Door #19: Theme and Variation with Shortbread Cookies
This is my go-to recipe for holiday cookies. Cardamom is still an unusual-enough spice in American kitchens that friends and family are pleasantly surprised when it turns up in buttery shortbread cookies edged with sugar.
The recipe couldn’t be easier — a plus when you’re rushing to finish holiday shopping and decorating. Mixing up the dough goes quickly so long as you’ve let the butter soften. And if you forget to leave it out at room temperature, five seconds in the microwave should do the trick.
The original version of this recipe comes from pastry chef Fran Gage’s A Sweet Quartet: Sugar, Almonds, Eggs, and Butter: A Baker’s Tour, Including 33 Recipes. I’ve tweaked and adjusted it to suit my tastes and kitchen — rolling the cookies in sugar for a festive garnish, swapping salted butter for unsalted, and rewriting the instructions for those of us without Kitchen Aid mixers.
Cardamom Shortbread Cookies
Sift together flour, cardamom and salt.
Cream the butter and sugar until they are just combined. (If your butter is soft enough, you can use a wooden spoon, which is almost as quick as an electric mixer and saves you the hassle of cleaning off the beaters later. If using an electric mixer, be careful not to overmix. This can make the dough difficult to shape.)
Add the vanilla and mix in thoroughly.
Add the dry ingredients. Once the dough starts forming small globs, you can squeeze the dough into a mass with your hands, gradually incorporating any crumbly bits into the mass of dough.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured cutting board or countertop. Roll it into a log 1 inch in diameter. Wrap the log in plastic wrap, and refrigerate until firm, a few hours. (If you’re in a hurry, you can put the logs in the freezer for up to 15 minutes.)
Preheat the oven to 375° F.
Brush the logs with beaten egg white and then roll in sugar until the outside of the log is well covered with crystals.
Slice the log into 1/4-inch pieces. Place the rounds on an ungreased baking sheet. (If you’re going to be baking multiple batches, you can cover the baking sheet with parchment to minimize between-batch clean-up.)
Bake until the edges are golden brown, about 10 minutes, and then let cool on a rack.
Store cookies in an airtight container.
Yield: 3 dozen cookies.
Note: If I’m making two or more different kinds of shortbread, I’ll roll each type in a different color sanding sugar to help tell them apart.
Toast 1 tablespoon of anise seeds lightly in a heavy-bottomed pan. Let them cool, and then add them with the dry ingredients.
The inspiration for this variation comes from Claudia Fleming’s sadly out-of-print cookbook The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern.
Fleming’s version calls for confectioners sugar in the cookie dough. I prefer the grainier texture you get with ordinary granulated sugar.
Fleming also ratchets up the anise with the addition of 1/4 teaspoon of anise extract. I like to leave out the extract if I’m making one or more of these variations as well, since, otherwise, the anise cookies tend to overpower the others.
Replace the cardamom with 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Add the grated zest of one lemon to the butter and sugar with the vanilla extract.
I came across a recipe for lemon-pepper shortbread on Food52.com before I made this year’s batch of shortbread. I borrowed their seasoning idea and added it to the base recipe above.
Replace the cardamom with 1 teaspoon of Chinese five-spice powder (a mixture of star anise, fennel, cloves, cassia and ginger).