H is for Heavenly: H-Bars

I recently bought a copy of Holiday Cookies, a cookbook featuring recipes from the Chicago Tribune's annual Holiday Cookie Contest. The book is delightful. It is packed with photos and includes the top three recipes from each year between 1988-2013, as well as some of the honorable mentions. The recipes have a homey, Midwestern sensibility (there are so many kolacky recipes that I lost count!) and a good number are accompanied by vignettes of the bakers who submitted them. Reading this book makes me nostalgic for my Nebraska upbringing.

I thought I'd go with a proven winner for my first recipe. Victoria Weisenberg won the cookie contest in 2012 for her "H-Bars," named after a special (but unidentified) man she was trying to woo by baking the bars as a Hanukkah gift. The bars have a shortbread crust topped with raisin filling, cinnamon streusel, and icing.

The recipe is written to be baked in a 7.5-inch by 11-inch pan, and even though I have a pan that size, I multiplied the recipe by 1.5 and made it in a 9-inch by 13-inch pan. To make the crust, you combine softened butter with flour and sugar, press the mixture into the bottom of a pan, and bake for 15 minutes. The recipe doesn't give any description of how the crust should look at the end of the baking time, but mine was completely pale and did not look done. So I put it back in the oven and ended up baking it for a total of about 25 minutes, until the crust was lightly golden.

The raisin layer is a mixture of flour, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, brown sugar, eggs, vanilla, and golden raisins. You pour it over the baked crust, and then sprinkle on a topping made from flour, sugar, butter, and cinnamon. You bake the bars and after they are cooled, drizzle on a icing made from powdered sugar, milk, and vanilla.
These bars were freakin' delicious. Despite their humble appearance, they are on my short list of favorite bars of all time. The buttery shortbread base was nice and sturdy (although still quite pale -- so I'm glad I gave it some extra time in the oven), and the warm cinnamon flavor of the filling and topping was so comforting. But the best thing about the bars was the sweet raisin layer in the middle. It's difficult to describe -- it held its shape but was soft, almost like frosting. I used "jumbo" golden raisins that lived up to their name; they plumped up during baking and were wonderfully chewy. I don't think I've ever had a better raisin dessert.

This recipe is definitely a winner in my book.

Recipe: "H-Bars" by Victoria Weisenberg, from Holiday Cookies: Prize-Winning Family Recipes from the Chicago Tribune for Cookies, Bars, Brownies and More, recipe available here from the Chicago Tribune.