Baking cookies, short and sweet

pecanCooki101One of my earliest kitchen memories is of lying on the linoleum floor, being fanned. Not fanned exactly, but taking full advantage of the warm, sweet wind made by my mother waving a cookie sheet back and forth to cool it before she loaded it with a new batch of dough. The aroma of butter and sugar in that whirl of fanning, my mother’s small, wry smile as she looked down on me (and sometimes my sister, too)…it is a sensory gift I will have always and one I tend to drift toward when I’m baking cookies.

This time of year — like no other — is all about cookie baking. Whether you hack them from a store-bought log, mix them from a box or add frosting to those pre-made, nearly everyone who can lift a spoon is capable of coming up with some kind of holiday cookie. And should. If a 7-year-old, dragging a chair to reach the counter and ingredient cabinets, can make her first batch of chocolate chip cookies, then who cannot?

ScancvrbacktotablCookie baking is fun and should not be labor-intensive (though some cookies are). The end result should also be delicious. Sometimes the simplest combination of ingredients results in something fabulous, and that’s generally what I find when I make shortbread. Its components are merely butter, sugar, flour, a little salt and whatever extracts and add-ins you choose to flavor it. The term “short” refers to an old meaning of the word for crumbly texture, caused by high fat content. The famed Scottish shortbread, as with some other versions, is baked in a pan with designs pressed in. But one of my latest favorite shortbread — or any cookie — recipe is a variation where the dough is formed into a log, refrigerated then sliced off and baked (icebox cookies, was the old-school term), much like the proverbially cookie dough rolls found in the refrigerated sections at the grocery store. Thing is, this tastes much, much better.

cookiwLogsThis recipe for Pecan Shortbread Cookies comes from famed former Oprah chef Art Smith, featured in his book “Back to the Table: The Reunion of Food and Family” (2001). The cookies are so easy to make, but as with any baking, follow the ingredient measurements restrictively. Too much flour will cause your cookie to crumble — even before it’s baked. Too soft a butter will have your cookie spreading. Once the dough comes together, add your pecans. This nut gives these cookies the most delicate, yet rich fla vor. And you can stick to pecans forever, if you wish, but I have used walnuts and pistachios, even chocolate chips. But I think what is key is to not overwhelm the flavor of that delicious dough. It speaks for itself.

And it molds easily. Shape the cookies into rolls and refrigerate. You can keep the dough in the refrigerator for up to a week and even freeze it, if you like (just make sure it is sealed in plastic bags), where it can keep for up to two months..

slicedCookie01Slice those cookies and bake. How nice it is to come home from a long day at work and know you do not have to stir or mix, yet cookies are waiting to be baked, lifting your spirits with their buttery aroma. Here, I made an amendment to Smith’s recipe. He suggests baking the cookies for 20 minutes at 350 degrees. I have found that to be too long a baking time — 12 to 14 minutes will do, depending on your oven. You want the cookies just lightly brown on the bottom. Too brown results in an alteration of flavor and texture that is not ideal.

These cookies are delicious — similar to Pecan Sandies made by the Keebler elves — and will disappear to raving reviews once the reviewer has stopped munching. They do literally melt in your mouth. In years past, I have dressed them up a little by dipping an edge of the baked cookies in dark or white chocolate. But they are fine without any costuming. Double, triple or quadruple your batch (the measurement are conducive to this), and see if you don’t become the cookie baker you were always meant to be!cookiePec2

Pecan Shortbread Cookies
From “Back to the Table: The Reunion of Food and Family” by Art Smith (2001)
Makes about 2 dozen cookies

1 cup all purpose flour
Pinch of ground cinnamon
Pinch of salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup (2 ounces) coarsely chopped pecans

Sift together the flour, cinnamon, and salt and set aside. Beat the butter, sugar, and vanilla in a large bowl with a hand-held electric mixer at high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Stir in the flour, then the pecans , to make a stiff dough.

On a lightly floured work surface, form the dough into a 9-inch-long log. Wrap tightly in parchment paper. Refrigerate until chilled and firm, at least two hours or overnight.

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.

Unwrap and slice the dough into 3/8-inch thick rounds. Arrange about 1 inch apart on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake until beginning to brown around the edges, about 20 minutes. Cool on the sheet 5 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely. (the cookies can be prepared up to 5 days ahead and stored in an airtight container at room temperature.)

Blogger’s Note: I strongly recommend baking these cookies for no longer than 15 minutes or to ensure they are just lightly brown. Also, I encourage you to try other mix-ins, such as chopped walnuts, pistachios, chopped cranberries or miniature chocolate chips.

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