Chiang Kai-shek. One judge deemed the perfectly browned stars "classic; a welcome change from oversweet, overdone Christmas cookie plates."

Cheryl Stritzel McCarthy won third place for her cherry pie almond thumbprints, but the story of how the cookies made it just under the deadline is a winner too.

McCarthy, who lives in Naperville, packed up her van, picked up a friend and headed into the city with her cookie cargo. She allowed plenty of time for everything, except, well, the fact that she was going to plop on the cherry filling in the parking garage, so the cookies wouldn't be soggy.

Her minivan-cum-pastry kitchen worked just fine. It was the running into Tribune Tower that got tricky. Seems McCarthy's friend dressed up for her day in the city and wore spike heels. Running in heels with cherry-topped contest cookies is not an Olympic sport. The cherry thumbprints arrived for judging with just four minutes to spare.

We could not leave out the lovely apricot marzipan hearts, baked by Maria Damp of Chicago, nor Violet Cosimano's fabulous walnut slices, baked by Violet's daughter Carole Cosimano of Western Springs, so both were awarded honorable mentions.

In our book, every last cookie is a winner. As long as it stirs a story in your heart.

1st Place: Beth Grabowski, Arlington Heights

Grandma's walnut horns

Prep: 60 minutes

Chill: 6 hours

Cook: 13 minutes per batch

Makes: 64 cookies

"This dough must be prepared at least six hours in advance of baking," Grabowski said. "I usually make it the night before." She said doubling the recipe works fine and the cookies hold up well for a couple of weeks if frozen.

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened

2 cups flour

¾ cup sour cream

1 egg yolk, beaten

1 cup each: light brown sugar, ground walnuts

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Confectioners' sugar, optional

1. Mix butter with flour in medium bowl by hand or with electric mixer. Add sour cream to egg yolk; mix. Add to flour mixture; beat until sticky dough forms. Divide dough into four sections; wrap individually in plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 6 hours.

2. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Mix brown sugar, walnuts and cinnamon in a bowl. Take one section of dough from the refrigerator; sprinkle flour on both sides of the dough. Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface to about ?-inch thick. Spread a thin layer of filling on the dough, almost to the edges. Cut the dough with a pizza cutter into quarters; cut into 3 to 4 wedges per quarter.

3. Starting at the widest end, gently roll up each wedge like a crescent roll. Place on greased, light-colored cookie sheets with the tail end of the dough tucked under; bake 13-18 minutes per batch. Cool; sprinkle with confectioners' sugar.

Nutrition information

Per cookie: 70 calories, 57% of calories from fat, 5 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 12 mg cholesterol, 7 g carbohydrates, 1 g protein, 3 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

2nd place: Ivy Risch, Aurora

Mutti's butter cookies

Prep: 75 minutes

Chill: 1 hour

Cook: 7 minutes per batch

Makes: 100 cookies

Adapted from a recipe from Risch's German grandmother, who called the cookies "speculatius." Add more cinnamon, if you like.

2 1/2 sticks (1¼ cups) unsalted butter, softened

3 eggs

2 cups sugar

1 teaspoon salt

3 cups flour

¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

1. Combine butter, eggs, sugar and salt in large bowl; stir with wooden spoon until smooth, about 1 minute. Combine 2 ¼ cups of the flour and cinnamon in a medium bowl; add to butter mixture 1 cup at a time, stirring to make a soft, sticky dough. Sprinkle remaining ¾ cup of the flour on counter; place dough on the flour. Knead, incorporating more flour just until dough is no longer sticky. Wrap dough in plastic wrap; refrigerate 1 hour or overnight.

2. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Remove dough from refrigerator; cut off a 2-inch piece. Re-wrap remaining dough; return to refrigerator. Roll dough out on a lightly floured surface to ?-inch thick. Cut shapes with cookie cutters. Transfer cookies to parchment-lined baking sheets; bake until edges turn golden brown, 7-8 minutes per batch. Transfer cookies to wire rack to cool. Repeat with remaining chilled dough.

