Photo by Marialisa Calta
Quick and easy (and delectable) shortbread can be your go-to cookie for the holidays.
’Tis the season when it seems that every time you answer the phone, someone is asking you to bake something. Scouts, choir, book club, sports teams, church — it appears that every group is hosting a holiday get-together, and somehow you are supposed to ante up with a plate of cookies.
Take a deep breath — and step away from that tube of refrigerator cookie dough.
The answer to your holiday baking challenge is found in one word: shortbread. It comes as close to effortless as any homemade cookie can. It requires basic utensils (bowl, spoon, cake pans) and four basic ingredients (butter, salt, sugar and flour). You can prepare the dough for two dozen cookies in less than 10 minutes. And the result is pure heaven, a cookie that deserves its status as a classic.
In ancient Scotland, according to “The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion,” the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) was celebrated with bonfires and the baking of round cakes, notched around the edges to symbolize the rays of the sun. “These cakes were a sweet entreaty to the sun to return and light up the cold, dark world,” the book says.
The cakes morphed through the years into the sweet cookies we now know as shortbread. They became popular in Tudor England and were brought to this country by the Colonists.
You don’t have to bake your shortbread in a cake pan. You can form the dough into a log and make slice-and-bake shortbread, or use fancy square shortbread molds, or roll out the dough and cut it into shapes. But using the cake pan leads the recipe closer to its origins. “As always,” says “The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion,” “there’s a certain beauty in simplicity.”
These cookies are simplicity itself. Compare their ingredients (five, if you count the vanilla) with the 10 to 15 ingredients listed on a tube of refrigerated cookie dough. At the holidays, it’s comforting to know you are serving real food and not “wheat protein isolate” and artificial flavor.
The recipe here is adapted from “The Cookie Companion.” It lends itself to all sorts of embellishments. You can add flavor extracts, chocolate chips, nuts, glazes or jam. But the plain version will save you time and delight your friends and family.
Yield: 24 cookies
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature, plus a bit more for buttering the pans
1 teaspoon salt
¾ cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (optional, but recommended)
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 300 degrees. Lightly butter two 8-inch round cake pans.
In a medium bowl, or in the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter, salt, sugar and vanilla (if using). Beat in the flour. The dough will be stiff. Divide the dough in half and press each half into prepared pans. Smooth the surface with your fingers or the bottom of a measuring cup. Prick the dough with the tines of a fork in any attractive pattern.
Bake 35 to 40 minutes, or until golden brown around the edges. Remove the pan from the oven, prick the dough again, and loosen the edges with a table knife. Allow to cool for 5 minutes, then carefully invert onto a clean work surface, all in one piece. Immediately cut the shortbread into 12 wedges, using a sharp knife or a pizza wheel. (If you wait until the shortbread has cooled, it will not cut easily.) Transfer the wedges to a rack to cool, with decorative side up.
Store between layers of waxed paper in an airtight tin for up to three days, or freeze for up to two months. Allow to thaw before serving.
Drizzle with melted caramel.
Melt 2 cups chocolate chips. Using a pastry brush, brush a layer over the cookies. Leave plain or sprinkle with toasted nuts.
Crumble two of the cookies in a bowl. Spread the rest with a thick layer of your favorite jam, then sprinkle with the cookie crumbs.
Omit the vanilla and add 3 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest and, for extra lemony flavor, 3 to 5 drops lemon oil.
Reserve 1 cup of flour and pulse in a food processor with 1 cup chocolate chips so the chips are cut into small bits. Add to the dough when you add the remaining cup of flour.
(Recipe adapted from “The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion”; Countryman Press, 2004)
Marialisa Calta is a syndicated food writer who lives in Calais.
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