Shortbread - for a holiday cookie cornucopia

An assortment of shortbread cookies. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
An assortment of shortbread cookies. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: December 13, 2012

Holiday cookie baking can take over a kitchen for days and even weeks, with multiple dough recipes to measure, roll, shape, bake, ice, glaze, and sprinkle.

Having baked hundreds of cookies over the years, I've developed a new strategy to manage the bake-a-thon: Take one great, basic recipe - be it for brownies, biscotti, or brittle - and make variations on the theme.

By far the easiest and tastiest is the butter-blessed cookie favorite: shortbread.

With a basic recipe - four ingredients if you count salt - you can quickly create a dozen different cookies or bars, with a range of flavors and shapes.

From simple, classic wedges to glazed jam-filled hearts, there is no shortage of shortbread for every occasion. With several batches of basic dough and a few pantry items, you can have your baking done in an afternoon.

Short, as in shortening, describes the delicate texture of these butter-rich treats.

Traditional recipes call for one part sugar, two parts butter. and three parts flour. The ratio of butter to flour keeps the protein (gluten) in the flour from forming long protein strands. This results in the unique crumbly, or short, texture.

Shortbread relies on the quality of these few ingredients, so using good farm butter and freshly milled flour will yield an exceptional cookie. That provides the canvas for any add-ins or fillings, so choose the best you can find. A little bit of fancy jam or melted dark chocolate goes a long way. (Be sure to taste costly nuts before buying large quantities, as lightly rancid ones have a distinctly off flavor.)

Shortbread is baked at lower temperatures than most cookies or cakes and should be dry but not browned when done. Some recipes call for pricking the dough with the tines of a fork to help it cook through to the center, which when done in a pattern also adds a nice look to a simple plain cookie.

This dough can be seasoned with herbs, citrus zest, spices such as caraway, cardamom, cinnamon or white pepper, or some combination.

The stiff dough holds its shape well once baked, which lends well to rolling and slicing or cutting with cookie cutters. The dough can also be cut into squares or wedges once baked, but it's best to cut it while the dough is warm, and leave it to cool in the pan.

Another alternative is to use the basic dough as crust and a topping for a filled cookie bar. The dough crust is par-baked in a pan, spread with a jam, fruit, marmalade or other filling. Some reserved dough (maybe mixed with nuts and spices) is crumbled on top and baked some more.

When planning an assortment, think about what ingredients and flavors you would like to include.

Nuts are great, but not in every cookie. A variety of fruity jams work well as a filling for cookie bars and cookie sandwiches, so use up what's on the door of your fridge. Dark, milk, or even white chocolate can be used to dip or drizzle.

Some of my current favorite combinations include: raspberry jam-filled hearts and stars; glazed lemon rosemary coins; cherry pistachio logs; dark chocolate-dipped fingers; apricot crumb bars with pecans.

A family favorite is a Florentine-style shortbread square filled with orange or grapefruit marmalade and topped with toasted honey caramel almonds and a drizzle of chocolate.

Other interesting add-ins and combos include instant espresso powder and cinnamon glaze with chocolate; zested lime with toasted coconut topped with sesame seeds and macadamia nuts; chopped pecans; chopped walnuts; candied ginger.

You can even offer guests a savory shortbread by reducing the sugar to 1 tablespoon and adding a half-cup of parmesan cheese, a teaspoon of fresh pepper. and another teaspoon of smoked paprika.

Sweet or salty, spicy or fruity, no matter how you make them, they are short but mighty (good).


Cookie Tips

The dough can be made in a food processor in minutes. You can also use a stand mixer or just a large bowl, a wooden spoon, and your hands.

Assess your baking supplies. A flexible nonstick square "brownie bite" mold worked well for individual apricot crumb bars. These same treats could have been made in mini muffin pans or a square baking dish to be cut into bite-sized bits after baking.

Shortbread dough can be frozen for several weeks, and will remain fresh for up to a week if well covered in the refrigerator. The cookies themselves freeze extremely well.

Rolled shortbread cookies are delicate and don't ship well, but the cookie crumb bars and thicker chocolate-dipped fingers are sturdy and can be shipped if packed carefully with wax paper between layers and extra paper to fill in gaps in the tins.


Basic Shortbread

Makes about 16 cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

2 cups unbleached white flour

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2-3/4 teaspoon salt

Sparkling sugar (coarse crystals of sugar sold for decorating; optional)

1. Place all ingredients except sparkling sugar in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until well blended. Then process until the dough holds together. If using a stand mixer, mix on low until the ingredients are blended and then increase mixer speed to medium until the dough is no longer crumbly. (To make basic shortbread wedges, proceed with this recipe. For others, proceed with recipe variation of your choice.)

2. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Press basic dough into a 9-inch round cake pan. Prick in a pattern with a fork if desired. Sprinkle with sparkling sugar if desired.

3. Bake 35-40 minutes, turning the pan once or twice during baking. The shortbread is ready when the edges are just very very light brown and the top is dry. Turn off oven and leave in, with the door propped open slightly.

4. While still warm, cut with the pointy end of a thin knife into 16 wedges. Leave in the pan until completely cool.

- From Anna Herman

Per serving: 183 calories, 2 grams protein, 18 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 12 grams fat, 31 milligrams cholesterol, 156 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.


