Shortbread wreaths pleasing to the eye and the taste buds

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Bon Appetit had a gorgeous cover for their holiday edition. What at first appeared to be a wreath was actually a shortbread cookie beautifully decorated with freeze-dried flowers. The concept seemed pretty simple and, since I usually have shortbread on my platter, I thought it could be a more sophisticated offering for the adults in the group.

Staying with the mantra of always using what I have on hand, I used all regular flour instead of rice flour, as the original recipe called for. I also had no idea where to find freeze-dried flowers—I check the tea and produce aisles and came up short—so I made it easy and chopped up some dried cherries and apricots. Since I don’t like lavender, I used about a half teaspoon of rose water instead. It worked well.

I made one batch and used smaller cookie cutters, so it made nearly four dozen cookies, but they were the perfect size. I was pleasantly surprised at how gorgeous and tasty these ended up being, and my coworkers loved them, too. I can’t wait to see how they’re received on Christmas eve.

Glaze
3 large egg whites
4 cups powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

Using a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, stir egg whites, powdered sugar, and cream of tartar in a medium bowl until a thick paste forms with no dry spots. Ideally, glaze should sit at least 12 hours for sugar to fully hydrate, but it can be used as soon as cookies have cooled. Or, you can cover and chill up to 1 week. Bring to room temperature before using.

Shortbread
2 1/2 + 1/3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more
1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup (2 sticks) plus 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces, room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon rose water
Freeze-dried and/or dried fruits, dried edible flowers, fresh and/or dried herbs (for decorating)
*Raw egg is not recommended for the elderly, pregnant women, children under 4, and people with weakened immune systems.

Whisk flour and salt together in a medium bowl. Using an electric mixer on medium-high, beat butter, sugar, and rose water in a medium bowl until very pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Mix in dry ingredients on low until fully combined. Wrap in plastic and chill at least 2 hours and up to 2 days.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Roll out dough between 2 sheets of lightly floured parchment to 1/8-inch thick. Using large cutter, cut out 16 rounds, rerolling scraps. Using small cutter, punch out centers. Bake on parchment-lined baking sheets until edges are golden, 12–14 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack.

Working quickly, dip tops of cookies into glaze, letting excess drip off. Transfer to wire rack and decorate.

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Cranberry-cherry bars a creation of my own

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My first Christmas baking test run of the year was a success, so I’ve decided to share it now instead of waiting until next year. For quite a while, after trying one of the cherry oat bars at Starbucks, I had been toying with the idea of doing something similar. I wanted to do a kind of cranberry bar, but didn’t see any recipes. I let the idea retreat to the back of my mind and, last week, it came forth again and I was ready to give it a shot.

I knew I wanted a simple, sweet shortbread base, so I really just had the filling to contend with. I decided to approach it similar to a pie filling, and I knew I wanted to use rose water in it to mellow out the tartness.

The bars ended up being tart, but not in an overwhelming way. The crust and topping balanced the flavorful filling, which was firm enough to stay together if you want to eat it without a plate.

Cranberrycherrybars2-121414Ingredients
1 29-ounce can of tart cherries
1 1/2 cups fresh cranberries
1/2 cup white sugar
1/4 cup arrowroot starch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon rose water
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup butter (1 1/2 sticks)
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/3 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cups old-fashioned oats

Pour the cherries, including the juice, into a saucepan with the cranberries. Cook over medium heat, covered, until cranberries have popped and flavors begin to combine, about 20 minutes. Add sugar and simmer for 10 minutes. Add arrowroot starch and stir until combined. Simmer for another 10 minutes. Once mixture begins to thicken, add rose water and salt. Stir. Remove from heat.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine flour, salt, and brown sugar in a small bowl. Cut in 3/4 cups butter and mix with fingers, until mixture resembles pea-size bits. Evenly press mixture into the bottom of an ungreased 13×9-inch pan. Sprinkle crust with water. Bake for 25 minutes, or until golden brown.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine butter, flour, salt, and oats.

Once crust is ready, pour cranberry-cherry mixture and spread it evenly over the shortbread base. sprinkle oat mixture over the top and bake for another 15 minutes, or until topping is golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool completely before serving.

Shortbread all dressed up for the holidays

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There is always some kind of shortbread on my Christmas cookie platter. They’re also usually the easiest cookie to make. A couple years ago, I made pecan fingers, but last year I opted to make these Red Velvet Shortbread Cookies. They were almost as easy as regular shortbread, but dolled up for the holidays by a hint of chocolate, red coloring, and a white chocolate drizzle. They were small, too, so they were perfect for people looking to nibble on treats during Christmas eve.

If you’re a fan of red velvet—as many people are—give this one a shot. You won’t be disappointed.

Ingredients
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter, cut up
1 tablespoon red food coloring
3 ounces white chocolate (with cocoa butter), coarsely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons shortening

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. In a food processor, combine flour, sugar, cocoa powder, and salt. Cover and process with on/off turns until combined. Add butter and red food coloring. Cover and process with on/off pulses until mixture starts to cling. (If you do not have a food processor, cut in the butter and add food coloring, then knead until mixture resembles fine crumbs.) Transfer to a large bowl. Form mixture into a ball and knead until smooth.

