Rich, buttery shortbread cookies are a natural for holiday gift giving. They’re sturdy, they keep well for a couple of weeks, and everyone loves them. I always include at least a few of these classics in the bundles I give to friends—they’re a sure hit and a great anchor for a package that includes some fancier cookies. Over the years, I’ve pushed the classic recipe in various directions by adding ground nuts, grated zests, and other flavors, and now it’s the variations that win the most raves. Some of my friends are so addicted to my chocolate-dipped espresso shortbread cookies that I’ve come to expect their hinting (sometimes it’s outright begging) around this time of year.
One other enticing thing about shortbread cookies is that they’re among the simplest to make. For the classic, all you’ll need are four ingredients: butter, sugar, flour, and salt. As for equipment, if you have a bowl, a mixer, a rolling pin, a baking sheet, and cookie cutters or a knife, you’re all set.
Not too much can go awry as you make these cookies if you keep the following points in mind.
Use cold butter and don’t overmix the dough. Start with butter that’s refrigerator-cold to prevent the dough from warming up too fast, which would make it greasy and difficult to roll. If the dough does get soft or sticky as you’re rolling or cutting it, just put it in the refrigerator for 10 or 15 minutes to chill the butter.
When you beat the butter and sugar, you only need to mix until combined. The butter should get smoother and lose its chunkiness, but it shouldn’t look light or fluffy. This isn’t about beating in air. Similarly, when you add the flour, beat until the dough just comes together. It’s fully mixed when the small pebbles of dough combine and clump around the beater.
Be space-efficient when cutting out the shapes. Using a cookie cutter or a knife, cut shapes as close to one another as possible to minimize the scraps. You can always press the scraps together and reroll them, but I find that after the third round of rolling, the cookies come out a bit tougher.
During baking, keep your eye on the cookies, not on the clock. These cookies get their sweet, alluring flavor from a low oven temperature (300°F) and a long baking time, which produce a complex caramelization of sugar and butter. How much they caramelize is up to you. Some people like these cookies still pale on top but golden on the edges and on the bottom; others bake them until the tops have also taken on a light golden color. Depending on how golden you want them and on the size and thickness of the cookies, the baking time can range from 30 minutes to an hour. Keep a close eye on the first batch, occasionally lifting up a cookie to check the color of the bottom.
Packing and storing tips
Once baked and cooled, shortbread cookies are ready for eating, or for packing up in a box or bundle with other cookies. Whether I’m giving them as a gift, storing them, or mailing them, I like to arrange the cookies in decorative tins, using cupcake liners as separators. The cookies stay fresh for ten to fourteen days at room temperature, or for at least a month when frozen. If you’re going to freeze them, be sure to wrap them well in plastic and store them in an airtight container.