Now is perhaps not the best time for this post. I realize that some of you are probably, you know, feeling a little over the whole cookie thing. It’s January – the season of cabbage and kale and green smoothies, or perhaps hearty soups and things made out of roots. Plus – there are some who might roll their eyes and bristle at another Californian daring to use the word “winter” when their back yard is exploding with flowers and birds and the bright beautiful bounty of January fruit. Yes, it’s true – we have lemons and limes and oranges crowding our counter this time of year, right from our very own backyard. So, I offer an apology to start with – I have lived back east, in snow and cold and no-daffodils-until-March, and I get that it can be hard to hear about sunshine and citrus and plants already in bloom. (I won’t mention those sweet little yellow beauties sitting on my counter, I won’t, I won’t).
But the thing is, I happen to have made what may be the world’s best cookie. All through December it was my main give-away cookie, and people paused over it or exclaimed over it or even grabbed my arm and demanded the recipe over it – and so I feel like you all need to hear about this one. And even if maybe you feel annoyed with me for a minute here – for being all rich and crisp and buttery-delicious, or for being rosemary-fresh and citrus-kissed, or for being a sweet moment of sunshine in a fake California winter – even if you think I really don’t want to hear about another cookie right now, thanks anyway lady– yes, even then! You will still feel nothing but love, when you try this one. So put down that wheatgrass juice, and scrounge up a stick of butter – because oranges are here, and rosemary is blooming, and these cookies are definitely not just for holidays.
(Though they are nice for that, too.)
When I was little, making holiday cookies with my mom was a warm tradition and also a vague disappointment. My imaginings always looked like something from a Martha Stewart holiday special, while the reality was a little more … well, my mom liked us to use all natural food colorings and no sugar in decorating our cookies. Dan and I would sit at her enormous kitchen table, the long boards salvaged from the floor of a demolished gymnasium, and we would dip our Crayola paintbrushes in little cups of beet juice and tumeric paste and who-knows-what, and we would paint the tops of our (reliably crooked) sugar cookie angels and reindeer and evergreens.
When we were done, our cookies were water-color-pale and slightly damp on top. We would wrap these decidedly NOT royal-iced cookies (in brown earth-friendly parchment, which now is eco-chic but then was embarrassingly unlike the snowflake-printed cellophane that everyone else had reams and reams of) and then deliver them to neighbors and friends and colleagues of my mom’s.
The first year that I made holiday cookies on my own, I was just out of college and dating what my cousin Amanda would call a real rat-bastard. I found myself suddenly living in Tucson, Arizona, underemployed and a little desperate for something to occupy me. As December approached, I started obsessing over Joy of Cooking and the brand new Martha cookie mag. I scoured thrift stores for tiny cookie cutters and baking sheets, splurged on – sugar-filled! artificial! non-watercolory! – royal icing supplies.
I cooked my way through over a dozen cookie recipes that year – chocolate dipped macaroons, chewy gingerbread, oatmeal cookies stuffed with cherries, a slew of shortbreads – and rich sugar cookies, impeccably frosted into perfect miniature snow-globes, ornaments, evergreens. I made elaborate cookie-holding crafts, building little drums out of wrapping paper and oatmeal containers, detailing them with buttons and ribbon scraps. I filled each pristine package with cellophane-wrapped goodies, gifted them to coworkers and to the rat-bastard’s relatives. I cheered myself through the lonely 75-degree midwinter days with all that baking, and with tram rides up into the foothills of the Catalinas. I would munch any imperfect, outtake cookies as I hiked back down through Sabino canyon, the saguaros standing silent watch.
Eventually, I came to my senses – about love, thank goodness, and about location, vocation, and to some degree about cookies too. These days I absolutely skip anything with royal icing, and I package my cookies in what I have around the kitchen – jars, waxed paper, clean dishtowels. No cellophane, though I still like pretty ribbons. And I still love – love – shortbread. (Like here, and here, and here).
So I apologize. Even if it doesn’t really feel like cookie season, I’m telling you that it is. Because: the whisper from a favorite cookie can add sparkle to a lonely day in the desert, it can lift you right out of your mid-winter doldrums – and it can bring flurries of giggles to a backyard, even one already full to bursting with citrus and blossoms and all the love in the world.
