My family’s annual Christmas cookie platter always includes classic, buttery shortbread. Growing up, I anticipated the round or flower-shaped shortbread almost always garnished with half a maraschino cherry in the middle, bringing a small, sweet punch of fruit to the cookie.
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But over the past few years I have broken with tradition by changing the flavor profile of this timeless holiday treat. We still have shortbread, but now I turn to a combination of citrus fruits, herbs and spices and a couple of easy culinary techniques to bring some nuanced flavors to these holiday treats.
Deciding which flavor combinations to use is the fun part. Look to drinks, desserts or other concoctions you like to help guide you. My advice is to limit yourself to two or three flavorings so as not to lose the personality of each. And don’t go overboard. Remember to use a little restraint because you are already working with a classic cookie canvas.
To maximize the citrus flavor, two key steps are required. First, use a sharp microplane zester to ensure no bitter pith is added. Second, pulse the grated zest with the sugar in a blender or mini food processor. This enables the essential oils in the zests to mix with the sugar granules and become more evenly distributed throughout the dough. Orange and lemon zest complement many flavors, while the zests of lime and grapefruit should be used sparingly as their flavor can be too aggressive.
Herbs and spices
Stronger herbs such as rosemary, thyme and lavender are great on their own or paired with citrus flavors. Finely chopping theses herbs and mixing them together with the flours in a food processor for 30 seconds, while not essential, rounds out their flavors in the shortbread.
More delicate herbs such as basil, mint and tarragon can make an appearance, but don’t count on them to have a similar starring role. If you want to add a light green seasonal hue to your cookies, blanch these leafy herbs in boiling water for 5 seconds, to set the chlorophyll, then quickly spread them on a plate and put them in the freezer for about 5 minutes. Lightly squeeze out any liquid and finely chop. Then add them to the sugar and zests, if using, and pulse them in a blender. The sugar will be emerald green and the resulting cookie dough a shade lighter. It is best to roll out the dough, cut the cookies out and then bake them at a lower temperature for a slightly longer period to try to preserve the color.
When it comes to looking to your spice drawer for inspiration, sticking with the sweeter spices typically associated with baking, such as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and nutmeg, guarantees a crowd pleaser. For more adult palates, reach toward savory spices such as fennel, fennel pollen, coriander or ground star anise. Toasting them over moderate heat for a couple of minutes then lightly crushing them in a mortar and pestle helps to release their natural oils.
Here are some combinations to get you started. Simply add these ingredients to the shortbread recipe as directed below to add new flavors to your cookies.
Lemon, Candied Ginger and Rosemary
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest (5 grams)
2 tablespoons finely chopped candied ginger (30 grams)
1 tablespoon rosemary sprigs, chopped (4 grams of sprigs)
Orange Cardamom Basil
2 teaspoons orange zest (5 grams)
1 teaspoon ground cardamom (2.5 grams)
3 tablespoons chopped basil (15 grams or 15 large leaves)
Grapefruit, Fennel and Mint
2 teaspoons grapefruit zest (5 grams)
1 teaspoons fennel seeds (2.5 grams)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint (6 grams)
To guarantee a short, buttery, crumbly texture, I have written this recipe in weight measurements. Zester Daily contributor Martha Rose Shulman wrote a convincing piece about why bakers should use a scale for consistent results, something I have always done with breads, but I am now a convert for other baked goods as well.
187.5 grams all-purpose flour (1½ cups)
100 grams rice flour or cornstarch (½ cup plus 2 tablespoons)
4 grams salt (½ teaspoon)
100 grams sugar (½ cup)
227 grams butter, room temperature (1 cup)
1. Preheat oven to 325 F.
2. Sift the flours, salt and any ground spices you have decided to use into a medium sized bowl. Toss in any lightly crushed spices or chopped herbs (such as rosemary, thyme, lavender).
3. If using citrus zest, place sugar and grated zest in a blender. Blend for 30 seconds. Stop and use a spatula to break up any clumping of the sugar. Cover and turn on for another 10 seconds. If using any blanched herbs, such as basil, mint or tarragon, add the blanched, chopped herbs now and blend for another 15 seconds. You may need to give the blender a gentle shake as it is blending to help incorporate the herbs with the sugar. If they are not mixing well, stop and use a spatula to loosen the mixture and blend for another 10 seconds.
4. Place the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer and pour in the blended sugar mixture. Beat the butter and sugar together for a few minutes until light and fluffy.
5. Add a third of the flour mixture to the creamed butter and use a spatula to incorporate the flour. When the first addition of the flour is almost fully incorporated, add in another third of the flour mixture. Repeat one more time until all of the flour is well mixed with the butter to make a soft, homogeneous dough.
6. You have two options to prepare and bake the dough: Rolling the dough produces a thinner cookie that takes less time vs. pressing the dough into a pan and then cutting the baked dough into thicker finger length or wedge cookies.
Rolling and cutting out the dough:
1. If you want to roll and cut out the cookies, divide the dough into two. Wrap each half in plastic wrap and flatten with your hands into discs and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.
2. Roll each half on a lightly floured surface to a ½-inch thick and cut out using a cookie cutter. Gather the scraps together and roll and cut out shapes until all the dough is used. Prick each cookie several times with a fork and bake in the center of the oven for about 25 to 35 minutes or until lightly golden.
3. Remove from the oven and let cool for about 20 minutes to allow the cookies to firm up.
Pressed and hand-cut cookies:
1. Alternatively, line the bottom of an 8-inch square or a 9-inch round baking pan (I prefer using a springform cheesecake pan) with parchment paper and press the dough evenly with floured fingers and palms.
2. Using a fork, prick the dough all over and bake in the center of the oven for about 35 to 40 minutes or until the dough is lightly golden.
3. Remove from the oven and let cool for about 10 minutes before cutting into finger-sized cookies (for the rectangle baking pan) or wedges (for the round baking pan).
4. Store the cookies in an airtight container for a few weeks.
Top photo: Citrus fruits and savory herbs and spices can put a twist on classic shortbread. Credit: Cameron Stauch