On a lightly floured surface, roll dough to a 1/2-inch thickness. Using a floured 1-1/2-inch round cutter, cut out dough. Place cutouts 1 inch apart on an ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until centers are set. Transfer cookies to a wire rack; let cool.

In a heavy small saucepan, cook and stir white chocolate and shortening over low heat, until melted and smooth. Drizzle cookies with melted white chocolate. Let stand until white chocolate is set.

Sugary shortbread is perfect for a platter

pecanfingers

For the second cookie in my countdown to Christmas, I bring you Pecan Fingers. I found this recipe years ago in my “Good Housekeeping Favorite Recipes: Brownies!” cookbook. It’s simple and really tasty.

I include some kind of shortbread cookie on my Christmas cookie platter every year because it’s important to have one cookie that’s easy to make and not time-consuming. I save the time-consuming part for the sugar cookie decorating. One of the most important pieces of advice I can offer to anyone who is in charge of doing all the Christmas baking is not to commit to cookies that all require extensive amounts of time to make and decorate. Don’t get overly ambitious — making a large amount of cookies is ambitious enough, no matter the type. To do a platter well, you need to choose what you want to spend time on, and what you want to keep simple and delicious. There’s a large variety of shortbread recipes out there to choose from. Shortbread is one of the easiest things to make, which is why I always choose at least one type for my platter.

When I think of shortbread, I tend to think of simple, buttery, and sometimes dry, plain cookies. These pecan fingers are pretty far from that. They are sweeter than your average shortbread, but overall have a warm flavor to them because of the pecans and brown sugar. I will likely bring these back to my assortment this year because my mouth is watering just thinking about them.

Ingredients
3/4 cup butter (1 1/2 sticks), softened
1/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup pecans, chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a large bowl, with a mixer at medium speed, beat butter, brown and granulated sugars, vanilla and salt until creamy, about 2 minutes. At low speed, gradually beat in flour until just evenly moistened. With hand, press dough together to form ball.

Divide dough in half. On half of an ungreased large cookie sheet, roll half of dough, covered with waxed paper, lengthwise into 12-inch by 5-inch rectangle. On same cookie sheet, repeat with remaining dough, 1 1/2 inches from first rectangle. With fork, prick dough at 1-inch intervals. Press tines of fork along long side of rectangles to form decorative edge. Sprinkle pecans evenly over rectangles; press gently to adhere.

Bake until edges are lightly browned, 20 to 25 minutes. While still warm, cut each rectangle crosswise into 12 finger-shaped cookies. Transfer fingers to wire rack to cool. Store in tightly covered container up to 1 week.

A triple-threat cookie for Christmas

cinnamon swirls

I discovered one of my now-favorite Christmas cookies in the 2010 edition of America’s Test Kitchen Holiday Cookies. I tried many of the recipes in that edition, some failures and some successes, but this one stood out. I could make the dough ahead of time, something that really helps when making a large number of cookies.

Some of the cookies I make for Christmas are elaborate — chocolate cookies with homemade caramel, carefully decorated sugar cookies, chocolate-dipped mint cookies — so I need a couple that are less involved. These Cinnamon Swirls were exactly what I wanted. They’re simple, beautiful and tasty, what you might call a triple threat in the world of baking. They’re like a sweet shortbread, one with cream cheese mixed into the dough; and the cinnamon not only adds a bit of spice, but a nice design as well.

One thing to note when making these is to make sure to roll them tight enough. On my first attempt a couple years ago, the rolls were too loose, so there were gaps in the baked cookies. Be sure to refrigerate the dough for the proper amount of time, too, because they’ll spread out too much if the dough is at room temperature before it goes in the oven.

I really do love this recipe. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Ingredients
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup super-fine sugar, plus 3 tablespoons for filling
1/4 teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 16 pieces and softened
2 tablespoons cream cheese
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

With electric mixer on low speed, combine flour, 3/4 cup sugar, salt, and butter, and mix until crumbly and slightly wet, 2 minutes. Add cream cheese and vanilla and mix until dough just begins to form. Finish kneading dough by hand to form large cohesive mass. Divide into 2 disks of dough, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Whisk remaining sugar and cinnamon together. Roll one disk between two large sheets of parchment paper to a 12-by-7-inch rectangle. Remove the top layer of parchment and sprinkle dough with half of the cinnamon-sugar, leaving a 1/4-inch border along the edges. Spritz the filling with water, and roll dough into a 7-inch log, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until firm, about two hours. Repeat with remaining dough and cinnamon-sugar.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and place rack in the middle position. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Trim the edges of each log, then cut each log crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Transfer to parchment-lined baking sheets, spacing about 1 inch apart. Bake until edges are golden brown, about 12 to 15 minutes, switching baking sheets halfway through baking time. Cool 5 minutes, then transfer to wire rack to cool completely. Repeat with remaining dough.