In my family, Christmas just isn’t Christmas without shortbread cookies. Both my parents loved cooking and baking, but my father and I usually made the shortbreads, creaming pounds of butter, combining it with icing sugar, cornstarch and flour, and forming the stiff dough into long, even logs of palest yellow. We wrapped each log in wax paper, chilled some and froze some. When we needed cookies, we sliced the rolls into discs, distributed them on cookie sheets, pressed a half almond or tidbit of glacéed fruit onto every other one, and slid them into the oven. My parents preferred the fruity ones, baked only until the faintest gold appeared around the edges. I went for the plain and almond ones, preferably left in a little too long—the uniformly golden-tan ones with a halo of dark brown where cookie met pan.
We had two quite similar recipes, one passed down from my father’s mother, the other from a Scottish great-grandmother on my mother’s side. I believed my family’s melt-in-the-mouth rounds were the best shortbreads in the world—until I got older and tasted and adored versions from the kitchens of friends from other cultures. Some featured white sugar, others had brown, most lacked cornstarch, and most had a crisper texture than the ones I grew up with. The secret to all of them, a high ratio of butter to flour and an absence of eggs, gave them the crunchy, crumbly yet tender texture that I love—the short in shortbread that comes from all that fat preventing long strands of gluten from forming.
I’ve baked icing sugar–coated almond-based kourabiedes from Greece, sablés from France, and besan and ghee-based nan khatai from India. I’ve collected friends’ recipes for butter balls and Mexican wedding balls and tiny, crumbly Iranian cookies made with chickpea flour and flavoured with cardamom. I even have a Shaker recipe for Eldress Bertha’s lavender cookies*, which I tested one summer when the lavender in my garden was at its fragrant best. Midsummer Christmas cookies. A fabulous scent permeated the kitchen when I plucked each flower from the stem and stirred the brilliant blossoms into the flour. Odd, I noted on the back of the recipe, yet intriguing.
So many butter cookies to try, but I always come back to my family recipe, though I prefer a decoration of candied orange peel to the glacéed cherries my parents favoured. Over the years, I’ve experimented with them, lacing the dough with orange or lemon zest, dipping the finished cookies in dark chocolate, or giving the tops a pre-bake sprinkle of sesame or poppy seeds. The orange zest version has become a favourite.
I could eat shortbreads any time, though I mostly make them at Christmas. Some years, I batch up hundreds to give as gifts. This past Christmas was the first in over a decade when I didn’t bake at least a dozen. Since becoming caregiver for a family member, I’ve had neither time nor desire to cook more than I must, but that doesn’t stop me from perking up when shortbread cookies are mentioned. I did just that when food writer and cookbook author extraordinaire Faye Levy shared images that her photographer husband, Yakir Levy, took at a recent food bloggers’ party. Among Yakir’s photos of luscious desserts, one grabbed my attention and wouldn’t let go: Rosewater Shortbread Cookies with Flowers made by Dana Levin Shrager of Foodie Goes Healthy, adapted from a Chef Lori Stern recipe.
“In addition to rosewater,” Faye noted, “the cookies were flavored with raspberry powder and had a fresh edible flower baked into each one.”
The flavouring sounded intriguing, but the flowers pressed into the tops made these cookies into works of art. In discussing the cookies with Faye, I mentioned that I’d gathered a collection of shortbread recipes over the years, including the Shaker lavender ones.
Faye mentioned how difficult it is to find good fresh lavender flowers. The best bet is to grow them yourself. Properly dried ones from a herbalist might do in a pinch but if they don’t smell intoxicating, they are too old. Another point to keep in mind is the wide variety of lavender species. You don’t want a heavily medicinal flavour in your food.
English Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia, aka L. officinalis) has a strong but not overpowering flavour, provided you use it sparingly. My plants, pictured, are L. angustifolia ‘Munstead’, a compact variety that grows to a height of 1.5 – 2 feet and has a warm, spicy-sweet scent.
I’d love to hear from readers about favourite kinds of shortbreads, especially ones not mentioned in this post. Would you try them with lavender? Hope you’ll share your shortbread stories in the comments!
Recipes pictured in 2nd photo:
Persian cardamom cookies from HomeBaking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Traditions from Around the World by Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford, Artisan (2003)
Mexican wedding balls from Diane Clement’s More Chef on the Run, Sunflower Publications (1984)
Lemon pepper shortbreads, a clipping from the Montreal Gazette, orig. printed in Victoria Times Colonist. Recipe adapted from Caren McSherry’s More than Salt & Pepper, Whitecap books (2002)
Eldress Bertha’s lavender shortbreads
Shortbread fingers in Backvergnugen wie noch nie by Christian Teubner und Annette Wolter, Gräfe und Unzer Verlag (1984)
Swedish uppakra cookies, a clipping from Woman’s Day, December 13, 1977
Three shortbread recipes collected from my family
*The link will take you to an archive. Click on “click to view”, wait for the newspaper page to appear, then scroll down below the classifieds to read the article entitled Lavender Shortbread Cookies, a Shaker Recipe.