Nutrition information

Per cookie: 51 calories, 43% of calories from fat, 3 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 12 mg cholesterol, 7 g carbohydrates, 1 g protein, 26 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

3rd place: Cheryl Stritzel McCarthy, Naperville

Cherry pie almond thumbprints

Prep: 40 minutes

Cook: 12 minutes per batch

Makes: 28 cookies

2/3 cup butter

1/3 cup sugar

2 eggs, separated

1/2 teaspoon each: vanilla, almond extract, salt

11/2 cups flour

1 cup finely chopped almonds, plus sliced almonds for garnish


2 cups pitted tart cherries, thawed, drained

1/3 cup sugar

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon each: vanilla, almond extract

1 tablespoon butter

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine butter and sugar in large bowl; beat with electric mixer until creamy. Beat in egg yolks, vanilla and almond extract. Stir together salt and flour in small bowl. Add to butter mixture; beat until smooth.

2. Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Beat egg whites in small bowl until frothy; dip cookies in egg white to coat. Dip cookies in nuts to coat. Place balls 2 inches apart on parchment-paper lined cookie sheets. Press an indentation in the middle of each cookie with your thumb. Bake until lightly browned on bottoms, rotating pan once, about 14 minutes per batch. Remove to wire rack; cool.

3. Meanwhile for filling, combine cherries, sugar and cornstarch in a large saucepan; heat over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, to a boil. Boil, stirring, 1 minute. Remove from heat. Add vanilla, almond extract and butter. Cool. Fill each cookie with a tiny scoop of cherry filling. Garnish with an almond slice, if desired.

Nutrition information

Per cookie: 115 calories, 52% of calories from fat, 7 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 28 mg cholesterol, 12 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 48 mg sodium, 1 g fiber

Honorable mention: Maria Damp, Chicago

Apricot marzipan hearts

Prep: 1 hour

Chill: 30 minutes

Cook: 8 minutes per batch

Makes: 26 cookies

Recipe adapted from "Weihnachtsbackerei von Anisplatzchen bis Zimtstern" by Gisela Allkemper.

1/2 cup each: softened butter, sugar

1 egg

1 cup marzipan paste

1 cup flour, plus more for rolling

1 cup finely-chopped roasted, unsalted almonds

¼ cup dried apricots, finely chopped

Finely grated zest of 1 lemon

1 cup apricot jam, melted

Confectioner" sugar, optional

1. Combine butter and sugar in large bowl; beat until fluffy with electric mixer. Beat in egg until smooth. Beat in marzipan paste. Stir in flour until incorporated. Stir in almonds, apricots and lemon zest. Chill dough at least 30 minutes.

2. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Roll out dough to about ?-inch thick on lightly floured board (dough will be very sticky). Cut into shapes with a floured heart-shaped or other cookie cutter. Place hearts on parchment-lined cookie sheets. Bake until light golden, 8-10 minutes per batch. Transfer to wire racks to cool.

3. Spread a thin layer of jam on one cookie; top with another cookie. Repeat with remaining cookies. Sift confectioner" sugar over tops.

Nutrition information

Per cookie sandwich: 175 calories, 49% of calories from fat, 10 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 18 mg cholesterol, 22 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein, 10 mg sodium, 1 g fiber

Honorable mention: Carole Cosimano, Western Springs

Violet Cosiman"s fabulous walnut slices

Prep: 40 minutes

Cook: 45 minutes

Makes: 16 bars

1 1/2 cups brown sugar

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

1/2 cup shredded coconut

1 cup chopped walnuts

Buttercream frosting:

1 cup sifted confectiones" sugar, plus more for dusting, optional

1 to 2 tablespoons butter, room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 to 2 tablespoons milk

1. Heat oven to 300 degrees. Combine 1/2 cup of the brown sugar and the butter in a large bowl. Beat with electric mixer until fluffy. Add 1 cup of the flour; beat until crumbly. Pat dough into 8- or 9-inch-square baking pan. Bake 20 minutes. Cool.

2. Increase oven temperature to 350 degrees. Beat eggs in a medium bowl with mixer; beat in remaining 1 cup of the brown sugar. Add vanilla; beat to mix. Mix remaining 2 tablespoons of the flour with baking powder and salt in small bowl; add to egg-brown-sugar mixture. Stir in coconut and walnuts. Spread over prepared pastry. Bake 25 minutes. Cool.

3. Meanwhile, for frosting, combine sugar, butter, vanilla and 1 tablespoon milk in mixing bowl; stir until smooth. Add remaining milk as needed. Cut walnut pastry into squares. Frost squares (or dust with confectiones" sugar).

Nutrition information

Per bar: 271 calories, 41% of calories from fat, 13 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 44 mg cholesterol, 37 g carbohydrates, 4 g protein, 72 mg sodium, 1 g fiber

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.