A solstice celebration: shortbread

Sunday, December 21, 2008, 7:04 a.m.

What’s the significance of that date and time? Beginning of winter, right? Which sounds a bit discouraging if you live up North, where winter means 5 or 6 months of heavy coats, slick roads, and horrendous heating bills.

But Dec. 21 is also the winter solstice: the shortest day of the year. Which means—hallelujah!—on December 22, the days start getting longer. On the very first day of winter, we start the long journey back to summer.

Many cultures mark the winter solstice with celebrations and bonfires. Shortbread, that buttery confection we associate so heavily with Scotland, is one of the season’s traditional foods in that country. Baked in large rounds with notched edges to resemble the sun, it’s served both on the day of the solstice, as well as on Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve), and New Year’s Day.

And why not? Butter, sugar, and flour produce a tender/crumbly cookie that’s ridiculously easy to make. Just work the ingredients together, press into a couple of round cake pans, bake, and cut into wedges. I add non-traditional vanilla, and the merest touch of almond because those two flavors shout COOKIE to me. But feel free to add your own special flavor—how about butter-rum, or coconut?

And speaking of non-traditional, shortbread is a great base for a drizzle of melted chocolate or caramel; a shower of snowy pearl sugar, or even a dollop of apricot or raspberry jam, applied just before serving. Or all of the above. If you’re looking for an easy way to brighten the holiday cookie platter, you’ve found it.

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Although we usually use unsalted butter in the test kitchen, for shortbread we use salted. Why? Because with no liquid in the recipe, adding salt is problematic; it doesn’t disperse well and adds a slightly gritty texture. Salted butter is a good solution.

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First, beat together the butter, sugar, and vanilla; a touch of almond extract is welcome, too.

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Add the flour, mixing to make a cohesive dough. The mixture is quite dry; it’ll take awhile to come together. If it remains crumbly, dribble in up to a tablespoon of water to make it cohesive.

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Next, divide the dough in half. A scale makes this easy.

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See? Exactly half of the dough goes in each pan.

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Pat and press the dough to the edges of the pan with your fingers.

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To flatten and smooth, cover with plastic wrap and roll with a pastry roller. Or press with the bottom of a measuring cup.

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Remove the plastic wrap, and prick the dough all over with a fork; this will prevent it from bubbling as it bakes.

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Bake the shortbread till it’s a light golden brown, and a tiny bit darker brown around the edges.

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Loosen the edges of the shortbread…

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…and immediately turn it out onto a clean work surface. Notice how much browner the bottom is than the top. Cut into wedges with a long knife…

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…or with a rolling pizza wheel. Be sure to do this while the shortbread is warm; as it cools it becomes crisp, and cutting crumb-free, intact wedges becomes more of a challenge.

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Here they are, ready to enjoy. Or…

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…decorate and enjoy. We’ve drizzled these with caramel sauce; fudge sauce topped with diced nuts; and jam topped with shortbread crumbs.

Read, rate, and review (please!) our recipe for Shortbread.

Buy vs. Bake

Buy: Keebler’s Sandies shortbread cookies, 24¢/ounce
Walker’s shortbread fingers, 94¢/ounce

Bake at home: Plain shortbread, 15¢/ounce

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Deani Fast

    I love shortbread, though I’ve never actually made it myself. My husband bought me the shortbread baking pan last year; it is square and embossed with snowflakes. It’s beautiful on it’s own, but how do I bake in it? I guess it does have ridges on the underside where I could flip it over and cut the cookies when they are still warm?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Not to worry, Deani–we have a whole blog article about baking in a pan just like this. We think it’ll help demystify the process. Happy baking! Mollie@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Tammy, to access the printable version, just click on Shortbread to head over to the recipe page itself and click “print recipe”. Happy baking! Mollie@KAF

  2. Michelle Z

    I add coarsely ground lavender to the shortbread dough. It’s really wonderful. I’ve also glazed them with a hibiscus glaze — really pretty for Valentine’s Day.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Oh wow! I am completely in love with this idea and am going to try it soon! Bryanna@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Pearse, we haven’t tried this in our test kitchen, but we worry that they might spread because of the butter content and lack of structure from a pan. That being said, if you feel the urge to do a little experimenting in your kitchen, go for it! Bryanna@KAF

  3. Carol

    I made a mince pie with your shortbread recipe. I baked 1/2 in a pie pan, added the mince, baked a bit more, crumbled 1/2 of the 2nd half on the top and browned for 5 minutes. Beautiful! A new favorite due to your shortbread recipe!

    Reply
  4. Carol

    If you are rolling the dough into a cylinder to slice after refrigeration, slip the plastic wrapped cylinder of dough into an empty paper towel roll and then refrigerate. It really works. Keeps the cylinder of dough from getting a flat side.
    Other trick I read about is putting the wrapped dough in a potato chip cylinder container or cylinder vase and then refrigerate the dough standing on its flat end. I never tried this one but seems like it work, too.

    Reply
  5. Dawn

    I know this is an older post, but skimming through the comments I saw some questions about using shortbread for cutout cookies. You can absolutely make cutouts from shortbread dough. I have done it many times. I chill the dough before cutting and then freeze it for at least few minutes before popping it in the oven. That helps it hold its shape in the oven. I’ve actually had better success doing this with shortbread dough than some sugar cookie doughs I’ve tried.

    Now for my question. How much liquid can you safely mix into the dough before making a big ol’ mess of it. I’d like to incorporate some of the boiled cider I recently bought from you. It’s fairly thick, so I was wondering if I could get away with a couple of tablespoons. Have you ever tried it? I’m up for the experiment, but thought I’d ask some pros first. 😉

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins

      HI Dawn,
      I think you could safely add at least a heaping tablespoon of cider to the dough without any trouble. That should be enough to flavor the batch, and then maybe brush with a little cider glaze. ~ MJ

  6. gayle

    I also want to use my new shortbread pan, do I need to prick the dough with a fork when using the square pan? Also since it says it’s non stick, should you still spray it with something like Pam and lighly flour it?
    Thanks Gayle

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Gayle, yes, still prick it – this lets the steam escapes and prevents it from ballooning up as it bakes. And I’d still spray with some non-stick vegetable oil spray, though no need to flour. Good luck – PJH

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