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There's history in each bite [Los Angeles Times :: BC-HDY-COOKIE-BAKEOFF:LA]

The holidays can be an especially sweet time of year, particularly for those of us who love to bake. Timeless as the holiday cookie ritual may be - combining butter and sugar with eggs and flour, shaping and baking - there is magic behind this simple chemistry. Because traditions adapt with time, our cookies reflect this evolution as we tweak flavorings, add ingredients and merge customs. If anything, this makes our baking even more important. These handmade gifts are crucial and comforting, particularly as times change or - as this year's devastating California wildfires can attest - our routines and very lives are upended. Each cookie is a story, whether sweetened with powdered sugar, punctuated with spice or flourished with decorations. Timeless, perhaps, but equally timely. We asked Times readers to share their recipes and stories with us for our seventh Holiday Cookie Bake-off and then to vote for their favorites. We received almost 100 submissions, and close to 20,000 votes. We took the top 20 recipes and judged them to come up with our five favorites. It wasn't easy. There were so many wonderful entries, each inspired by family history and memories. Last week, we invited the finalists to The Times' Test Kitchen to celebrate their recipes and stories.

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TAHINI SHORTBREAD COOKIES

40 minutes, plus chilling time. Makes about 3 1/2 dozen cookies.

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) salted butter, at room temperature

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons tahini paste, well stirred

2 tablespoons carob molasses or regular molasses

1 cup (5 ounces) all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups untoasted white sesame seeds

1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large bowl using a hand mixer, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes.

2. Add the tahini and beat just until combined. Then add the molasses and beat until incorporated.

3. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Gradually beat the dry ingredients into the butter mix until fully incorporated to form the dough.

4. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, 20 to 30 minutes. (The dough can be made ahead of time and refrigerated up to 3 days before using.)

5. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 to 3 baking sheets with parchment paper, and place the sesame seeds in a bowl.

6. Remove and unwrap the chilled dough. Portion the dough, a tablespoon at a time, and roll each portion into a ball. Roll each ball in sesame seeds, then lightly press down. Place the cookies on the baking sheet, spacing each about 2 inches apart (the cookies will spread as they bake).

7. Bake the cookies until golden, 9 to 11 minutes. The cookies will be very fragile when they first come out of the oven. Cool completely on the sheet before moving.

Note: Adapted from a recipe provided by Deana Kabakibi.

LINZER COOKIES WITH PERSIMMON FILLING

About 2 hours, plus cooling time. Makes 2 to 3 dozen cookies, depending on size.

PERSIMMON FILLING

1 1/2 pounds Fuyu persimmons (about 4 to 6 large fruit)

3/4 cup granulated sugar

2 cups water

2 tablespoons lemon juice, divided

3/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves, or as desired

1. Peel the persimmons and cut each fruit into sixths.

2. In a heavy-bottom saucepan, combine the sugar and water and bring to a boil. Boil the mixture for a minute or so, then add the persimmons, along with 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and cook until the persimmons are very soft, 1 to 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally.

3. Strain the persimmons and place in a food processor, leaving the liquid in the pan. Pulse the persimmons until no large pieces remain. Return the persimmons back to the pan with the liquid. Alternatively, use an immersion blender to puree the persimmons in the pan.

4. Add the remaining lemon juice, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, and cloves to the pan, stirring to combine. Cook at a gentle simmer, stirring frequently, until the mixture is thickened to a jam-like consistency, 10 to 15 minutes. This makes a scant 2 cups filling, more than enough for the cookies.

LINZER COOKIES WITH PERSIMMON FILLING

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 egg

2 1/4 cups (10.2 ounces) all-purpose flour

2 cups ground, toasted hazelnuts, walnuts or pecans

Prepared persimmon filling

Powdered sugar

1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large bowl using a hand mixer, beat the butter, sugar and salt until light and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Beat in the egg until fully incorporated.

3. Beat in the flour, then the ground nuts. If it becomes too difficult to add the flour or nuts using the mixer, continue stirring in by hand until combined.

4. Gently knead the dough, by hand, in the bowl until it holds together. Divide the dough in half. (If at any time the dough feels overly soft, cover and chill it until firm enough to handle.)

5. On a lightly floured surface, roll one-half of the dough until it is a little less than 1/4-inch thick. Cut out the dough using a 2-inch to 3-inch round cutter. Repeat with the remaining dough.

6. Using a 1-inch star-shaped cutter, cut out the center of half of the rounds (save the dough from the cutouts to make more rounds until all of the dough is used).

7. Place the cookies on a baking sheet and bake until the edges are very lightly browned, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove and set aside to cool.

8. Spread a thin layer of persimmon filling over each of the whole cookies, then top with one of the "window" cookies. For an additional decorative touch, sprinkle powdered sugar over the windows before topping.

Notes: Adapted from a recipe provided by Alice Nishimoto, who writes, "Some people like to remove the skins from the nuts before processing. You can warm nuts in the oven before processing, place in a towel, and then rub vigorously. I have used the nuts without removing the skin for walnuts and pecans. I recommend removing some of the skin for the hazelnuts."

