A striking chocolate-hazelnut sandwich cookie made by a veteran Bergen County baker is the winner of The Record's fourth annual holiday cookie contest.
Beatrice Wessol has long been well-known in the Wyckoff area for her elaborate cookie platters at bake sales and school events. The part-time preschool administrative assistant bakes more than a dozen varieties of cookies each holiday season with her mother, who is a native of Switzerland.
Wessol's chocolate hazelnut daisies were chosen as the winner for their distinctive flavor profile, said judge Phyllis Pette, who won The Record's contest in 2009 and 2010. "It was fancy, yet approachable; familiar, yet exotic."
Added fellow judge Zac Young, a former contestant on "Top Chef: Just Desserts" and the executive pastry chef of Flex Mussels in Manhattan: "It was very complex, and beautiful, and well-executed too, clearly coming from someone who had done this a lot."
Wessol, 50, said baking has always been a big part of her life. "My first memory is standing on a stool in the kitchen watching my grandmother and not being about to touch anything ... then eventually I graduated to being able to grind the nuts," she said at last week's public bake-off at Chef Central in Paramus. An enthusiastic audience of more than 100 people attended the contest.
Wessol beat out two other finalists selected from a pool of 44 nominating letters.
Second place went to Dylan Visitacion, 31, of Ridgefield Park, who works for a tree service. Also an avid baker, Visitacion was cheered on at the event by five of his six children. He experimented with different mixes of ingredients for his contest entry, a spiced dark-chocolate and pecan combination.
"It was very much reminiscent of an awesome chocolate chip cookie, but taken to another level," said judge Young.
Third place went to Jessica Jackson, 29, of Belleville, who grew up in Clifton. A customer-service representative for US Foods, Jackson enjoys cooking and baking on the weekends with her 6-year-old son, Ryan. She originally crafted the recipe for an informal baking contest with some of her co-workers (which she won). Her candy-cane-shaped cookie is laced with a little Disaronno amaretto and covered in crushed candy canes.
"I thought it was really fun, really playful," Young said. "I loved the whimsy of it."
Kings Super Markets was a sponsor of the contest, along with KitchenAid and Chef Central, whose pastry chef, Andrea Rico, also served on the judging panel. Wessol won a 5-quart KitchenAid stand mixer, second-place finisher Visitacion won a $100 Chef Central gift card, and Jackson's third-place prize was a nine-speed KitchenAid digital hand mixer. Wessol also won the "People's Choice" award from the audience, netting her a $50 Chef Central gift card.
Food Editor Susan Sherrill contributed to this story.
First: Beatrice Wessol
Nominators: Olivia Wessol, Wyckoff; Kurt and Kathy Grube, Wyckoff; Trish Zimmerman, Oakland; Christina Polnyj, Gainesville, Fla.
From friend Kathy Grube’s nominating letter: "Several months ago, while my father was in the hospital, I asked Bea (with very short notice) to bake a tray of her chocolate hazelnut cookies for the nurses who were caring for him. Without hesitation she said yes, and the cookies were not only ready for me the next morning, but beautifully wrapped on a tray. I was so appreciative of the effort and love that went into those cookies. The nurses could not stop telling me how absolutely delicious they were."
* CHOCOLATE HAZELNUT DAISIES (Haselnuss Platzli)
Wessol says these cookies improve with age and can be made up to two weeks ahead. You can also make a gluten-free version, substituting the flour with Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free All Purpose Baking Flour. For these sandwich cookies, Wessol uses two different daisy cookie cutters — one measuring 1.5 inches and the other 2 inches.
2 1/2 cups hazelnuts
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon lemon juice
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 large egg whites
1 3.5-ounce bar of Lindt Excellence dark chocolate
Powdered sugar, for dusting
Yield: About 6 dozen sandwich cookies.
Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
Roast hazelnuts in oven for 10 to 15 minutes until aromatic. (Watch carefully to prevent burning.) Remove skins by rubbing nuts vigorously inside a kitchen towel. This step can be done in advance.
Place nuts, flour and salt in a food processor and grind until fine. Mixture should have a flour-like texture.
Transfer to mixing bowl. Add lemon juice and butter and stir gently with a spatula. Set aside.
Using an electric mixer, whip egg whites until they are the consistency of snow, just before stiff peaks form. With mixer running on medium speed, slowly add sugar in a gentle stream until just combined.
Add nut mixture to egg whites and combine gently with a spatula.
Form dough into a ball, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours or overnight.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cut slices of dough from the ball and roll out between two pieces of waxed paper until they are about 1/8 inch thick.
Using 2 sizes of daisy cookie cutters, cut out larger daisies for the bottoms and slightly smaller daisies for the tops. Place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. (If dough has become too soft to transfer, place in refrigerator for a few minutes.)
Bake 10 to 15 minutes until just slightly brown. Do not overbake. Cool on a wire rack.
When cookies are cool, chop chocolate bar and melt. Place about 1/4 teaspoon on top of each big cookie and top with a small cookie. Dust with powdered sugar.
Store in an airtight container in cool place.
Second: Dylan Visitacion
Hometown: Ridgefield Park.
Nominators: Dimarie Matos, Ridgefield Park; Hazel Sterner, Leonia.
From grandmother Hazel Sterner’s nominating letter: "I am 82 years old and have baked and tasted many cookies, but these cookies are near the top of the list. Dylan is an honest, hard-working young man who excels [at] everything he does."
* PECAN SPICE COOKIES
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon, preferably McCormick Saigon cinnamon
1 1/4 cups salted butter
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups chopped pecans
1 cup dark chocolate morsels, preferably Hershey’s Special Dark
Yield: About 4 dozen cookies.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
In small bowl, combine flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. Set aside.
Using an electric mixer, cream butter. Mix in granulated sugar, brown sugar and vanilla extract until creamy.
Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Gradually stir in dry ingredients. Stir in pecans and morsels.
Drop by rounded tablespoons onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake about 10 minutes, or until golden. Let cool on cookie sheet for two minutes before transferring to cooling rack or plate.
Third: Jessica Jackson
Hometown: Belleville (Clifton native).
Nominator: Mary Perehinec-Germano, Clifton.
From the nominating letter: "She is an excellent cookie baker — her homemade cookies are the best I’ve ever had, and they’re always the right texture. She should definitely be in the baking business!"
* CANDY CANE COOKIES
8 ounces mascarpone cheese
3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons Disaronno amaretto
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 4-ounce bar semi-sweet chocolate, preferably Nestle or Ghirardelli, melted and stirred until smooth
White Chocolate Drizzle:
2 4-ounce bars white chocolate, melted, preferably Ghirardelli, melted and stirred until smooth
1 teaspoon peppermint extract
10 full-sized peppermint candy canes, finely crushed
Red and green colored sprinkles
Yield: 4 dozen cookies.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Using an electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat mascarpone, butter and sugar until smooth.
Add one teaspoon of Disaronno and taste; add the second teaspoon if you like (ideally, you want only a hint of a liquor flavor).
Add flour and baking soda; mix well. Blend in melted chocolate.
Place in refrigerator for about 5 minutes to stiffen dough.
Roll dough into 1-inch balls and roll each ball into a 3-inch long rope. Place each on lightly greased cookie sheet about two inches apart, shaping the dough into candy canes.
Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until dough rises and looks puffed. Cool completely.
Melt white chocolate and mix with peppermint extract. Drizzle over cookies in a zigzag pattern.
Immediately top with a light layer of finely ground peppermint candies. Add colored sprinkles.
Set until drizzle is hardened. Store in an airtight Tupperware container with a slice of bread to keep cookies moist.