I’m a slowpoke in the kitchen. Always was, and I guess I always will be; I haven’t gotten a second faster since I started cooking decades ago. Don’t look for me on any of the competitive cooking shows: Just thinking about that ticking clock gives me hives. But even I, who considers baking a form of meditation, can get this shortbread in the oven in about 15 minutes. Not that I’ve ever timed myself …
Shortbread comes in so many varieties: Some have eggs, some don’t; some use a little rice flour or cornstarch, some go completely with all-purpose; some are rolled out, some not; some are shaped like regular cookies, some like bars and some like wedges. What almost all shortbreads have in common is their shortness, a reference to the generous amount of butter in the dough, and their texture, which is often described as sandy, a very good thing in the cookie world.
This shortbread recipe is eggless, uses only all-purpose flour, is pressed into a pan and is then cut into wedges. It is as rich as it should be and just as sandy. I’ve flavored it with lemon zest and lemon oil (you can use extract) and speckled it with poppy seeds. (A quick word on poppy seeds: Taste them before you use them; they have a nasty habit of going rancid, even when you’ve stored them in the freezer.) I’ve also iced the cookies, but as with so many of my favorite recipes, this one’s amenable to changes of whim and whimsy.
The best shortbreads are the ones you fuss with least. Let “benign neglect” be your motto as you make these. Beat the butter and sugar together really well and then go very easy on the flour. Add it all at once and mix just enough to have it form moist curds. If the dough sticks together when you squeeze it, you’re done.
Turn everything into the pan and press it down with your fingers. I like to give the dough a little roll. It not only knits the dough together and smooths the top, but — nerd alert! — I get a kick out of rolling with a DIY pin: I use a spice jar, an extract bottle or the bottom of a measuring cup.
By now, you’re about nine minutes into the job, and all you’ve got left to do is prick and press. To divide the shortbread into wedges, which you’ll cut once it’s baked, use the tips of the tines of a table fork to prick through the dough and form a dozen triangles, then flip the fork over and use the flat side of the tines to press around the border. The press marks are more decorative than practical, but I like the way they look when the shortbread is baked.
Now it’s just a matter of waiting out the baking and cooling time. While you’re waiting, you can think about what you might do the next time you bake shortbread – and I can guarantee you there’ll be a next time. Perhaps you’ll replace the lemon with orange or lime or just use twice the amount of vanilla extract; omit the poppy seeds and go plain or add sesame seeds, chopped chocolate or maybe some lavender; or flavor the shortbread with instant espresso or even tea. Got other ideas? Let me know.
Everyday any way lemon-poppy seed shortbread
For the shortbread
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into chunks, plus more for the pan
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour, plus more for the pan
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon pure lemon oil or extract
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
For the optional icing
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 to 2 tablespoons milk or fresh lemon juice
Poppy seeds or sanding sugar (yellow is nice), for sprinkling (optional)
Note: The recipe calls for an 8-inch round cake pan, but we found fitting the dough into a 9-inch pie plate lined with parchment paper works, too.
For the shortbread: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use a little butter to grease an 8-inch round cake pan, dust the interior with a little flour and tap out any excess. (If you’re using a glass pan or pie plate, line it with a parchment paper circle before buttering and flouring.)
Toss the granulated sugar and salt into the bowl of a stand mixer that you’ll fit with the paddle attachment or into a large bowl in which you can use a hand mixer. Add the lemon zest and rub the ingredients together with your fingertips until the sugar is moist and fragrant. Add the butter to the bowl and, working on medium speed, beat until the mixture is smooth, 1 to 2 minutes. Beat in the vanilla extract and the lemon oil or extract. Turn off the mixer, add the flour all at once, then mix on low speed.
Once the flour is incorporated, add the poppy seeds and continue to mix on low until you’ve got a bowl of soft, moist curds and crumbs, about 2 minutes. Squeeze a few curds and if they hold together, you’re there. You don’t want to mix the dough until it comes together uniformly, but you do want it the curds to cling to one another.
Turn the crumbs into the pan and pat them down evenly. If you’d like to smooth the top, “roll” the crumbs using a spice or extract bottle as a rolling pin. (You can also tap down the crumbs with the bottom of a small measuring cup.) There’s no need to be overly forceful; the point is to knit the crumbs together and compress them. Use the tines of a dinner fork to create the demarcations that will form 12 wedges total; press straight down so that you hear the metal tap against the pan, pricking holes in the dough. Finish by pressing the flat side of the tines horizontally around the edges of the dough, as though you were crimping a pie crust, to create a decorative edge.
Bake the shortbread (middle rack) for about 25 minutes, rotating the pan from front to back after 12 minutes, or until the top feels firm to the touch and the edges have a tinge of color; the center of the shortbread should remain fairly pale.
Transfer the pan to a wire cooling rack and allow it to rest for 3 minutes. If the holes that defined the wedges have closed, re-prick them with the fork. Carefully run a table knife between the pan and the shortbread and even more carefully turn the shortbread over onto the rack. Peel away the paper, if you used it. Invert onto a cutting board and, using a long sturdy knife or a bench scraper, cut the shortbread along the pricked lines; lift the pieces back onto the rack and allow the wedges to cool to room temperature before icing or serving.
To make the icing and finish the cookies (optional): Put the confectioners’ sugar in a small bowl, add 1 tablespoon milk or lemon juice and stir to blend. If the icing is too thick to brush, spread or drizzle smoothly and easily, add more milk or juice drop by drop. If you’d like, you can just drizzle the icing over each wedge or, using a pastry brush or a small icing spatula, you can ice each wedge, covering the whole wedge or leaving the borders bare. Sprinkle just a few grains of poppy seeds or sugar on each wedge, if you’d like, and let the icing set at room temperature before serving or storing.
Makes 12 cookies.
Nutrition: Per cookie: 140 calories, 1 g protein, 15 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 20 mg cholesterol, 45 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar
Dorie Greenspan is the award-winning author of 11 cookbooks, the most recent of which is “Baking Chez Moi.” Read more on her website, doriegreenspan.com, and follow her on Twitter: doriegreenspan.