BAKLAVA ROULADA COOKIES

About 2 hours, plus cooling time. Makes about 4 dozen cookies

SYRUP

Peel from 1 lemon

2 cups sugar

1 cup honey

2 cups water

1 cinnamon stick

In a heavy-bottom saucepan, combine the lemon peel, sugar, honey, water and cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes, then strain and set aside to cool slightly (keep warm until ready to use).

BAKLAVA ROULADA

1/2 pound plain macadamia nuts

1/2 pound plain shelled pistachios

1/2 pound plain pecans

1/2 cup sugar

2 teaspoons cinnamon

Finely grated zest of 1 lemon

1 package filo dough

1 cup melted clarified butter

Prepared warmed syrup

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 13-inch by 9-inch baking dish.

2. Finely chop all of the nuts. This can be done in a food processor, but chop them individually so they each reach a uniform size. Combine the chopped nuts, sugar, cinnamon and zest in a bowl and set aside.

3. Stack 6 to 7 sheets of filo dough, brushing each sheet with melted butter before stacking. Butter the top sheet, then scatter with a thick (1/4-inch) layer of the nut mixture. Roll the sheets tightly into a log, buttering the exposed pastry as you go.

4. Slice the roll into generous 1-inch-thick slices and place in the buttered baking dish, cut-side-down. Some of the filling will fall out of the cookies during this process, but don't worry. Carefully pack the cookies tightly in the dish so they hold their shape during baking. Repeat until all of the nut filling is used.

5. Drizzle the cookies with remaining melted butter. Place in the oven and bake until golden-brown, 45 minutes to an hour.

6. Remove the dish from the oven, and immediately pour the syrup over the baklava to fully saturate. Give the cookies a little time to soak up the syrup, then continue pouring the remaining syrup until the cookies are fully saturated but not drowning.

7. Cool completely before serving. Serve the cookies, each wrapped in a cupcake wrapper, or stacked in a pyramid.

Note: Adapted from a recipe provided by Scott Cronick.

GINGERBREAD HEART HOUSES

About 1 hour, plus chilling time. Makes about 3 dozen cookies, depending on size.

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup light molasses

1 egg

3 1/4 cups (14.6 ounces) unsifted flour

1/2 teaspoon ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

Royal icing, for decorating

Sprinkles, for decorating

1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large bowl using a hand mixer, beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Beat in the molasses until combined, then the egg until fully incorporated.

2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, baking powder and salt. Slowly beat the dry ingredients into the butter mixture until fully combined. Wrap the dough tightly in waxed paper or plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm and chilled, at least 30 minutes (the dough can be made up to 3 days in advance and refrigerated until needed).

3. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough to a thickness of 1/8 inch. Cut out using desired cookie cutters. Place the cookies on an ungreased baking sheet, spacing at least 1 inch apart.

4. Bake the cookies until they are firm and the edges begin to darken, 10 to 15 minutes (timing will vary depending on size).

5. Cool completely, then decorate as desired.

Note: Adapted from a recipe provided by Katie Rodgers. To make royal icing, beat 1 egg white (or 1 tablespoon pasteurized dried egg whites or meringue powder) with a pinch of cream of tartar and 1/3 pound sifted powdered sugar until combined and smooth, thinning as desired with warm water.

FRENCH TWISTS

About 1 hour, plus chilling time. Makes about 2 1/2 dozen cookies.

2 1/2 cups (11.25 ounces) all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) cold butter, cut into cubes

1 egg

1/2 cup milk

About 1 1/4 cups apple or raspberry jelly

1 1/2 cups shredded coconut

3/4 cup chopped walnuts

1/4 cup sugar mixed with 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Powdered sugar

1. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Cut in the butter using a pastry cutter or fork until it is reduced to the size of small peas.

2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg and milk.

3. Make a well in the middle of the dry mixture and add the milk and egg, using a spatula to gently mix the ingredients until they come together to form a dough.

4. Use your hands to shape the dough into a rectangle approximately 8-inches long and 4-inches wide and 1/2-inch thick. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate until well-chilled, at least 2 hours.

5. Heat the oven to 350 degrees, and line 2 to 3 baking sheets with parchment paper.

6. Remove the chilled dough to a floured surface and roll to a thickness of approximately 1/8-inch, maintaining the rectangular shape.

7. Spread a thin layer of jam over the entire rectangle. On the lower half, sprinkle over the coconut, nuts, and cinnamon sugar. Fold the top half of the dough over the bottom half to completely cover the filling. Lightly press the halves together.

8. Using a sharp knife, carefully cut the rectangle crosswise into 1/2-inch thick strips. Carefully twist each strip to form a spiral. Place the spirals on the prepared baking sheets, spacing them about an inch apart.

9. Bake the cookies until they are set and golden, about 12 minutes. Remove the cookies from the sheet to fresh parchment paper while they are still hot, as the jam will become very sticky as it cools. Once the cookies are cooled, sprinkle the cookies with powdered sugar.

Note: Adapted from a recipe provided by Dan Guerrera.

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(c)2017 Los Angeles Times

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