It's Christmas cookie baking time at our house, and one of our old holiday cookie tins has already been filled with shortbread cookies that I am vainly trying to forget about. The rest of the year, I have the most underdeveloped sweet-tooth of any Southerner you will ever meet, and don't find cookies even remotely tempting.
Christmas, however, is different.
Possibly it's the inner child that the season stirs up in so many of us, but this is the only time I have any real interest in cookies, either baking or eating them. From my first apartment on, not a December has passed without the kitchen being dusted with flour and filled with the heady smells of butter and sugar baking.
These shortbread cookies were the first I learned to make on my own. Why is no real mystery: they're not overly sweet, are easy (practically foolproof), and keep for weeks in an airtight cookie tin. Or so I'm told.
This is really a basic Scottish shortbread dough. Traditionally, it's baked in one large piece, patted out or pressed flat with a patterned mold on a baking pan and pricked at regular intervals with a fork. But it can also be rolled and cut like any other cookie dough. I find they spread less if you chill the cut cookies on the pan for twenty minutes or so before baking them.
But most of the time, I just pinch off 1-inch round bits of dough, roll them into compact balls, lay them on the baking sheet, and press them flat with my palm. Often, especially for the holidays, I lightly press a raw pecan half into the middle of each one before baking. They'll rise and spread some, so be sure to leave at least an inch between them.
Makes 2 dozen
10 ounces (2 cups) all-purpose flour
½ cup confectioner's sugar
2 tablespoon very fine white corn meal, rice flour, or cornstarch
8 ounces (½ pound or 2 4-ounce sticks) best quality unsalted butter, softened
About 24 small pecan halves, optional
1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 325° F. Whisk or sift together the flour, sugar, and a small pinch of salt. With a pastry blender or your fingertips, work the butter into the flour until it has the texture of course meal. Keep blending by hand until it forms a cohesive dough. This step may also be done in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Put the sugar, salt, and flour in the bowl of the processor that has been fitted with the steel blade. Cover and pulse several times to sift. Add the butter and process until the mixture clumps into a ball.
2. Pinch off a small piece of dough and roll it into a compact ball about 1-inch round. Lay it on a baking sheet and press it flat with your palm until it's a little thicker than ¼-inch. Repeat, leaving about an inch between them, until the pan is full. If you like, lightly press a small pecan half into the center of each cookie.
3. Bake in the center of the oven for 16 to 20 minutes, or until the edges are beginning to brown. Let them cool on the baking sheet.