The secrets of shortbread cookies

By April Lisante
Posted 12/3/20

This year I have discovered a game-changing secret, one that will finally kickstart some cookie making traditions of my own, and it’s all thanks to one lady, the lady who changed the way I will think about holiday cookie making forever.

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The secrets of shortbread cookies


For years, I watched my mother and my grandmother knock themselves out for the two weeks prior to Christmas. The cookie making was epic and involved, and extremely time consuming.

The kitchen table was temporarily taken over with the tins and the sheet pans. There would be no dinner served on the kitchen table for many nights.

First, they made pizzelle batter and waffle-ironed the round pizzelles. Then came the dough for batches of sugar cookies. Next, the almond paste-based pignoli cookies, then the Italian dough for sesame coffee cookies. That was week one. The following week, they tackled the three sheet pan rainbow cookies layered with jam, the egg white meringues, and the walnut and jam wreaths. Then, after slaving for what seemed like 100 hours, they wrapped everything in miles of cellophane and gave it away.

It is no wonder I avoided the tradition for all these years. I have always been terrified I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. Not surprisingly, it looked like way too much work, and way too much to live up to.

But this year I have discovered a game-changing secret, one that will finally kickstart some cookie making traditions of my own, and it’s all thanks to one lady, the lady who changed the way I will think about holiday cookie making forever.

Night Kitchen Bakery’s Amy Edelman opened my eyes to the big secret. The secret to making holiday cookies is one simple dough: shortbread.

Once you make the dough, the holiday possibilities are endless. Make this one dough, and you can make half a dozen different cookies and desserts. You’re as good as done.

“This dough can do so many things. It’s four simple ingredients and it can do so much,” said Edelman. She was talking, but I was having an epiphany, already imagining my heroic feats this week.

So here it is, the secret to a pound of shortbread, and the key to a plethora of holiday cookies:

  • 10 tablespoons butter
  • ½ cup confectioner’s sugar
  • ½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 ½ cups flour

That’s it. Cream the butter, the sugar and the vanilla in a mixer, then add the flour at the very end and mix until just incorporated. Just don’t overmix the flour so the dough doesn’t become stiff. When you bake the shortbread, as a rule of thumb it should typically go into a 350-degree at-home oven for 10 to 12 minutes. And you’re in business. (If you want to skip that whole dough-making process, Edelman is selling a cookie jar filled with a pound of the dough, a cookie cutter and sugar topping for $20 at Night Kitchen Bakery.)

Ok, I had the recipe, but Edelman wasn’t finished schooling me yet.  She then taught me how to win Christmas: Night Kitchen Bakery uses this shortbread dough to make all their holiday treats. That’s correct. After years of childhood pizzelle iron trauma, I learned there are half a dozen ways to use it the same dough to make completely different desserts this holiday season, including:

  • Make the shortbread as instructed above if you want to make sugar cookies with cookie cutters. Roll the dough to a quarter inch or even half-inch thickness, flour the rim of the cookie cutter, and you can make about 16 medium-shaped cookies with a pound of the dough. Once the cookie is cut out, place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and very liberally coat – totally cover – each cookie with coarse colored baking sugar.
  • Switch the dough up by adding mini chocolate chips and either cutting them out into shapes or dropping a dollop on the parchment to bake up.
  • Add pecans to the dough, roll the dough into ball shapes, and bake until lightly brown. When they come out of the oven and are still warm, treat them to two coats of powdered sugar. Voila, snowball cookies, also known as Russian Tea Cookies.
  • Separate the original vanilla shortbread into small ball shapes, then press your thumb into each individual ball of dough. Bake them up, then fill these “thumbprint” cookies with anything from apricot or raspberry jam to nuts.
  • Cut out individual rounds of shortbread, then flatten them into petite tart pans to make a crust. Bake them for about 10 minutes, then fill the mini tart with any filling, from pecans to apples with crumb topping, then return to oven to finish baking.
  • Roll out and use the plain shortbread as the base for any type of dessert bar, from raspberry to lemon bars.

As with all baking, there are some basic pitfalls to avoid. According to Edelman, there are some common mistakes home bakers make, including:

  • Overmixing the dough and making it too tough to work with.
  • Adding too much flour to the countertop when rolling the dough, causing the dough to dry up.
  • Not adding enough coarse sugar to the top of the sugar cookies. “We like to put a lot of sugar on our cookies. It adds a nice crunch.”
  • Forgetting to place a little bit of flour beneath the dough and plastic wrap on top of the dough before rolling it, to avoid stickiness.
  • Failing to roll out the dough to one quarter to one half-inch thick for cut out cookies, so cookies aren’t too brittle.
  • Forgetting to store the cookies in an airtight Tupperware or similar container to keep them fresh.

Next week in the column, the holiday preparations continue, when I’ll tackle ways to decorate for the holidays with edible arrangements. But for now, I’ll be baking, making my grammie proud.

holiday, baking