Happy MLK Day!
I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.
~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
From his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, December 10, 1964
I have been making rosemary-citrus shortbread-type cookies with cornmeal for a long time now – they are one of the variations on the twelve-cookie master-recipe in Joy of Cooking, a recipe I love for its simple versatility and freezer-friendly, sliceable dough. But when Molly over at remedial eating (a cookie master if ever there was one) showcased Claudia Fleming’s version from The Last Course, I wondered why I hadn’t yet tried it. And so I did. And I am never going back.
Orange Rosemary Cornmeal Shortbread
Like Molly, (though decidedly less precisely) I rolled and cut these to about 1″ x 1 1/2″ rectangles – but basic cookie cutters could also be used. I’ve frozen this dough in logs to make round slice-and-bakes, and Molly suggests both pressing into tart tins and cutting into wedges, which sounds very pretty. (But there is something about the simple little rectangle, with its friendly sparkle of sugar on top, that suits these cookies perfectly I think.)
These cookies are grown up, but not stuffy – seasonal, but not trendy. Above all, they’re delicious, with a crisp buttery shortbread snap that is set off by a little crunch of sugar and a bigger crunch of cornmeal and the subtle – very subtle – layering of fresh rosemary and bright citrus to add depth. I upped the orange zest by half a tablespoon from Molly’s version, but feel free to dial it back – a single tablespoon gives a slightly less orangey but still plenty bright flavor note. Also, make sure you mince your rosemary very fine, almost powdery, and use only the softer leaves, not the woody stems.
A word on cornmeal: Molly has had good luck with various cornmeals. I prefer using a coarse grind for the added bit of crunch and texture. But you can certainly use whatever you have on hand.
I like softer shortbreads very well, but this one benefits from being cooked until crisp – not burnt, mind you, but crisp. Let the edges turn just barely golden, and you should have a snappy cookie with a soft but crisp, buttery crumb. Perfect.
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, slightly softened
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons orange zest, freshly grated
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, minced
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
6 tablespoons coarsely ground cornmeal *
1 3/4 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2-3 tablespoons Turbinado sugar, for sprinkling the tops
In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, powdered sugar, orange zest, salt and rosemary for 2 to 3 minutes, until light and fluffy. Scrape down the bowl, add the vanilla, stir to combine. Add the flour and the cornmeal, and mix just to combine.
Scrape the dough onto a piece of plastic wrap, and gently flatten the dough into a rough rectangle, about an inch high. Wrap very well, and chill at least 2 hours or overnight. (The dough can be refrigerated at this stage up to 5 days, or frozen for a month – if you are planning to freeze for later use, you may want to roll the dough into a log rather than making a rectangle – I have had good luck with slice-and-baking these straight from the freezer).
When ready to bake: Preheat oven to 300° and line three baking sheets with parchment paper.
If the dough has been chilling more than 2 hours, let it sit at room temperature to take the chill off (in my cold kitchen, this took 30 minutes – Molly suggests 20). When the dough is workable, lightly flour a pastry board or other clean work surface. Lightly flour your rectangle of dough, and then roll (keeping close to rectangular shape) until the dough is 1/4″ thick. (If you’d like, Molly has some great tips for working rolled cookies here). Trim the edges of your dough to make a tidy rectangle (reserve scraps), then cut the rectangle in strips vertically at 1″ intervals and then horizontally at 1 1/2″ intervals. (You will end up with rectangular cookies, 1″ wide and 1 1/2 ” tall).
Using a thin metal spatula, place on a baking sheet 1/2″ apart. Use a fork to gently poke 3 sets of holes down the length of each cookie (this looks darling, but more importantly it helps them cook evenly). Sprinkle each bar with a fairy pinch of turbinado sugar.
Continue, re-rolling and re-cutting each set of scraps, until all the dough is cut, poked and sugared.
Bake for 18-24 minutes, rotating trays halfway through, front to back and top to bottom. You will know that the cookies are done when they are no longer glossy on top, and are just barely golden at the edges and underneath.
Let the cookies cool for 10 minutes on the baking sheets, then move them gently to racks and cool completely.
Stored airtight, these will keep beautifully for at least 1 month. Packaged prettily, they will last not nearly that long.