Cookie of the Month: Shooting for the stars

The Fourth of July has always had even my reclusive nature upended, getting into the spirit of potlucks and family or community gatherings. For the last several years, I’ve trotted out some dessert recipes with Independence Day flair and ventured out of my house for a neighborhood potluck, resplendently held in the beautiful backyards of some of the historic mansions (formerly officers’ quarters), built in the late 1800s and reflecting the era in which Mare Island was a Naval Base and shipyard.

These gatherings have always been pleasant, sitting down to a picnic in the fresh air with folks (some known and some new), in the shady splendor of grander times. Being a longtime fan of Fourth of July, I have always believed this holiday deserved to be marked and celebrated in some festive way. And I wanted to be proud of whatever I brought to our community table. 

The desserts I chose to take to the neighborhood potlucks I’ve enjoyed in recent years have always had a homespun Americana edge to them…one year, it was a simple strawberry cobbler; another year, a flag pie baked in a rectangular pan filled with strawberries and blueberries, complete with stars and stripes made of pie pastry. I also made a blueberry slab pie, topped with icing and sprinkles to look like a giant Pop-Tart®; another time, I made mini tartlets of jam or brown sugar pecan fillings, each topped with a tiny star. 

I consider stars emblematic of Fourth of July, not only because of the flag and bursting fireworks (and maybe the stars-and-stripes jeans I wore more than a year as a grade-schooler during the bicentennial), but because of the summer sky I’ve held in my heart since I was a child. Summer meant turning one’s gaze upward, sometimes giving over to it for entire nights of lying on sleeping bags in the grass, watching the tiny lights twinkle, hoping to catch a glimpse of one shooting a blazIng trail across the sky.

Even though, as times would have it now,  I won’t be venturing out — in a social context — this Fourth of July, I can still go out my door and look up (and make a wish?), and it doesn’t mean I can’t shoot for and celebrate those symbolic stars in what I make for a treat. It is from a Christmas cookbook (Christmas in July….where have I heard that before?) that I chose my cookie recipe this month, having seen it months ago and marking it, not for Yuletide, but Independence Day.

From Donna Hay’s delightful “Christmas Feasts and Treats” (Fourth Estate; 2018) comes a recipe for “Raspberry and Shortbread Slice,” (“slice” being a term for bar cookie), a shortbread baked in a rectangular pan, spread with raspberry jam and topped with more shortbread cut into stars. The shortbread is beautiful to look at, that deep background of ruby jam and the pale stars adorning it. It would be, of course, beautiful for the Christmas holidays, but I couldn’t see any reason why this cookie couldn’t also be my annual Fourth of July dessert tribute.

I decided to give the cookie recipe a tryout before the holiday (and way before Christmas), in time to share should it be as delicious as I hoped it would be. In the recipe, one is given the option of using ready-made jam or cooking up a quick batch of “Cheat’s Jam,” which is basically frozen raspberries (I used mixed berries to get a range of colors) and sugar. I also added a little lemon juice.

The jam is nearly as quick as opening a jar…the berries and sugar cook down to a thick sauce of a deeply jeweled color in no time.

The dough for the shortbread is made with light-as-air rice flour, regular all-purpose flour, vanilla extract and softened butter (the recipe called for cold butter, but I tried it this way, instead).  I also added a little salt.

I found my food processor was not working very well, so I switched the whole process to my stand mixer. The dough came together quickly and showed itself to be tender, but easy to work with.

Half of the dough is rolled out between two sheets of parchment and chilled. The other half is kept in a ball and also placed in the refrigerator..

The chilled dough that has been rolled out is cut into a range of stars…I purchased a new set of star cutters (“…there have always been Starcutters at Cold Comfort Farm…” Sorry.) and was delighted to put them to use. The smooth dough cut easily and perfectly.

While the stars were placed back in the fridge to await their turn, the scraps from the rollout, as well as the ball of dough, are pressed evenly in the bottom of a pan. While the recipe calls for a 20 cm x 30 cm pan (about 7-ish by 11-ish inches), I decided to extend my bars a bit and used a 13-by-9-inch pan for this, but I think you could go smaller and end up with thicker bars and more stars, which I’ll have to try that other time. I was still able to cover the bottom of the bigger pan completely. The dough’s surface is pricked with a fork.

This is baked for a bit (I shortened the time by 5 minutes as my shortbread base was thinner), until it takes on a light golden color. This base layer is then allowed to cool for a bit.

The beautiful berry jam is then spread across the shortbread base, providing a layer of ruby sheen.

Now for the fun part, placing the stars across the jam layer. I wished I had more, and made a note that in future makings, I might double the amount of dough if I was going to use this size of pan. Still, I was pleased with my celestial presentation.

The pan of shortbread “slice” is baked again until the stars also twinkle golden. The contrast of the pale stars against the deep berry color is quite beautiful.

A little further gilding never hurt: I dusted the whole pan with a little bit of confectioner’s sugar.

As appealing as the cookies looked, they tasted even better…buttery soft shortbread, layered with that fresh fruit jam. They melted in the mouth, and reminded me of an Italian sandwich cookie I used to purchase from an olive oil store in Napa Valley.

For a Fourth of July, for Christmas in July or for a Christmas yet to come, these are a perfect choice as a show-stopping potluck dessert. Even if this year’s potluck stayed at home.

Raspberry and Shortbread Slice

From “Christmas Feasts and Treats” by Donna Hay (Fourth Estate; 2018)

Serves 6 to 8

  • 250g (about 1 cup) cold, unsalted butter, chopped
  • 1 cup icing (confectioner’s) sugar, sifted, plus extra for dusting
  • 1 1/2 cups plain (all-purpose) flour, sifted
  • 1/2 cup white rice flour, sifted
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 x quantity Cheat’s Raspberry Jam (cooled) (see below)

Place the butter, sugars, both the flours and the vanilla in a food processor and process until the dough just comes together. Divide the dough in half, cover one half with plastic wrap and set aside in the refrigerator. Roll the remaining half out between 2 sheets of non-stick baking paper to 4mm thick. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or until firm.

Preheat oven to 325°. Line a large baking tray with non-stick baking paper. Using various-sized star-shaped cutters, cut shapes from the rolled out dough, reserving any scraps. Place the stars on the tray and refrigerate for 10-15 minutes or until firm enough to handle.

Line a 20cm x 30 cm slice tin with non-stick baking paper, allowing 3 cm of paper to sit above the edges. Combine dough scraps and the reserved chilled dough and, using the back of a spoon, press it into the base of the tin. Prick the base all over with a fork and bake for 20 minutes or until golden. Allow to cool for15 minutes.

Spread the jam over the shortbread base and top with the stars, overlapping them slightly. Bake for 20 minutes or until the stars are golden. Allow to cool completely in the tin.

Remove the slice from the tin and dust with he extra sugar to serve.

Cheat’s Raspberry Jam

Makes 1 cup

  • 2 cups frozen raspberries
  • 3/4 cup superfine sugar

Place the raspberries and sugar in a large nonstick frying pan or high heat. Cook, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Bring to the boil and cook, stirring continuously, for 8 to 10 minutes or until the jam has thickened slightly.

Allow the jam to cool completely before spreading onto the shortbread, or spoon it into an airtight container immediately.

Blogger’s Note: I used two sticks softened butter for this recipe and baked the bars in a 13-inch by 9-inch glass pan, cutting the baking time to about 15 minutes for the base, as it was thinner in this size pan.

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