Best-ever Christmas recipe: Grandma’s shortbread

When I think of Christmas baking I think of my Grandma. When we were growing up she was in charge of the holiday baking, presiding over a small menu that never changed: light fruit cake, Komish Broit (aka Jewish cookies – we’ll get into those in another post) and brown sugar shortbread. But it was only the last one that mattered. My grandparents would arrive at our house after a long, tiring car ride and there would be the briefest of hellos before I got down to important matters: 'Where’s the shortbread?' The treasure found, I’d grab the tin and wolf down a couple of pieces before it was confiscated by an adult and whisked away to the cellar with the familiar refrain, 'Don’t eat them all, these are for your cousins, too!'

For such a simple cookie, there are a lot of shortbread variations and a lot of perceived wisdom around making it. To chill or not to chill the dough (I do, but Grandma says it’s not strictly necessary)? To bake in a thick slab or cut into delicate shapes? To include cornstarch, rice flour, or neither?

This version is a brown sugar shortbread, light and delicate with a pleasing shatter when it breaks between your teeth. It’s not a solid, bar-like cookie, so if you’re a fan of dense shortbread fingers, keep looking (though there’s no reason this recipe couldn’t be baked in a slab and cut into bars, I suppose).

Unfortunately my shortbread isn’t quite as lovely as my grandmother’s. Her cookies are stamped with a pretty flowery design using a ceramic cookie press she bought in Banff many years ago. Unfortunately I have searched the entire web looking for somewhere in England to buy a cookie press and all I came up with was this Wiccan version, 'sure to lend a unique touch to any of your ritual goodies'. In desperation I almost went for the purchase, but there’s something vaguely odd about a Wiccan ritual Christmas shortbread, don’t you think? No matter. Stamped or not, this is still the best Christmas cookie there is.

Barbara’s Shortbread

Makes 6 to 7 dozen cookies if cut with a 2-inch cookie cutter

1 lb (454g) unsalted butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup icing sugar
2 3/4 cups + 1 cup all purpose flour
3/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking powder

Preheat the oven to 350F / 175C. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper or a non stick liner. (Or, if you can comfortably fit more sheets in the centre of your oven at one time, prepare as many as will fit.)

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar just until well combined; overbeating can cause the cookies to aerate and puff up too much when they bake.

In a medium bowl whisk together the 2 3/4 cups flour with the cornstarch, salt and baking powder. With the mixer on low, or by hand, incorporate the dry ingredients into the butter mixture until combined. Scrape the sticky dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead in around 1 cup of flour. At first the dough will be very soft and absorb all the extra flour; once the dough starts to crack you have added enough flour.

Divide the dough into four pieces and, on a lightly floured surface, roll each piece to a generous 1/4-inch thickness. Cut out your desired shapes (I use a 2-inch round cutter) and transfer to the cookie sheets, leaving at least 1/2 inch between each cookie. Bake in the centre of the oven until set and lightly golden around the edges, 12 to 15 minutes.

Cool the cookies on a wire rack before storing in an airtight container. The shortbread freezes very well.