Pistachio-Dried Cherry Shortbread Bars

Makes 16 to 18 bars

1 recipe Basic Shortbread Dough

3/4 cup chopped toasted lightly salted pistachio nuts

3/4 cup dried tart cherries

Sprinkling sugar, if desired

1. Line a loaf pan (approximately 8-by-4-by-2½) with wax paper or parchment.

2. While the dough is in the food processor and is still crumbly, add the nuts and the cherries and pulse several times until the ingredients are distributed evenly.

3. Turn the dough into the loaf pan and fold the excess paper to cover the surface of the dough. Using either your fingers or another loaf pan of the same dimensions, press the dough evenly into the pan to mold it into a large rectangle. Chill dough in the pan for 1 hour or up to several days.

4. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line a baking sheet or two with parchment or a nonstick mat. Turn the dough out from the pan onto a cutting board and remove the paper. Cut the dough into 1/4-inch slices across the loaf and cut each slice in half long ways. You should have slices measuring approximately 1 inch by 4 inches. Using a long, thin spatula, transfer these slices to the prepared baking sheet and sprinkle with sugar if using.

5. Bake, turning pan at least once, for 10-15 minutes depending on the thickness. The dough will brown just slightly on the bottom edge when done. Cool pan on rack and transfer the cookies to a tin once they are completely cool.

- From Anna Herman

Per serving (based on 18): 216 calories, 3 grams protein, 23 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams sugar, 13 grams fat, 31 milligrams cholesterol, 148 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.


Apricot Pecan Bars

Makes 12 to 18 cookie bars

1 recipe basic shortbread dough

1 cup apricot jam

2/3 cup chopped pecans

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Scoop 3/4 of the dough into a small bowl. Place the remaining dough into a 9-by-9-inch square pan and press firmly along the surface with the heel and then fingers of your hand to make an even crust along the bottom of the pan. Cook this crust for 10-12 minutes.

2. While the crust is prebaking, mix the remaining shortbread dough with the chopped pecans. Remove pan from the oven and turn oven to 350.

3. The crust will no longer look raw and very soft, but will still be light and undercooked. Spread the apricot jam carefully on the surface of the dough and sprinkle with the crumb topping. Return to the oven and cook another 15-20 minutes until the jam is bubbling and the crumb topping is just browning.

4. Cool completely before cutting into squares. Each square can be cut in half to make triangles. (Alternatively these bars can be made in individual molds or miniature muffin tins. Approx 11/2 teaspoons of dough for crust, 1 teaspoon of jam for filling, and a scant 1 teaspoon of topping for each 1-inch square.)

- From Anna Herman

Note: Adding 1-2 teaspoons of finely chopped fresh rosemary and the zest of one to two lemons to the dough is also an excellent combination with the apricots and pecans.

Per serving (based on 18): 241 calories, 2 grams protein, 29 grams carbohydrates, 14 grams sugar, 14 grams fat, 31 milligrams cholesterol, 162 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.


Glazed Rosemary Lemon Coins

Makes 18 to 20 cookies

1 recipe Basic Shortbread Dough

1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves

Zest of 11/2 lemons (save remaining half lemon for glaze  below)

For the glaze:

1-2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

¾ cup confectioners' sugar

Peel of 1/2 lemon, thinly peeled with a vegetable peeler and minced fine

Small sprigs of rosemary and/or candied lemon rind for garnish, optional

1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. While the dough is still crumbly in the food processor or mixer, add the rosemary and lemon zest. Process to combine ingredients completely. Roll on a lightly floured board and cut into small circles. Transfer to a lined baking sheet and cook for 8-10 minutes until dry but not browned. Cool completely.

2. Start making the glaze by putting 1 tablespoon of juice in a nonreactive bowl. Add the confectioners' sugar and minced lemon peel and stir until smooth. Add a bit more lemon juice to reach desired consistency. Glaze can be spread if kept thick like icing or dribbled over each cookie if thinner glaze is preferred. Garnish, if desired, with either a very small sprig of rosemary on each cookie or a small piece of candied lemon rind pressed into the glaze.

- From Anna Herman

Note: Fresh or dried culinary lavender or thyme may substitute for the rosemary. For a rose shortbread, add 2 tablespoons finely crumbled fragrant dried rose petals (organic) to the dough. Make a glaze with confectioners' sugar and rosewater.

Per serving (based on 20): 189 calories, 2 grams protein, 21 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams sugar, 12 grams fat, 31 milligrams cholesterol, 156 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.


Chocolate Shortbread Fingers

Makes 16 to 18 cookies

1 recipe Basic Shortbread Dough

4 ounces bittersweet chocolate (60-85 perrcent cacao), chopped into small pieces

1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Roll the dough on a lightly floured board into a rectangle approximately 3 inches by 12 inches. Refrigerate for about an hour.

2. Cut 16 ¾- by-3-inch rectangles from this sheet and place them on a pan lined with parchment. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes until dry and firm but not browned. Cool completely.

3. Melt chocolate in a small bowl or ramekin over hot water, stirring until just melted. Remove from heat. Dip each cookie into the chocolate, tilting the bowl or ramekin as needed, and place the dipped cookies on a wax-paper-lined sheet pan. When all cookies are dipped, place the pan in the refrigerator to set the chocolate.

4. Store in a cool, dry place for up to 2 weeks or freeze very well-wrapped for up to 6 weeks.

- From Anna Herman

Per serving (based on 18): 204 calories, 3 grams protein, 20 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams sugar, 13 grams fat, 32 milligrams cholesterol, 155 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.

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