When I was a girl, shortbread were standard issue in my mom’s Christmas cookie offering. Hers were tiny snowballs, studded with toasty, resinous walnuts and rolled in powdered sugar—the unassuming but delicious backbone of the cookie tin.
Perhaps because of this, I always imagined shortbread as the elegant adult of the Christmas cookie party—unfussy, subtly sweet, full of really good butter, and delicately cooked to blonde.
My favourite shortbread is the roll-and-cut variety. There’s something smart but playful about choosing a shape—a star, Christmas tree, snowflake, diamond—and making dozens of identical snappy cookies to stack high and dust with powdered sugar, like snow.
I also favour a lightly-sugared shortbread that straddles the line between sweet and savoury. My preferred recipe uses a scant 1/2 cup sugar for four-dozen cookies, and can be coaxed further into the sweet realm with the aforementioned dusting of snow.
My preferred flavour combination is a holy trinity of orange zest, crushed hazelnut and pink peppercorn, which is just savoury enough and gives a moment of pause as you tease out the different notes. The peppercorn infuses the dough gently, providing a nice background warmpth, while the citrus pops and the hazelnut lends heft.
That said, the nut + spice + fruit formula is endlessly adaptable. Other combinations to try:
- pistachio + green cardamom + orange
- coconut + saffron + lime
- walnut + lavender + lemon
- pine nut + rosemary + Meyer lemon
- almond + dried cherry + candied ginger
- pecan + thyme + dried cranberry
Shortbreads always find a way into my cookie tins. I hope this sweet-savoury take on the tradition inspires your own.
Orange Hazelnut Pink Peppercorn Shortbread
Makes about 4-dozen small cutout cookies
- 1/2 cup whole hazelnuts (or other nut)
- zest of 1 large orange, about 1 Tbsp (or other zest)
- 1 tsp crushed pink peppercorn (or other spice)
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 2.5 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 tsp fine sea salt
- 1 cup (2 sticks) cold butter, cut into 1-tablespoon pieces
- powdered sugar, for dusting (optional)
Preheat oven to 325°F.
In a food processor, combine hazelnuts, sugar, orange zest, peppercorn and vanilla extract. Pulse until hazelnuts are finely chopped. Add flour and pulse further to combine.
Add butter to processor a few pieces at a time, pulsing to combine. The resulting mixture will be mealy and likely will not stick together, depending on your ambient humidity.
Transfer dough to a large bowl and knead until smooth and held together. If the dough will not come together, add water in 1 teaspoon increments until combined, but this is likely unnecessary.
Divide dough in half. If storing for later, wrap in cling film and allow to come up to temperature for about 30 minutes before rolling.
On a floured surface, roll dough portions to 1/4-inch thickness. Cut out with desired shapes.
Place cookies 1-inch apart on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Chill sheets in freezer for 5 minutes before baking.
Bake for about 12 minutes until bottoms are barely sandy in colour. Transfer to wire rack to cool.
If desired, dust the cooled cookies with powdered sugar.
Tips for Successful Shortbread
- Don’t fret if the dough feels a bit dry and crumbly, just knead a bit more. This is preferable to adding water for a tender-crumbed cookie.
- Minimize re-rolling by maximizing the cuts you make in the dough. I try not to re-roll dough more than once, as the extra flour lends tough cookies. Instead, I suggest slicing your final pass into a diamond or square shape (instead of an odd-shaped cookie cutter) to minimize wasted dough (see photo above).
- For even baking and minimal spread, pop your cookie sheet (with raw cookies on it) in the freezer for five minutes before baking.
- Light evenly-coloured shortbread are preferred. If yours are darkening too quickly, reduce oven temperature to 3oo°F.