Gather ye butter, sugar, and flour. I’m making Christmas cookies today.
The base of this recipe can morph into lots of different treats. It is the Transformer of baked goods. I first made it as shortbread hearts for Valentine’s Day from a recipe in The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, by Ina Garten. In the recipe headnotes, she writes that she got the recipe from Eli Zabar, owner of a gourmet deli and café in New York City. Variations include adding chopped, toasted pecans to the dough before rolling and cutting into rectangles; dipping baked halves into dark chocolate; sandwiching pairs with chocolate, and sprinkling with decorating sugar alone.
I have made some version of this shortbread every Christmas since that book came out, and in 2001 I made it on live television for a local station’s Christmas Eve broadcast. I was working as a cook in a preschool, making hot lunches for 100 kids four days a week. One of the kids’ parents was a producer for the tv station, and she invited me to demonstrate Christmas cookies on the air. Although every shy bone in my body screamed at me to refuse, I accepted, having read some malarkey about facing fears to keep life interesting. This is the recipe I chose.
Early on that Christmas Eve, I hauled my trusty KitchenAid mixer, all the ingredients, tools, and batches of dough in several stages of preparation to a downtown Little Rock studio. I’d never seen the particular show I was participating in, since I was working when it broadcast, but I’d seen plenty of cooking demos on “Good Morning America” and thought I knew the drill. Studio hands showed me where to set up. The show’s co-anchors greeted me with a few friendly words, then took their places on the set. I’d been told my segment would take place later in the hour, so I tried to relax as I watched the activity buzz nearby. A camera man came up close and trained his lens on my face, and I responded with some annoyance, staring back at the black glass and wondering why the man was invading my personal space. I might have scowled. Unfortunately, that happened to be the moment that the show’s announcer was reading a teaser about the upcoming cook demonstrating Christmas cookies later in the show. My scowl was being broadcast live. I was unaware until the last few words of the announcer faded away, and the show began. My horror translated into flop sweat.
In spite of the rough start, the Christmas cookie segment proceeded smoothly, and afterward, the female anchor stepped over to the kitchen set and smilingly asked for a linzer cookie. That powdered sugar is murder on lipstick, I volunteered helpfully as I handed her one in a napkin. Then I packed up my gear and went home. A year later, with friends over for a Christmas party, someone suggested that we watch the videotape my family made of the show. I’d never seen it and viewed it with one eye from around a corner in the hall. Halfway through, my embarrassment too great, I disappeared into the kitchen. I still haven’t seen the whole segment and don’t plan to. In fact, we no longer own a video player. (Thank you, Jesus, and happy birthday, too.)
Shortbread for “Linzer” Cookies and Stars, adapted from The Barefoot Contessa, by Ina Garten, © 1999 by Ina Garten
(Real linzer cookie dough includes ground nuts. These don’t.)
3/4 pound unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
In the bowl of a standing mixer, combine the butter and sugar. Add the vanilla. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour and salt, and then add to the butter mixture. Mix on low speed just until a dough forms. Scrape dough onto a floured surface (a large cutting board or pastry cloth works well) and shape into a flat disk. Cover all sides with plastic wrap, and chill for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Sprinkle more flour over the cutting board or pastry cloth, and roll out the shortbread dough to a 1/4-inch thickness. For linzer cookies, cut with a fluted round, then cut out the centers of half of them with the wide end of a pastry decorating tip. For shortbread stars, cut with a star-shaped cutter. Place shapes on parchment-lined baking sheets, and chill for at least 15 minutes before baking.
After chilling, bake dough until the edges are a faint golden brown. Cooking time varies according to the thickness of the dough, but start checking for doneness after 10 minutes in the oven. Thicker cookies will take upwards of 15-18 minutes to bake through. Remove baking sheets from oven and place on racks to cool for several minutes, then slide the parchment and cookies off of the baking sheets to cool completely.
For linzer cookies, spread a thin layer of good raspberry preserves on the solid fluted rounds, bottom sides up. Sift powdered sugar over the hollowed tops, bottom sides down, then sandwich the layers together.
For shortbread stars, melt a 3.5-ounce bar of good white chocolate in the microwave, then drizzle over the stars and sprinkle with sparkling sugar. Let set several hours to harden.